After the Civil War, vigorous discussions over woman suffrage took place across the United States in the context of the debate over the expansion of voting rights to African Americans. In February 1869 the U.S. Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibited states from denying a citizen the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Following ratification by a sufficient number of states, the amendment became part of the Constitution in March 1870. The failure of many advocates of black suffrage to support woman suffrage created deep fissures within the women’s movement.1
Some suffragists proposed that experimenting with woman suffrage in Utah might prove the desirability of suffrage elsewhere.2 In 1867 and 1868 Congressman George W. Julian, a Republican from Indiana, proposed three bills, one granting the vote to women in Utah and two extending the franchise to women in all territories. Julian and others mistakenly believed that giving the women an official political voice would relieve the nation of the stain of polygamy as the women would surely vote to relieve themselves of the burden.3 The New York Times opined that women’s numerical superiority in Utah rendered it the ideal location for an experiment in woman suffrage: “Perhaps it would result in casting out polygamy and Mormonism in general. . . . Here would be a capital field for women suffrage to make a start, and we presume nobody would object to the experiment.”4 Ignoring these arguments, Latter-day Saint leaders endorsed the proposal. The Deseret News stated in March 1869, “Utah is giving examples to the world on many points, and if the wish is to try the experiment of giving females the right to vote in the Republic, we know of no place where the experiment can be so safely tried as in this Territory. Our ladies can prove to the world that in a society where men are worthy of the name, women can be enfranchised without running wild or becoming unsexed.”5 Congress abandoned Julian’s bill after finding that both the Mormon press and Utah territorial representative William Hooper supported it.6
In December 1869 the Territory of Wyoming was the first territory or state to grant suffrage to women.7 Utah was not far behind. At the January 6, 1870, Relief Society mass meeting held to protest the federal Cullom Bill, Bathsheba Smith motioned that “we demand of the Gov the right of Franchise.” A vote was called on Smith’s motion and it carried.8 Following effective public demonstrations organized and staged by Utah women in protest of national legislation, the territorial legislature began discussion of female suffrage. Latter-day Saint leaders responded favorably to the idea, as did the national press.
On January 27 the territorial legislature formally commenced its consideration of possible woman suffrage legislation. The House’s Committee on Elections deliberated between January 27 and February 2, when it issued a report recommending the extension of voting rights to women; three days later, the House unanimously passed such legislation and the Council (the higher chamber of the legislature) took up the bill. As the Council prepared to vote on the measure, the Deseret Evening News, under the leadership of editor George Q. Cannon, an avid supporter of female suffrage, printed the following editorial on February 8, 1870. The Council passed the bill the following day, with some amendments that the House rejected. On February 10 a conference committee accepted the House bill and both chambers unanimously passed the legislation. The final bill provided “that every woman of the age of twenty-one years who has resided in this Territory six months next preceding any general or special election, born or naturalized in the United States, or who is the wife, widow or the daughter of a native-born or naturalized citizen of the United States, shall be entitled to vote at any election in this Territory.”9
female suffrage in utah.
The female suffrage question is now fairly before the nation; its advocates are as earnest in their labors as if the salvation of the world depended upon their success, and the triumph of the movement, we believe, is only a question of time. The agitation of the question has reached the Rocky Mountains. In our neighboring Territory, Wyoming, the cause has triumphed; in Colorado the ladies are petitioning to have female suffrage legalized there.10 But success by piecemeal will not satisfy those who are acknowledged as the national leaders of the movement; nothing short of an amendment to Constitution of the United States to this effect will do for them, and this is now being eagerly sought; and as Congressmen are noted, among other things, for their gallantry and their susceptibility to female charms, the adoption of such an amendment is not at all improbable.
