Martha Hughes Cannon: pioneer, physician, polygamist, suffragette, senator. Any and all of these labels apply to one of Utah’s most accomplished foremothers. As March is Women’s History Month, it is a wonderful excuse to brush up on history and celebrate a woman who is still making news, even 100 years after her passing.
Martha began her career at 14 as a schoolteacher. Then, at the urging of Brigham Young, became a typesetter, first for the Deseret News and then the Women’s Exponent where she became close to the editors, Emmaline B. Wells and Eliza R. Snow. These two mentored Martha and encouraged her to pursue her dream of becoming a medical doctor.
At 16 she studied chemistry at the University of Deseret. She attended the University of Michigan for her MD and then did post doc work in Philadelphia. In 1882, she earned two more degrees. If you’re keeping track, that’s four degrees, and she was just 25.
Because The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practiced polygamy at that time, it can be tempting to think of women who participated in it as patriarchal pawns. Yet, many of these early saints were pioneers in women’s rights; Utah women, in 1870, were the first to cast a ballot. Cannon is great example of this dichotomy. Upon her return to Utah, she became resident doctor at the Deseret Hospital where she met and married Angus Cannon, becoming the fourth of his six wives. When polygamy was outlawed, she exiled herself to Europe for a time to avoid having to testify against her husband.
In her absence, an act had been passed that took away Utah women’s right to vote. Martha embraced politics and traveled to suffrage conferences with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, spoke at the Women’s Congress in Chicago, and then to Congressional committees in D.C. She said, “You give me a woman who thinks about something besides cook stoves and wash tubs and baby flannels, and I'll show you, nine times out of 10, a successful mother.” Her life had taught her that education and choice were not just good for women, but good for families.
In 1895, the Utah constitution restored a woman’s right to vote and hold office. That year, Cannon campaigned to be the first female state senator in the United States. She won, beating out her husband Angus and her dear friend Emmaline B. Wells. As a senator she used her medical experience to pass bills that helped educate the deaf and the blind, campaigned for the rights of working women and girls, regulated food purity, advocated for vaccines and hygiene, successfully eliminating the communal cups that were attached to water fountains. And she gave birth to her third child.
As we approach the 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Utah, it seems fitting that our current state senators voted last year to send a statue of Martha Hughes Cannon to Washington, D.C. to reside in the National Statuary Hall. But it was not without controversy: each state is allowed only two statues and her arrival means the statue of Philo T. Farnsworth will come down. But that’s OK. A polygamist, feminist doctor who runs for office against her husband isn’t afraid to make a fuss.