Woman’s Suffrage in Utah: The Woman’s Exponent Reacts To the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887

by JAMIE A. WELCH JARO

After the United States Congress stripped Utah women of their right to vote in 1887 through the Edmunds-Tucker Act, one Utah publication, The Woman’s Exponent, its editors and readers alike, chose to fight back. Through editorial pieces, letters, columns and speeches, it is evident that the people of Utah were united against this outrageous law which denied them their basic freedoms as citizens of the United States.

Utah women were able to vote in political matters as early as the year 1870, granted by territorial legislature. They were the first women in the history of the United States to have this right. Sometime in the year 1847 during the final settlement of the Salt Lake Valley, both men and women voted by ballot. This, Hubert Howe Bancroft records, may have been “the first instance in the United States where woman suffrage was permitted.” (Bancroft, 272)

The Edmunds-Tucker Act was passed in 1887 as an attempt to defeat polygamy in Utah as well as the political power of its Mormon settlers. The law broke down the local political system already well rooted in the Utah Territory, replacing it with federal control. Along with losing their rights to plural marriage and their land, Utah women were outraged at losing their basic right to vote after having it for seventeen years. Women fought this action and were supported by men both within the Mormon Church and outside it.

The Exponent, a Salt Lake City women’s newspaper originally published by Mormon women Emmeline B. Wells and Louisa Greene, was an eight-page monthly publication that covered topics ranging from church activity reports and homemaking hints to politics, both local and national. The Exponent was a well circulated form of communication in its time for women in the Utah Territory. On January 15,1887, its editors proclaimed the paper was not merely the voice of its editor or its columnists, but that of every Latter-day Saint woman. On the same date it also charged these women with having the responsibility to “help send this voice abroad,” thereby spreading information, knowledge, and promoting sisterhood.

Emmeline Wells was born in New England in 1828 at Petersham, Massachusetts. In March 1842, Wells was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints following her mother, who became a member in 1841. Crocheron notes that “Mrs. Wells often says she was born a woman’s rights advocate, inheriting it from her mother, who was a staunch advocate for woman’s emancipation” and who promoted the education of women, even among circumstances where it was not highly valued. It was in November 1847 that Wells first stepped into the office of the Exponent to assist the current editor and in July 1877 she took over the entire role of editor. (Crocheron, 69)

Wells, quick to endorse political action from women, wrote in the Exponent on November 1, 1880, encouraging her fellow females to take part in a local election scheduled for the next day. Votes were cast for the delegate to congress from Utah and Wells reminded her readers that despite recent attempts to abolish the franchise for women, they were still permitted to vote and every able woman should not miss her chance to do so.

Women enjoyed exercising their political power and, when talk began of Congress challenging their ability to do so in 1880, voices rose through the Exponent. One letter to the editor, published November 11, 1880, from a woman named Jane C. Johnson, demanded her right to be heard. Johnson challenged an article from a previous issue that argued women were not taxpayers and thus should not be allowed to vote. Johnson disputed this, writing, “I think we are very heavy taxpayers. Does not every wife own property in connection with her husband? I think so. Does not her labor help to make that property? … Yes we do …. We ask for the justice and freedom that belong to American citizens, and wish to vote for men of integrity and those that will stand by the constitution of our country.”

Mormon Church leaders, including its president Brigham Young, supported woman suffrage. George Q. Cannon and Brigham Young, then officials in the Mormon Church, wrote in the Deseret Evening News on July 23, 1878, “Under the laws of Congress a woman born in the United States is a citizen just as much as a man…. If woman is entitled to the name and position of a citizen, should she not also be invested with the rights and privileges of a citizen, so far as she is capable of properly exercising them?”

Editorials from other national magazines were included in The Woman’s Exponent to show not only that local women were being supported in their efforts to keep the vote, but also those who doubted the power and impact of the women’s movement. Before the imposition of the Edmunds-Tucker Act was conceived, a publication out of Philadelphia noted the trials of women in Utah. The Exponent recorded on November 12, 1880, that the editor of Woman’s Words in Philadelphia wrote, “Another effort is being made in Utah to disfranchise the women of that Territory … a [mandate] having been issued by the Supreme Court bearing on the question. We do not believe it will succeed. Liberty takes no step backward, and when the elective franchise is once exercised, no other can take it away without a revolution.”

