It’s a situation many of us have been in. You’re traveling in another state and you mention to someone that you’re from Utah. The person you’re talking to makes some statement–sometimes a joke, sometimes not–about polygamy. Though Utah’s profile has grown in the last 20 years, familiar stereotypes remain prominent in the minds of many Americans. Being asked how many moms you have can be a frustrating experience, and it paints an unfair picture of a backwards state that is frozen in the past. In reality, Utah has so much to offer. It’s an industrious state full of friendly people and beautiful scenery. As the second fastest growing state, we boast booming opportunity in tourism and tech. To see this state repeatedly boiled down to such a bare element of its history is disheartening.
But of course, polygamy is a part of our state’s history. Reckoning with the Utah story includes understanding the practice of polygamy amidst all of the other successes of the state. It means understanding how much of Utah’s culture is informed by the experience of Mormon pioneers and accepting that many leaders in our early history had participated in the practice of polygamy.
A perfect opportunity to reconcile this history stands in the form of eight feet of sculpted bronze.
In the United States Capitol Building in Washington, DC, each state is represented by two statues of figures key to the state’s history. Currently, Utah statuary delegation is made up of territorial governor and Mormon prophet Brigham Young and Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of the modern television. In 2018, that may change. SCR1, a resolution being sponsored by State Senator Todd Weiler (R) would bring Philo home and replace him with a statue of polygamous powerhouse Martha Hughes Cannon.
As bold as that seems, the practice of polygamy is one of the least interesting things about Cannon, an extensively talented person who never let the restrictions of the turn of the 19th century get in her way.
As a young immigrant, Cannon began work at an early age, while simultaneously accumulating degrees in higher education and training as a physician. Ever an embodiment of Utah’s industrious spirit, she regularly took night classes to expand her education, and the fruits of her labor improved the health of the Utahns under her care. Cannon was the author of Utah sanitation laws and assisted in founding the State Board of Health, contributions that aided Utahns as they laid groundwork for their young state.
She certainly didn’t stop there; Cannon demolished the stereotypes of 19th century women–polygamous or otherwise. Uninhibited by her gender and empowered by her polygamous status, she was a stalwart advocate of women. She led by example and made her mark on the Utah Constitution by including the enfranchisement of women within it. Utah, though the second state to grant women the right to vote, was the first to hold an election where women were full and legal participants. And if her efforts up to this point were not enough, Cannon later claimed the title of first female State Senator in the United States, with her vanquished opponent being none other than her own husband.
It bears repeating: after balancing years of work and education, professional medical practice, and advocacy, this suffragette won an election against her own husband.
In this age, we are more in need of positive role models than ever. Martha Hughes Cannon represents a true, honest, and optimistic vision of Utah. She exemplifies the best of what Utah has to offer and embodies the complex relationship between polygamy and empowerment. As 2018 ushers in a record number of women running for office, it’s only appropriate that Utah elevate Martha Hughes Cannon. It’s time to send Ms. Hughes Cannon to Washington!