We believe in the right of suffrage being enjoyed by all who can exercise it intelligently; but our lawmakers, in conferring this great power upon the recently emancipated black race, do not seem to regard intelligence as an indispensible pre-requisite; and we think the suffrage might be conferred with much greater propriety upon intelligent white women than upon ignorant blacks.11
The idea of female suffrage is regarded by many as peculiar to and having originated in these last days; but history tells us that a similar movement existed in ancient Greece when that nation was in the meridian of her splendor.12 If the right of suffrage was granted to the ladies then it certainly did not bring about the reforms considered necessary to preserve that nation from decadence, and whether it would in this is extremely doubtful. However, that is no reason that it should be withheld. We are a decided advocate of the rights of women as well as of men, and believe that the two are so intimately related that they cannot be enjoyed, to the fullest extent compatible with happiness and well-being, by either sex while the other labors under disability, however limited.
Universal white male suffrage has been more thoroughly tested in this country than in any other; but venality abounds, and thousands of votes are sold to the highest bidders, hence the results of the system are not so satisfactory as could be wished. Female suffrage might have a tendency to promote purity of elections, and its introduction at the ballot box be attended with results as satisfactory as the amalgamation of certain races in the growth and development of powerful nationalities. We believe it would, and we also think it probable that the power this would place in the hands of women would be used for the benefit of their sex, and would be followed in time by legislation of such a character as would tend more to diminish prostitution and the various social evils which overwhelm society than anything hitherto devised under universal male suffrage.
The degraded condition of the women in this Territory is a very fruitful theme among our friends outside; in this respect as well as in many others they seem unmindful of, or callous to, the real evils around themselves, but very sensitive to imaginary ones at a distance. They are like the fabled worthy who, through admiring the splendor of the stars, became, or feigned to be, totally ignorant of the dirt, squalor and wretchedness of earth. This class, while mourning and sighing over the “degradation” of the ladies of Utah, and have suggested a plan for their emancipation from all “thralldom,” polygamy included, and that remedy is the suffrage. The subject has been brought before the attention of Congress, and Senator Pomeroy, we believe, a short time ago introduced a bill to confer the suffrage on the ladies of Utah.13
It may be gratifying to all outside who are anxious, to learn that the advisability of extending the suffrage to the ladies of Utah has been discussed considerably during the present session of the Territorial Legislature. In the House a few days ago, after an animated discussion on the subject, a committee was appointed to inquire into the propriety of its establishment in this Territory; on the 2nd instant the committee gave in their report, which was quite favorable, and on the 5th the House passed a bill to this effect, hence it is very probable that before the present session of the Legislature closes, female suffrage wil be un fait accompli in this Territory; then if, as our friends outside affirm, its exercise will “emancipate” the ladies of Utah, they will be masters, or rather mistresses of the situation. As for ourselves, we have no doubt as to the result, and are satisfied that it will strengthen the cause of Zion, polygamy included. In all matters pertaining to church government the sisters have always had the same right to vote as the brethren; but in civil matters they, here as elsewhere, have had no say; but if this bill passes they will be their equals in that respect too. We are satisfied that the result will be exactly opposite to what our enemies anticipate. On the plural marriage question we are as firmly convinced as we are of our own existence that were its continuance or abolition put to the vote of the female portion of our population to-day it would be sustained by a nine-tenths majority; and upon this score, which has enlisted the mock sympathy of so many, no disadvantage to Zion’s cause will ensue. In every other it cannot but result also in good. We have many friends around whose constant effort is to out-vote the “Mormons” at their municipal elections so that the discordant elements so overwhelmingly developed in municipal rule everywhere but in Zion might be introduced here. Many of our co[n]temporaries boast that this consummation will soon be brought about now that direct rail communication exists between the cities of Utah and the East and West. We do not anticipate such a result; nevertheless the hopes of our enemies in this respect may be realized. We do not believe, however, that the existence of our most cherished institutions depends on such a frail tenure as the possession of power by the female members of the Church to vote them down. If such be the case, we believe the ladies should have the power to exercise their agency, hence we desire to see the matter tested; and we hope that the bill passed by the House of Representatives of the Territorial Legislature, on Saturday, will be passed by the Council, believing that the result will be an additional proof to the world, that even with this power in their hands the ladies of Utah will remain true to their integrity, and then, as now, will sustain the priesthood, whether acting in a religious or civil capacity, in promoting the cause of Zion and the behests of Heaven.