Utah’s history is rife with stories of people who persevered through difficult conditions, made a desert bloom and inspired others through their efforts. From those earliest beginnings, women played key roles in helping Utah develop and thrive.
Women in Utah territory were the first in the country who exercised their right to vote, according to Better Days 2020, and others through the years did much to advance the rights of women and minorities.
Here are examples of five women who changed Utah’s history.
Emmeline B. Wells
Women in the 19th century looked to the power of the pen to share information with each other, protest inequities and “showcase their literary achievements,” according to the Harold B. Lee Library (Brigham Young University) special collections blog.
Utah women who belonged to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “had a high literacy rate, and many were poets, writers, editors and publishers.” One woman who contributed a great deal to the effort of sharing information was Emmeline B. Wells. She was a contributor to the Woman’s Exponent from its beginning in 1872 and then was its editor from 1877 until the journal ceased publication in 1914.
The journal “included a variety of women’s viewpoints about various topics — from current events to gender roles to gospel topics — and served as a useful tool to educate both men and women about these issues — especially as they related to women in the West,” according to the library blog.
“It’s possible that during the Progressive Era this journal and others like it united the voices of hundreds of women, created a safe space for them to discuss various topics and concerns, and mobilized them to fight for their right to vote.”
Fanny Brooks was the first Jewish woman to settle in Utah, along with her husband, Julius. She became a successful businesswoman in the territory, according to Ilovehistory.utah.gov. She ran both a boardinghouse and millinery shop.
The couple did well with the hat shop. “By the end of the second year, the family had earned $40,000 from the shop” (in today’s money, that would be more than $1 million).
During the pioneer era, there were periods of difficulty between those who were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and those who were not. There was even a time when church members were forbidden to do business with non-members, according to Ilovehistory.utah.gov.
But Fanny Brooks requested an interview with President Brigham Young, who explained some of the issues and his reasoning for the edict and reassured her that she and her family were “valuable members of the community.” He supported them from then on.
Desdemona Stott Beeson
Desdemona Stott was born in a mining town and was fascinated with the mines and the beauty of the natural world contained within the mines, wrote Naomi Watkins for utahwomenshistory.org. As a woman, she wasn’t allowed in the mines, but she found ways to explore them nonetheless.
Desdemona planned to study engineering and geology at the University of Utah, but her parents objected so she studied psychology.
After graduation, she married Joseph Beeson, a geologist who had studied at Stanford University. When he enlisted as an engineer in the army during World War I, Desdemona went to Stanford herself to study geology and engineering.
When Joseph returned after the war, the two worked at Bingham Mine and “began their joint lifetime venture as mining entrepreneurs,” according to utahwomenshistory.org. “Over several decades, the couple owned and worked at several mines.”
Alberta Hill Henry
A president of the Salt Lake chapter of the NAACP, Alberta Hill Henry “dedicated her life to civil rights causes ranging from housing to employment to education,” according to a Deseret News obituary.
When Henry moved to Utah in 1949, she began working as a housekeeper, but she eventually worked for Head Start and then as a minority consultant for the Salt Lake City School District; later she became community relations coordinator. Along the way, she earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Utah.
“In 1967, she established the Alberta Henry Education Foundation, which has helped hundreds of underprivileged students pay for college,” according to the Deseret News, “which she started by collecting nickels and quarters from friends.”
She “served on more than 100 boards and committees,” and “was reportedly the first black woman to be inducted to the Salt Lake Council of Women’s Hall of Fame.”
Olene S. Walker
Olene Walker became Utah's first female governor in 2003. She was 72 and had already served more than a decade as Utah's first female lieutenant governor after serving eight years in the Utah Legislature.
"At a time when few women served in the Legislature and none held a leadership role, Walker ascended to several top positions," states her biography from Weber State University. "In her second term, she was named chairwoman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. Her peers elected her assistant majority whip in her third term and majority whip in her fourth term."
Throughout her years of public service, she directed legislation that led to greater fairness in school board elections, improved health insurance for children and improved housing opportunities for low-income families.
She attended Weber State University and Brigham Young University. She earned a master's degree in political science from Stanford University and a doctorate in educational administration from the University of Utah.
In addition to her legislative efforts, some of her key roles included being a consultant for the U.S. Department of Education, founding and directing the Salt Lake Education Foundation, and working as community development director for Utah.
Honoring Utah's pioneering women
These are just a few of the women who succeeded in a world where conditions are often slanted to favor men. They are true pioneers of Utah.
March is Women’s History Month. This month the Salt Lake Chamber is recognizing the extraordinary accomplishments and determination of local women leaders who are making a difference in their communities. To hear their stories, visit here.