Celebrating the 150th anniversary of Utah women’s right to vote

A quote by President George Albert Smith is prominently displayed on a wall through the entrance of the newest exhibit at the Church History Museum featuring Utah’s suffrage story: “When the Prophet Joseph Smith turned the key for the emancipation of womankind, it was turned for all the world.”

Sister Jean B. Bingham, Relief Society general president, continued President Smith’s quote as she spoke on the opening night of the exhibit on Thursday, Nov. 21: “… And from generation to generation, the number of women who can enjoy the blessings of religious liberty and civil liberty has been increasing.”

“Truly, the ‘key was turned’ in behalf of women throughout the world when the Relief Society was organized in 1842,” Sister Bingham said. “Even down to our day, civil and religious liberty for women throughout the world continues to expand.”

The exhibit, “Sisters for Suffrage: How Utah Women Won the Vote,” celebrates the pioneering role of the Relief Society organization in helping women gain the right to vote. Sister Bingham was joined by Sen. Deidre Henderson, a Utah state senator and co-chair of the Martha Hughes Cannon Statue Oversight Committee, who also spoke during the opening program. 

An unfamiliar story

Organized in March 1842 by the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo was to “relieve the poor and save souls.” As evident in the exhibit, Utah women were active in the early suffrage movement. The Relief Society played an important role as it provided a framework to share information and coordinate efforts. 

“They were used to organizing and pushing for action, so it was very natural that they would then push for the right to vote. And then once given the right to vote, they were well-informed, active voters,” explained Tiffany Bowles, museum educator. 

Large photographs mark the entrance to the Church History Museum’s new exhibit "Sisters for Suffrage: How Utah Women Won the Vote" in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019.
Large photographs mark the entrance to the Church History Museum’s new exhibit “Sisters for Suffrage: How Utah Women Won the Vote” in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. Credit: Steve Griffin, Deseret News

In 2020, the United States will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. Utah, however, will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Utah women first voting. 

And it’s a story most people are unfamiliar with, Bowles said. 

On Feb. 14, 1870, female citizens in the Utah Territory became the first to legally vote in a US election under an equal suffrage law. Wyoming was actually the first territory to grant the right to women, but elections in Utah were held before Wyoming’s elections. 

For 17 years, Utah women claimed the right to vote until they were disenfranchised by federal anti-polygamy laws. When Utah became a state in 1896, Utah women won the right to vote for a second time. 

“So before most women in the US could vote once, Utah women had won the vote twice,” Bowles said.

During her address, Sister Bingham highlighted Emmeline B. Wells, who was one of Utah’s most active leaders of women’s suffrage. Wells represented Utah at the 1879 National Woman’s Suffrage Association convention. Later that year, her friends Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, national women’s rights activists, visited Utah to address the Relief Society — what was then “the largest body of enfranchised women in the United States,” Sister Bingham said.

‘Countless united efforts’

Latter-day Saint women remained active in national women’s organizations even after the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920.

“Since the founding of the Relief Society, with its divinely appointed pattern of organization, Latter-day Saint women with faith and boldness have engaged in countless united efforts to effect positive change throughout the world, improving lives through their Relief Society-developed skills,” Sister Bingham said.

Sister Bingham cited examples such as the wheat storage movement begun by the Relief Society in 1876 that blessed those starving in Europe from both World Wars, people in China who were suffering from famine, and survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. 

Another example is how early Relief Society sisters promoted health-care education among the Saints and actively recruited women to study for medical degrees, as encouraged by President Brigham Young. 

Sister Jean B. Bingham, Relief Society general president, speaks at the "Sisters for Suffrage: How Utah Women Won the Vote," exhibit's opening night at the Church History Museum on Nov. 21, 2019, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Sister Bingham spoke of Latter-day Saint women's role in the Utah and national suffragist movement.
Sister Jean B. Bingham, Relief Society general president, speaks at the “Sisters for Suffrage: How Utah Women Won the Vote,” exhibit’s opening night at the Church History Museum on Nov. 21, 2019, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Sister Bingham spoke of Latter-day Saint women’s role in the Utah and national suffragist movement. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Sister Bingham also shared the stories of Relief Society presidents who led relief efforts and shared the light of the gospel during the time of the Mexican Revolution and World War II. She noted the Relief Society presidents who have organized efforts around the world to help refugee women.

Today, the Relief Society has over 7.4 million members in nearly 200 nations, and they continue to be a force for good. 

“Just like the Relief Society was at the heart of the suffrage movement, Relief Society sisters today find ways to build and strengthen wherever they live,” she said.

“Whether by voting or volunteering, campaigning or cooking, Relief Society sisters today carry on the legacy of taking action that lifts individuals in homes, communities and countries throughout the world.”

Inspired by history

Alan Johnson, director of the Church History Museum, said he hopes the exhibit fosters a greater appreciation for the impact made by women of the Church. “I think there’s a wonderful story of unity and pulling together to really make positive impacts for the entire state and nation,” he said.

The exhibit is family-friendly and offers interactive kiosks to allow visiors to walk through the process of casting a vote during the era and listen to songs originally printed in the Utah women’s suffrage songbook, to name a few examples. 

Deidre Henderson, a Utah state senator, speaks at the Church History Museum's opening event for the new suffrage-themed exhibit, "Sisters for Suffrage: How Utah Women Won the Vote," in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Nov. 21, 2019.
Deidre Henderson, a Utah state senator, speaks at the Church History Museum’s opening event for the new suffrage-themed exhibit, “Sisters for Suffrage: How Utah Women Won the Vote,” in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Nov. 21, 2019. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Also featured in the exhibit are historical documents, such as the Utah’s 1870 suffrage legislation and a letter from Susan B. Anthony. A quilt representing Utah from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair is on loan from the Utah State Historical Society, while a secretary desk used by Martha Hughes Cannon is on loan from her descendants. Cannon, from Utah, was the first woman state senator in the United States.

During the program, Sen. Henderson spoke of the Martha Hughes Cannon statue to be installed in the U.S. Capitol in August. The Cannon statue will be one of the two representing Utah.

“These firsts, being the first woman to vote and electing the first woman to serve in a state senate, are evidence of the pioneering legacy of our state,” Sen. Henderson said. “I hope that by sending Martha to Washington and celebrating our past achievements with the exhibits like this one at the Church History Museum, we will remember and be inspired by those who blazed our trails and whose shoulders we stand upon today.”

The “Sisters for Suffrage: How Utah Women Won the Vote,” exhibit will be open through January 2021. More information about the exhibit can be found on the Church History Museum’s website.