Martha Hughes Cannon (1857-1932) was a women’s rights activist, suffragist, physician, sanitation expert, state senator and polygamous wife. She was heavily involved in the fight for national suffrage, and was an especially important figure in the fight for suffrage and women’s rights in Utah.
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Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.
Today’s feminist was a women’s rights activist, suffragist, physician, sanitation expert, State Senator and polygamous wife. She was heavily involved in the fight for national suffrage, and was an especially important figure in the fight for suffrage and women’s rights in Utah. Please welcome Martha Hughes Cannon.
Martha Maria Hughes was born on July 1, 1857 in Wales. Her parents, Peter and Elizabeth Hughes, were both converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is often known colloquially as the Mormon Church.
When Martha was just three years old, she and her family emigrated to the United States, and eventually made it to Salt Lake City where they settled down.
From an early age, Martha was academically gifted and excelled at school. When she was just fourteen, she actually taught school for a year but eventually quit after being bullied by some of the older male students.
Recognizing her talent and drive, Brigham Young, the head of the Mormon Church, suggested that Martha should train as a typesetter instead. After an apprenticeship, Martha started work as a typesetter for the major Salt Lake City newspaper, the Deseret News. She eventually moved over to a Salt Lake City newspaper for women called the Women’s Exponent. This paper, which was affiliated with the Mormon Relief Society, was published by Emmeline B. Wells, a major women’s rights activist and another member of the Church.
Emmeline Wells and Eliza Snow soon became mentors to Martha and encouraged her to follow her dreams of becoming a doctor. Interestingly, Brigham Young himself was also publicly calling on women to become physicians during this period, so there was support from all sides.
Martha took the advice, and in 1873, at only 16 years old, she enrolled as a pre-med student at the University of Deseret. She kept her day job as a typesetter and attended her classes at night.
Upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1878, Martha enrolled at the University of Michigan medical school. Just two years later, on her 23rd birthday, Martha graduated and became a full-fledged physician.
After practicing medicine for a time in Michigan, Martha moved to the University of Pennsylvania to do post-graduate work at the university’s auxiliary medical department. Martha also took night classes in pharmacology and oratory and eventually earned both a Bachelors of Science. from University of Pennsylvania and a Bachelor’s degree in oratory from the National School of Elocution and Oratory.
In 1882, at just 25 years old, and with a slew of degrees in hand, Martha decided it was time to move back to Salt Lake City. After initially opening up a private practice in her family home, Martha was approached by Mormon leadership to become the resident physician at the newly opened Deseret Hospital. For the era, that seems like an astonishingly progressive hire.
Martha set up training programs for nurses and gave regular lectures on important medical topics like childbirth. She also met a man by the name of Angus Cannon. Angus was the superintendent of Deseret Hospital and a leader in the Church. He was also a polygamist.
Polygamy was a hot button issue in the United States during this period. While Mormons at the time saw it as a sacred element of their faith, most other Americans found it blasphemous and used the practice to heavily stigmatize members of the faith. The Edmunds Act, passed by Congress in 1882, criminalized polygamy and made it punishable with prison time.
Martha wasn’t concerned, and on October 6, 1884, she and Angus were married in the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City. Martha became Angus’s fourth wife. But soon thereafter rumors swirled of their recent marriage and Angus was eventually arrested and sent to jail. Martha went into hiding in an effort not to be forced to testify against her husband.
Soon after Angus went to jail, Martha learned she was pregnant. After giving birth to a little girl named Elizabeth, Martha decided to visit family in Europe with her new baby. This not only put her out of reach of authorities who wanted her to testify against her husband, but also ensured that she wouldn’t be called to testify in any other polygamy cases in which she may have provided Obstetric services.
Still, Martha missed home, and in December 1887, she took a ship from Liverpool back to the United States.
While Martha was in Europe, the U.S. Congress passed the Edmunds–Tucker Act, which took away the voting rights of women in the territory of Utah. Unlike women in every other U.S. state or territory, women in Utah received voting rights in 1870 and had been taking part in elections ever since. This terrified many in Washington who disliked practices of the Mormon church, like Polygamy, and wanted to limit the number of Mormon leaders in positions of political power. Disenfranchising female voters in Utah must have seemed like an easy solution.
Upon her return to Utah, Martha became involved in the fight for suffrage and joined the leadership of the Utah Women's Suffrage Association. She gave speeches all over Utah about women’s rights and the particular importance of voting rights. Martha was also a regular fixture at suffrage conferences along with her colleagues and friends Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Martha was a keynote speaker at the Women’s Congress. Soon after, she sat in front of a congressional committee in Washington, D.C. to provide a status report on re-enfranchisment efforts in Utah.
Martha took a particular interest in the rights and opportunities for mothers. She believed strongly that educational opportunities, a sense of purpose, and greater freedom were essential components for successful mothers. Martha stated,
“Somehow I know that women who stay home all the time have the most unpleasant homes there are. 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 ten, a successful mother.”
Martha worked tirelessly to include a woman’s right to vote in the Utah state constitution after it was granted statehood in 1896.
That same year, she was elected to serve in the new Utah State Senate, making her the first female State Senator elected in the United States. Fun fact- she won her seat by beating out her own husband!
If that wasn’t enough, Martha also helped found the Utah State Board of Health and authored Utah’s first Sanitation Laws.
Martha died in Los Angeles on July 10, 1932, and was buried next to her husband in Salt Lake City.
All month we’ll be covering feminists from throughout history. To be clear, we’ve covered feminists in every theme so far. This month’s group is not an exhaustive list by any means, and we’re sticking to a smaller time range than in other months in our regular weekday episodes. On weekends, we’re going to be highlighting favorite feminists from past months chosen by other podcast hosts we love and modern feminists brought to you by our sponsor this month Fiverr. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our new Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter.
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