Utah elects more women as Martha Cannon’s legacy hangs heavy

As she looks at a Martha Hughes Cannon statue destined for the nation’s capital, Jen Robison says she can’t quite find the words to describe what it means to her.

Robison, Lieutenant Governor Deidre Henderson’s chief of staff and a member of the Martha Hughes Cannon Statue Oversight Committee, says she is drawn to Cannon’s position of command, which exemplifies her determination and strength. Cannon’s gaze shows her vision forward, like a trailblazer.

“The true grandeur of this sculpture for me – I can’t articulate with words,” says Robison. “I can feel it in my heart.”

Jen Robison, Chief of Staff to Lieutenant Governor Deidre Henderson and a member of the Martha Hughes Cannon Statue Oversight Committee, speaks in front of a Cannon statue during a press conference to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the first woman of Utah elected to public office Wednesday at the Capitol in Salt Lake City.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

It has now been 125 years since Utah was first elected as a state. Cannon was one of 14 women elected on November 3, 1896, becoming the first woman to serve as a state senator in the country.

Better Days, a nonprofit focused on women’s history, celebrated the monumental anniversary with a ceremony next to the Cannon Statue, which remains at the Utah Capitol until the U.S. Capitol. United States re-authorizes events and ceremonies. When that day arrives, Utah will replace its statue of inventor Philo T. Farnsworth inside the National Statuary Hall Collection with the Cannon Statue.

The organization also used the anniversary to announce a new Cannon History Tour for students to learn more about the leader and other powerful women in Utah history.

“Utah has always been a place for pioneering women.… We hope (the story) inspires people today, bringing it to the present,” said Tiffany Greene, director of education for Better Days.

The Legacy of Martha Hughes Cannon

Cannon served as the Senate for four years. During this time, she advocated for public health care since she was also a doctor. The Utah Department of Health, which she helped create, is named after her at its headquarters. Cannon has also lobbied for women’s rights nationally, given that she was elected two decades before the 19th Amendment was ratified.

“She has been described by a Chicago newspaper as one of the most successful advocates for women in the United States,” said Rebekah Clark, historical director of the nonprofit Better Days.

Wednesday’s event took place a day after election day 2021. While Tuesday night’s municipal election results are unofficial for the next two weeks, current results show women will be mayors in three of the four. and seven of Utah’s 10 largest cities, as of 2022.

The list could include West Valley City Councilor Karen Lang, who is currently leading the West Valley mayoral race against fellow City Councilor Steve Buhler, 58.5% to 41.4%. If these results hold true, she will become the first woman to become mayor of Utah’s second largest city since her incorporation in 1980.

This is in addition to Lieutenant Governor Deidre Henderson – the second woman to hold the post – and the growing number of women who hold the state legislature or other high-ranking municipal positions.

Greene hopes these examples show that women continue to play a larger role in government. She said it’s the result of a growing push for more equal representation in politics. Pointing to Cannon and other women early in Utah politics, Green says this is nothing new; rather, it’s “almost in the cultural DNA (of Utah)” to elect women to leadership positions.

Meanwhile, Representative Angela Romero, of D-Salt Lake City, said she was excited about the women destined for a position next year after Tuesday’s election. They will join the women already in office from all sides of the political spectrum that Romero said she admires for breaking “stereotypes for who can serve.”

It all comes down to women like Cannon, she says.

“When I think of Martha Hughes Cannon and the history she made 125 years ago, I wouldn’t be here without her,” Romero said. “People who look like me wouldn’t be here today without her. She opened these doors. Do we still need to open these doors here on Capitol Hill? Yes, because we really want to look at representative democracy and we look at the room – no offense to some of my colleagues – but I still think we need to brighten it up a bit more and have different faces and different communities represented. ”

Adding women to history

Robison said she fell in love with the state’s history in fourth grade, learning about the native tribes, the explorers who mapped the region, and Utah’s role in completing the Transcontinental Railroad. But despite everything, something was missing from the program.

“Nowhere in any of these stories were there women,” she recalls. “Where were they? Weren’t they also here at that time? Didn’t they contribute? Didn’t they change the scenery too? And I missed them.”

The following year, Robison was put in charge of a history fair project. Seeking to fill the void she noticed, she chose to focus on Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States.

Since then, Robison has researched more stories of notable women in history. But it wasn’t until she started working for Better Days in 2017 that she found the stories she was looking for in Utah. It helped her appreciate the history of the state more than ever.

To that end, Romero said she was also sad that she didn’t have the opportunity to learn more about Cannon or other important Utah women at school. She first heard of Cannon when she got her first town hall job 20 years ago and researched why the meetings were being held in a room named after Cannon.

Amelia Wilkes and Lillian Wilkes, great-great-great-great-great-granddaughters of Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon, the state's first female senator, examine documents from Cannon's time in the Senate from 1896 to 1900 , during a press conference to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Utah's first woman elected to public office at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, November 3, 2021.

Amelia Wilkes and Lillian Wilkes, great-great-great-great-great-granddaughters of Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon, the country’s first female senator, examine documents from Cannon’s time in the Senate from 1896 to 1900, during of a press conference to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Utah’s first woman elected to public office at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, November 3, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Romero is quick to point out that women in office aren’t the only powerful women in the state. Better Days has spent the last few years trying to shine a light on the women who have impacted Utah in a number of ways, creating an educational website on the history of women in Utah, as well as publishing books and even collectible cards on the subject.

The organization announced Wednesday that it will launch a new K-12 program, to teach students about the history of pioneer women in Utah. Officials also announced that they would begin a new traveling exhibit on Cannon and women’s leadership in the early years of the state of Utah.

Educators and other groups who want the Cannon Tour to come to their school can register at www.utahwomenshistory.org. The organization hopes the exhibit can reach schools across the state.

Greene believes that learning about people in history at an early age not only helps create role models, but she says it helps children understand what authority looks like.

“When young people find out about the past and it’s just one-sided or there’s only one story being told, or there’s only one person they see as the leader, boys and girls subconsciously or consciously assume that this is what a leader looks like, ”she said. noted. “Broaden that focus and say there were women running for state, local, running towns and doing things in their own towns statewide 125-150 years ago – I think that opens up the perspective that young people have today. “

Children now have the opportunity to learn more about Cannon and other powerful women.

This includes Maya Mercer, a member of Girl Scout Troop 914, who helped with the process of building the Cannon Statue.

For Maya, discovering Cannon and having her statue built to represent Utah in the nation’s capital prompted her to become more involved in government so that she could improve the world around her. She and her fellow Girl Scouts attended city council meetings, lobbying for a new street named after an influential woman. They have also organized projects to support refugees and immigrants in the communities where they live.

She said she is currently saving enough money to travel to Washington, DC, so that she can attend the new statue ceremony at the United States Capitol whenever it happens. She hopes other young girls will see this statue and be inspired by Cannon as it is.

In addition to Cannon, Maya credits other Utah women she’s heard of, such as Annie Dodge Wauneka, Alice Kasai, and Barbara Toomer.

“I feel empowered to dream big and create my own meaningful and meaningful life,” said Maya, standing next to the Cannon statue looking forward. “Female role models have played a big role in inspiring our Girl Scout troop not only to believe in ourselves, but also to dare to act. We are eager to lead social change.

“Learning about the women in Utah history and having live role models today helps me see what is possible in the world.”

About Joyce Hill

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