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How polygamy helped and hurt Utah women get the vote

Suffrage hikers who took part in the suffrage hike from New York City to Washington, D.C., joining the March 3, 1913, National American Woman Suffrage Association parade. Flickr Commons Project

SALT LAKE CITY – Polygamy was a factor in Utah women getting-and losing-the right to vote. But scholars are split on how big a role it played.

Ron Fox, a history buff who sits on Utah’s Martha Hughes Cannon Statue Committee, thinks some persistent wives had more to do with passing women’s suffrage in the state legislature than anything.

“When Brigham Young opened up the Utah Central Railroad, there was a famous trip about four days before the legislature re-met in early February. They were celebrating the completion of the railroad between Ogden and Salt Lake…They went up to Ogden, and the [Deseret News] paper reporter was on the train. And he said the wives worked their husbands over to pass the bill,” Fox said.

Fox also believes Utah women wanted rights that had recently been granted to African-American and Chinese men.

Other historians believe the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wanted women to vote to help change negative public perceptions about polygamy.

Utah Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal said some people on the East Coast of the United States initially supported the idea of women voting in the Beehive State, but they had an ulterior motive.

“East Coast suffragists really wanted Utah women to get the vote because they thought it would be a nice test case scenario. If Utah women got the right to vote, would they vote polygamy out? In fact, they didn’t vote polygamy out because it was never put on the ballot,” Rekdal said.

However, many women in Utah at that time also supported polygamy, which is one of the reasons why the federal government moved to disenfranchise them–twice.

“In the late 1880s, there was a bill passed [in Congress] that prohibited women who were in polygamy from participating in elections. So, it actually banned Latter-day Saint women from voting. And then in 1887 with the Edmunds-Tucker Act, it took the vote away from all women,” Fox said.

Full voting rights were restored to women when Utah became a state in 1896. That is also the same year that Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon, a plural wife, was elected the first female state senator in Utah and the United States.