As a graduate of the Utah School System, I recall taking Utah history in seventh grade. In this class, we learned about the Mormon Trail, the Great Salt Lake and Peter Skene Ogden — a trapper with the Hudson Bay Co. We also learned about all 29 counties, our state flower the sego lily and that we were called the “Beehive State” because we were an industrious people. I do not, however, recall much discussion about women. There was a bit about polygamy and something about voting rights in 1870, but not much else.
Imagine my surprise 15 years later when I learned about Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon. She was a physician, suffragist, mother and state senator! An immigrant from Wales, she had a desire to become a doctor when few women even attended college. After completing her studies at the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania, she set up a medical practice in Salt Lake and was the resident physician at the woman-operated Deseret Hospital.
Dr. Cannon later married Angus M. Cannon (as his fourth wife) and led the Utah Women’s Suffrage Association. She was a nationally renowned speaker who advocated for women’s rights based on gender equality. In 1896, Utah gained statehood, women gained the right to vote and Dr. Cannon ran as a Democrat for one of five senate positions open in the state’s first legislature. Please note that also running on the same ballot (as Republicans) were friend and mentor Emmeline B. Wells, her own husband Angus and three other men. It should come as no surprise that Cannon captured the nation’s attention by beating her husband in addition to being the first woman elected to a state senate.
I mention this story because I’ve heard some rumblings about Women’s History Month. Why do we need Women’s History Month? While women create and are actively involved in history, their stories and experiences may not be shared. It is why we need to take an active position in recognizing women’s history as American history. It starts with a month and then becomes interwoven through the fabric of our education.
Consider two more Utah “herstory” stories: Alberta Henry was an educator, activist and NAACP president who moved to Utah in the late 1940s. Troubled by racism in her search for employment, Henry focused on education and scholarships for students of color. The result of her efforts was the creation of the Alberta Henry Education Foundation that received support from a variety of churches, business leaders and community partners. She later became the first Black person to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Utah in 1971. Although she passed away in 2005, her legacy continues today in providing support to low-income and Black students.
Mae Timbimboo Parry was a member of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation and a survivor of the boarding school system of the late 1920s. She later became a tribal historian. As such, Parry was tasked with saving the oral histories of her people. As a first, she began writing down the stories from her tribal elders and grandfather regarding the Bear River Massacre. Because of her efforts, Utah history was clarified and corrected. In 1986 she was nominated “Utah Honorary Mother of the Year,” something that would have been unheard of when the philosophy of “kill the Indian to save the child” was in operation.
As we celebrate 100 years of the 19th Amendment as a nation, we also celebrate 40 years of services for women at Weber State University. The Women’s Center was created in 1980 to empower women and their families. In the early days, the focus was on women returning to college after divorce, marriage or motherhood. Today, the office still provides those supports as well as focusing on social justice, empowerment, leadership and engagement. Men are welcome in the center and are able to engage in programming as well. Additionally, the center coordinates Safe@Weber, a safety and well-being initiative for all.
So the next time someone asks you why we need a Women’s History Month, be prepared to share how women’s stories have been excluded from history and this is a way for us to begin to do better by learning about and from women. You will get some great ideas by visiting an exhibit opening March 14 in the Grand Lobby at Union Station. “Beyond Suffrage,” created by Weber State Archives, Special Collections and the Museums at Union Station, will examine the transformative impact of women. Details can be found at beyondsuffrage.org. Don’t miss the opportunity to learn and share more herstory lessons.