Martha Hughes Cannon (1857-1932)

Martha Hughes was born in Llandudno, Wales, and immigrated with her family to Salt Lake City, Utah.  They were among many Europeans who converted to the new Church of the Latter Saints, more often known as Mormonism, and went directly to the new theocracy of Utah. These utopian settlers practiced a sort of socialism in which no believer was left unprotected, and so the fact that her father soon died did not especially matter.  Mormon women operated their own businesses and assumed responsibility for girls such as the obviously intelligent Martha Hughes.

   

As a teenager, she taught school and set type for the Women's Exponent, a woman-run newspaper that celebrated early in 1870, when women in the Utah Territory won the vote -- just weeks after the Wyoming Territory set the precedent.  Martha Hughes was just 13 at the time, and she grew up accustomed to the unusual status of pioneer Mormon women.  Her community supported her when she enrolled at the University of Deseret, where she graduated with a chemistry degree – another uncommon thing for women.

   

From there, she went on to the prestigious medical school at the University of Michigan – one of the first to admit women – and earned her M.D. in 1880.  Seeking further credentials, she enrolled in the pharmacy school at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was the only woman in a class of 75.  She also took advantage of being in Philadelphia to study at its National School of Elocution and Oratory, developing this essential leadership skill.  Dr. Hughes was just 25 years old when she returned to Salt Lake City and became a resident physician at Deseret Hospital – an institution founded by women in 1874 that was operated and staffed by women. 

   

In 1884, Martha Hughes became the fourth of six wives of Mormon elder Angus Munn Cannon.  She married him despite an 1882 congressional act that outlawed polygamy – and when law enforcement officials arrested him, she took their infant daughter and lived in several European countries so that their marriage could not be used as evidence against him.  Mormon marriages, however, often were more spiritual than physical, and she continued to maintain her independent lifestyle and career after returning to Salt Lake City.

   

Because Congress revoked the enfranchisement of Utah women as part of its fight against polygamy, Dr. Cannon joined other women in the 1886 formation of the Utah Equal Suffrage Association.  It sent Emmeline Wells and others to Washington to lobby and to form connections with women in the national movement.  The contest was long and complex, but Mormon elders compromised enough to convince Congress that the territory was worthy of statehood, -- and women regained their right to vote in the constitution for the new state.  Susan B. Anthony was among the feminists who went west to campaign, and on January 4, 1896, male voters adopted it 28,618 to 2,687.

   

In November of that year, Sarah A. Anderson of Ogden and Eurithe LeBarthe of Salt Lake City, won seats in the Utah House of Representatives.  More notable, though, was the election of Dr. Cannon as the nation's first female state senator – in a race that pitted her against her husband.  Utah, like a few other states at the time, held non-partisan, at-large elections, and there were five candidates for the seat.  Martha Cannon, a Democrat, defeated Angus Cannon, a Republican, as well as three other men.

 

  During her two terms in the Utah Senate, she focused on medical issues and was primarily responsible for the establishment of a state board of health, to which the governor appointed her. After retirement, she moved to Los Angeles, California, where she died at age 75. She is buried in Salt Lake City, Utah. Numerous monuments have been erected in her honor, including The Martha Hughes Cannon Health Building in Salt Lake City and an eight-foot statue that stands in the Utah Capitol Rotunda.  Two years of her exceptional life are recorded in Letters from Exile:  The Correspondence of Martha Hughes Cannon and Angus M. Cannon, 1886-1888 (1989).

Image credit: Utah State Historical Society.