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SALT LAKE CITY — On Aug. 26, 1920, Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratifying the right to vote for women.
Utah was far ahead of this curve, granting women suffrage half a century earlier than the nation and second only to Wyoming. Political leaders in the Utah Territory may have used suffrage as an opportunity to gain more political power nationally, but the territory was also ahead in women's rights generally, according to Susan R. Rugh, a professor of history at Brigham Young University who teaches classes on women's history.
The Utah Territorial Legislature granted suffrage to women in 1870, though it was revoked in 1887 as part of the Edmunds-Tucker anti-polygamy act. It was restored, however, as part of the Utah State Constitution in 1895.
Susan B. Anthony, aware of Utah women at the time, wrote a letter to the leaders of the Utah women's suffrage movement in 1894 on the eve of the Utah constitutional convention saying that they should fight for their right to vote to be included in the constitution, according to Rugh.
"That was kind of a fight, getting the vote at the constitution, despite the fact that both parties proclaimed equality for women in their platform," she said. "When it came time for the delegates of the constitution to meet in March 1895, they were not all agreed that women should have the vote."
Emmeline Wells, Eliza R. Snow (wife of Brigham Young), Emily S. Richards, the staff of "The Women's Exponent" and many other women were a few of those who advocated for the right to vote.
Women in Utah advocated not just locally but nationally for suffrage with organizations like the Utah chapter of the National Woman Suffrage Association. According to the book "Battle for the Ballot" written by Carol Cornwall Madsen — emeritus professor of history at Brigham Young University where she was a research historian with the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History — these advocates helped counter negative stereotypes of Mormon women and impressed national press with their presentations.
"The eloquence and organizational skill these women displayed in advocating and defending their political rights surprised and discomfited national leaders eager to discredit them," William G. Hartley wrote in his review of the book. "It may also have surprised some of the church leaders who had authorized the suffrage campaign. Perhaps it surprised the women themselves."
But Rugh said the vote was just the culmination of an already progressive era. While many married women at the time were unable to own land under the doctrine of coverture, Utah women bucked that trend.
"Utah was unusual in that many of the women at the time and after this period of the raid in the 1880s were homeowners," she said. "They were taxpayers, which gave them even more right to the land and even more right to the vote. So women did own property and especially in Utah there were — as a result of polygamy — many female-headed households. So it seems that most people in the state were in favor of women's suffrage."
She said, however, that it would be wrong to think of the 19th century as the dark ages. Women were gaining more and more rights, from land ownership to custody of children after divorce.
"It puts women in a place to be reformers — to clean the streets …." Rugh said. "There were women in Salt Lake who fought the dark, smoky air and tried to clean up the air. So women used these rights to get out of the home, to clean up the city, to take care of children. So all these good works done in the progressive era by women who are trying to better society."
As Rugh spoke about the expansion of women's rights and the fight for suffrage, she reminded modern women to take advantage of what they have been given by those who came before them.
"I think it's worth saying that Utah women have been in the forefront of women's rights and politics," she said. "We're very lucky that we have the ability not only to vote but to take political action, and we should take advantage of that. There are all kinds of causes that demand our attention, and we should become active in them."