January 28, 2024

Martha Hughs Cannon, First Woman State Senator

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Martha Hughs Cannon, an early member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, paved the way for women throughout the world. Through, her influence and dedication all women can see the world with possibilities, instead of limitations. Martha broke through the gender norms, and made history as the first women Senator United States of America. Martha's accomplishments are many, and her life was full of faith, perseverance, hardship and determination.

Martha also known as "Maddie"was born in Llandudno, Caernarfonshire Wales in 1857.

Martha's family, converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Wales when Maddie was only two years old. The family chose to join with the Saints in the United States and traveled from England to America, docked in New York where began a new adventure with many challenges.

New York is where the young family stayed for a time, with no money available to cross the plains to the Utah territory. After a time the young family was informed that The Church had set up ways for people with little funds to cross the plains. Erastus Snow, a leader of the Church, offered for the family to join a group of Saints, with funds provided. Martha's family traveled to Florence, Nebraska by train and then by covered wagon to Utah.

When the family was only days away from Utah tragedy struck, when Martha's younger sister passed away, she was only two years old. Again, after only being in Utah for three days, Martha's father passed away.

After a couple months Martha's mother remarried to James Patten Paul, a widower with four sons. Martha was encouraged by her family to get an education, especially by her Step-father. They were a very educated family who made a large impact in the area.

Martha started teaching school at age 14, but did not last long, recording that she struggled controlling the larger male students in her class.

Martha was then asked by the prophet Brigham Young to learn type set. Martha was very good at her job and started working at the Deseret News and later worked at the Women's Exponent, a paper run by Emmeline B. Wells and affiliated with the Relief Society.

While working at the Women's Exponent, Martha came to know Emmeline B. Wells and Eliza R. Snow, two prominent female leader in the Church. These two inspiring women encouraged Martha to work towards her goals of being a doctor.

Martha's Medical Degree

With the building up of the Utah area, there were many challenges with location. Utah, being so far away from the rest of the world, and well trained doctors and nurses were hard to come by. The Prophet Brigham Young asked the women, specifically, to learn medicine, to be better able to help the people in their areas.

Martha, having been encouraged by her parents, the Prophet and Emmeline B. Wells and Eliza R. Snow took the advice and chose to get her medical certificate. She went on to study Chemistry at Deseret University and then attended medical school at the University of Michigan, graduating at 23. Martha went on to get a graduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania.

Before Martha went to the University of Michigan she was one of four women in the Utah territory who was "set apart" for medical studies by the Church. She was set apart by John Taylor and George Q. Cannon.

While in medical school Martha was the only female in a class of 75. She was often asked to sit apart from the males to "not distract them".

She returned to Salt Lake in 1882 with her medical degrees. At age 25 she opened a private medical practice out of her mothers home.

The early women in Utah knew saw a need for specialty care for women, with female doctors and nurses and they founded the "Deseret Hospital". In 1882, Martha became the head surgeon.

Maddie became a midwife in the area and was known as one of the best. There are stories of Martha getting the fastest horse in the area to get to those moms in time. She was very good at her job and helped many families.

Martha saw a need for greater training in the medical field and founded Utah’s first training school for nurses in 1888. In an effort to help more people get better medical treatment.

Marriage of Martha Hughs Cannon

Martha married into the polygamist family of Angus M. Cannon and was the fourth of six wives.

Mattie was married in 1884 and had to marry him in secret because it was against the law to marry into polygamy, at that time. Mattie's husband was arrested for practicing polygamy in 1885 and put on trial. She was called to testify against her husband and the other fathers of the babies she had delivered. She went into hiding going to England with her baby girl under a false name. She lived in hiding for two years.

"A plural wife is not half as much a slave as a single wife, if her husband has four wives she has three weeks of freedom every single month."

Martha had three children. 

Utah Women's Right to Vote

Martha grew up in a time where suffrage had been given to local women of Utah, in 1870. Martha was living in an era where the voices of women mattered, especially in the Utah Territory. Even though the right to vote was given to women it was then taken away by the government as a punishment for the practice of polygamy. The right to vote was later reinstated, and the women of Utah took their roll in the voting process very seriously.

After, the right to vote was given back to women Maddie decided to run for United States Senator.

In 1896 Mattie campaigned for a seat in Utahs first elected legislature. She was pitted to run against her husband. She as a Democrat, and he as a Republican. Martha beat her husband.

Martha said:

“The first woman senator — I hadn’t thought of it in that light,” she responded. “I do seem to be a sort of milestone, don’t I? Well, I will have to try to live up to my privileges.”

Another article in the Salt Lake Herald-Republican dated Nov. 11, 1896, stated: “Nothing that has transpired in Utah shows greater advancement in civilization than the election of women to the legislature.”

On November 3, 1896 Martha Hughes Cannon became the first Female State Senator. She established Utahs first board of health. She worked to certify doctors and made a school for disabled individuals specifically the deaf and the blind.

"Women will purify politics."

In a conference held in behalf of Martha Hughs Cannon many prominent Latter-day Saints women spoke on the influence of Maddie, Sister Sharon Eubank, a previous counselor in the General Relief Society said this about the lessons learned from Martha Hughs Cannon. "First, don’t wait for others to do what needs to be done. “Be the change you seek.” Second, build personal and lasting relationships. And third, don’t let issues destroy those relationships. Finding common ground leads to progress on shared goals."

A Church Historian Bowles added: “I think what we can learn today from [Martha Hughes Cannon’s] example is that when we see a need we shouldn’t be afraid to take a new path, if it means that the changes can happen that would be better for society.”

Martha Commemorated

In 2018, the Utah Legislature voted to honor Martha Hughes Cannon by sending a statue of her to Washington, D.C., to represent Utah in Statuary Hall. Today you can see that statue, along with the statue of Brigham Young in the United States Capital.

Hughes moved to California with her three children in 1904. She died in Los Angeles in 1932 at the age of 75, and was buried next to her husband in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

Quote by Martha Hughs Cannon:

"I am willing and not afraid to tread the paths of my destiny. Whether they be rugged or whether they be smooth. I have no regrets."




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