Remembering Utah’s Pioneer Suffragettes | Buzz Blog

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Remembering Utah’s Pioneer Suffragettes

A historic resolution ensuring women’s right to vote goes on display at the Capitol.

Posted By on October 15, 2019, 6:02 PM

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click to enlarge PETER HOLSLIN
  • Peter Holslin

As tourists shuffled quietly through the Capitol’s echoing rotunda, staffers at the Utah Division of Archives and Records sat at a table where a precious piece of history was on display—an original copy of 1919’s Senate Joint Resolution No. 1.

Whoa, wait, you don’t know SJR-1?

It’s the resolution that sealed Utah’s approval of the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing women the right to vote. Utah was the first state in the Union to ratify the amendment, and this week, state employees and women’s rights advocates have been celebrating its 100-year anniversary.

“Utah women had this amazing, progressive history, and they were leading out in the suffrage movement and in other ways across the United States,” Jen Christensen, political director for Highland-based women’s history group Better Days 2020—which is planning a centennial celebration of the federal adoption of the 19th Amendment next year—told City Weekly as she stood beside the yellowing document, printed on quality-stock paper and protected in Mylar wrapping.

Utah’s leading role in women’s suffrage might come as a surprise, considering that just this year WalletHub ranked the Beehive State as the worst for women’s equality in the nation—and by quite a wide margin at that, ranking far below Idaho at No. 49 in the categories of “workplace environment,” “education & health,” and “political empowerment.”

However, Christensen says that Utah women often pushed for their rights as the budding territory was being settled by Latter-day pioneers in the mid-to-late 19th century. The popularity of women’s suffrage as a movement across the American West, the presence of polygamy in LDS families and the sweat and tears that women put into building their homesteads in the Great Basin all played a role in them demanding a say in how decisions were made.

As Christensen puts it: “We’re doing everything else to help settle this land—we should have a voice in the government.”

Women first got the right to vote in Utah territory when state lawmakers passed a women’s suffrage bill in 1870. Researchers Barbara Jones Brown, Naomi Watkins and Katherine Kitterman write in an article on the Better Days 2020 website that male Latter-day Saints who practiced “plural marriage” at the time felt that giving women voting rights would help turn public opinion in their favor as Congress was pushing to ban the practice of polygamy.

“Fifty years before women across the nation had the right to vote, Utah women were casting ballots,” Christensen says.

Alas, that was only temporary, as anti-polygamy sentiment across the country led to the suffragettes of Utah taking a hit when Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act in 1887. The anti-Mormon bill (which was later overturned) disincorporated the LDS church, instituted measures meant to curb “plural marriage”—and canceled out the 1870 measure giving Utah women their voting rights.

By 1919, though, the possibility came up again as the 36 states in the union weighed a possible women’s suffrage amendment to be adopted in the U.S. Constitution. Each state had to ratify the amendment for it to become federal law, and as political battles unfolded across the country, Utah Sen. Elizabeth Hayward stepped up to sponsor SJR-1.

Kitterman, Better Days 2020’s historical director, writes in another article that the bill passed in the Senate, and the next day Rep. Anna T. Piercey chaired the House session to discuss the amendment. Fellow legislators Dr. Grace Stratton Airey and Delora W. Blakely delivered speeches in support of the resolution, and it ended up being passed by a unanimous House vote, with SJR-1 thusly ratified on Oct. 3, 1919.

At the Capitol, City Weekly leaned in close to take a picture of the historic document—the “engrossed” meaning the copy that passed through Congress and was then signed by Senate President J.W. Funk, Speaker of the House John E. Heppler and Gov. Simon Bamberger to make it all official. The text lays out the amendment the lawmakers ratified in triumphant terms:

WHEREAS, the State of Utah has always favored equal suffrage, and many of its citizens, both men and women, through personal efforts, and untiring energy, have labored for the adoption of the suffrage amendment to the Constitution of the United States:

NOW, THEREFORE, IT IS HEREBY RESOLVED, that said amendment to the Constitution of the United States, be and the same is hereby ratified and adopted by the Legislature of the State of Utah.

And that’s your history lesson for today, kids.

About The Author

Peter Holslin

Peter Holslin

Holslin is City Weekly's staff writer. His work has appeared in outlets including Vice and Rolling Stone. Got a tip? Drop him a line.

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