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Neylan McBaine Discusses the History of Women's Suffrage in Utah at the Annual G. Homer Durham Lecture

FEBRUARY 19, 2020

An illustration of a woman voting and holding a handheld blackboard. Women's suffrage demonstrators can be seen outside the window. A label says, "Seraph Young."
Photo by Illustration by Brooke Smart

On February 13, co-founder and CEO of Better Days 2020 Neylan McBaine delivered the G. Homer Durham lecture. It was standing room only at the event! She discussed the history of women's suffrage in Utah, highlighting how February 14, 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of Utah women being the first Americans to vote under an equal suffrage law. Better Days 2020 is an organization that seeks to spread the word about the heritage of these suffragists in order to encourage and support Utah women today in their corporate and political endeavors.

History of Women's Suffrage in Utah

McBaine summarized the history of women's suffrage in Utah, starting off with the noteworthy anniversaries that the year 2020 marks: the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, and the 150th anniversary of Utah women's first votes. McBaine then told the story of what happened 150 years ago: On February 12, 1870, the Utah territory gave women the right to vote. Two days later, Seraph Young cast the first ballot under equal suffrage law in a modern nation. McBaine explained that this law was passed for a specific reason: voting rights in Utah were linked to polygamy. In 1869, Utah territory was told to enfranchise their women, because people outside of Utah wanted Utah women to use the vote to free themselves from polygamy. However, Utah women did not cooperate, as McBaine shared, but instead, they formed large protest movements in defense of polygamy.

Yet the battle against polygamy continued, as McBaine explained: in 1887, Congress revoked Utah women's suffrage rights under the Edward Tuckers Act that disenfranchised all polygamous men and women. However, that did not stop the Utah women from fighting for suffrage, as McBaine reported. They formed connections with key eastern leaders, including Susan B. Anthony, a national women's suffrage leader. They even changed the names of their relief societies to “suffrage associations.” McBaine said that in 1896, Utah women regained the right to vote. Among the prominent suffragists in Utah who McBaine highlighted were Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon, the first female State Senator who ran against her husband and won, and Emmeline B. Wells, who edited one of the largest women's suffrage papers, the Woman's Exponent, and was one of the few early suffragists who was able to live to see the 19th Amendment passed in 1920.

However, the story did not end in 1920. McBaine shared that there is a broader narrative to this history as well: Native Americans could not vote in Utah state elections until 1957, Asian Americans until 1952, and African Americans until 1965. McBaine said that the voices of all of these women need to be recognized and remembered, including those of Zitkala-Sa, Alice Kasai, and Alberta Henry, civil rights activists and suffragists.

McBaine also presented three key takeaways from the history of women's suffrage in Utah:

  1. The story of suffrage isn't just about voting. The suffrage movement marked a transition for American women to move from the limited domestic sphere to the broader political sphere.
  2. Utah women worked with men to achieve their goals. It was not a power grab between the two sexes, but more of a church and federal government conflict.
  3. Utah women were neither pawns nor militants. Don't depict women as all good or all bad, because often both women's and men's lives are contradictory. Working together for the betterment of humanity is messy but always worth it.

McBaine also left us with these parting questions: what does this legacy mean for us today? Are you living up to the legacy that these men and women left for us 150 years ago? McBaine encouraged both men and women to live up to this legacy. She said that sometimes we as women “let things limit what we are capable of,” for reasons including a lack of role models or a supportive community, but we can look to the suffragists of the 19th and 20th centuries as our exemplars. In fact, Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon, first female state senator, succeeded in earning four degrees because of support from her community. McBaine said that these women were “trailblazers” and that “you can claim this heritage!”