That same date marks another paper with a similar tone from Matilda Joslyn Gage of the National Citizen in New York. “Let this attempt to deprive the women of Utah of their political rights nerve the heart and brain of every woman to more strenuous effort for a sixteenth amendment which shall recognize the rights of all United States citizens to the ballot. When once this is gained, no isolated state or territory can strike such a blow at suffrage rights.”

On March 21, 1888, The Deseret Evening News reported an international council of women in Washington, D.C., was to be held by the National Woman Suffrage Association on March 25, 1888. Suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony along with delegates from states and territories of the United States and England joined in the advocacy for woman’s rights, establishing the position to attain suffrage. Wells received a report from this council and printed it in the Exponent April 15, 1888, saying Utah’s position was not forgotten and the delegate from Utah, Emily S. Richards, delivered a speech that left the audience with perhaps a better view of Mormonism and feminism in the Utah Territory.

Woman’s rights made a large leap forward when, as the Exponent reported on February 1, 1895, Utah’s constitutional convention was to gather and the Utah Woman Suffrage Association impressed upon those in the convention to remember the rights of women in the state’s new constitution. Editors wrote, “Our government is ‘of the people, for the people and by the people.’ Whatever the status of women may be, they are at least a part of the people … and by no form of principle of reasoning can they be deprived of such rights and privileges as inure to men under government, without at the same time destroying the natural rights which men hold for themselves to be inviolate.”

The report of the Committee on Elections and Suffrage that emerged from the constitutional convention resolved, as the Exponent reported on April 1, 1895, “That the rights of citizens of the state of Utah to vote and hold office shall not be denied, or abridged on account of sex. Both male and female citizens of this state shall equally enjoy all civil political and religious rights and privileges.” In its completed work, the state constitution would include the victory of woman suffrage.

Women celebrated in Utah on November 5, 1895, when the final constitution was accepted, which included equal rights for women. On November 15, 1895, the Exponent rejoiced in Utah being the 45th state and proudly declared Utah as revolutionary for being only the third in the nation to incorporate women’s right to vote.

Utah’s history of woman suffrage is a unique one. The woman of Utah who voted in 1895 — decades before others in the country — succeeded in 1895 largely due to their supportive force from the dominant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The leading political figures of the state were Mormon and predominantly were for giving women voting privileges as they had originally been granted in 1870. However, without the vigilant efforts of Emmeline B. Wells and The Woman’s Exponent, it is possible Utah’s women may have been fighting even longer. As the early women settlers discovered, the power of the press is often stronger than the voice. Without the support network set up by Wells and other suffragists throughout the state, it is likely the issue of woman’s rights would have withered and faded until brought about by the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920.

Jamie Welch Jaro graduated in May 2010 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in mass communication. She studied print, new media and photojournalism throughout her college career and looks forward to a lifetime of writing in whatever field she pursues.

Sources

Primary

“What To Do with Your Exponent,” The Woman’s Exponent, January 15, 1887, 1.

Emmeline B. Wells, “The Coming Election,” The Woman’s Exponent, November 1, 1880, 4.

Jane C. Johnson, “Women Are Taxpayers,” The Woman’s Exponent, November 1, 1880, 8.

George Q. Cannon and Brigham Young, “Woman In Politics,” Deseret Evening News, July 23, 1878, 2.

Lewis, “The Coming Election,” The Woman’s Exponent, November 1, 1880, 4.

Matilda Joslyn Gage, “The Coming Election,” The Woman’s Exponent, November 1, 1880, 4.

Emmeline B. Wells, “An International Council of Women,” Deseret Evening News, March 21, 1888, 151.

“N.W.S.A. Convention,” The Woman’s Exponent, April 15, 1888, 4.

“Woman Suffrage Column,” The Woman’s Exponent, February 1, 1895, 1.

“Woman Suffrage Column,” The Woman’s Exponent, April 1, 1895, 4.

“The New State,” The Woman’s Exponent, November 1-15, 1895, 4.

Secondary

Hubert Howe Bancroft. History of Utah, 1540-1887. San Francisco: The History Company, 1889.

Augusta Joyce Crocheron. Representative Women of Deseret. Salt Lake City, Utah: J.C. Graham, 1884.

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