Yvette D. Ison
History Blazer January 1995
The debate over woman suffrage dominated politics in Utah throughout the 1890s. Though the issue was raging throughout the United States, Utah’s historic background created unique concerns and attitudes towards the debate.
Unlike other states and territories, Utah had legalized woman suffrage with territorial legislation in 1870. When Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, however, voting rights for women were abolished along with plural marriages. Utah women took action to reclaim the franchise. In 1889 they founded the Woman Suffrage Association of Utah.
Keeping in touch with the leaders of the LDS church, the new organization enjoyed widespread support from Mormons throughout the territory. In September 1894 the Woman’s Exponent, an unofficial organ of the LDS Relief Society, published figures showing that 19 Utah counties had suffrage organizations. Both the Republican and Democratic conventions of that year strongly endorsed universal suffrage as part of their electoral goals. It seemed that with such strong support on all sides woman suffrage would inevitably succeed in Utah.
Then, during the Utah Constitutional Convention that began in March 1895, some delegates in both the Democratic and Republican parties began to argue against including woman suffrage in the new state’s Constitution. Brigham H. Roberts, a Democrat from Davis County, was one of the most vocal contenders. He asserted that woman suffrage would make Utah a “freak state” in the eyes of the majority of states that opposed the franchise for women. Such a perception, he believed, would endanger Utah’s chance for statehood. Another argument put forth against woman suffrage held that if women entered the political arena they would be dragged from their “high pinnacles” of virtue and purity by the process.
Amid these doubts, Emmeline B. Wells, president of the LDS Relief Society and of the Woman Suffrage Association of Utah as well, continued to remind politicians that Utah had seen no such negative effects from the seventeen years of universal suffrage women had already enjoyed in the territory.
Woman suffrage was undoubtedly the hottest topic at the Constitutional Convention and among its supporters and antagonists out on the street. Tension between the two camps intensified. During one such clash, non-Mormon women united in the Opera House to rally against suffrage. Mormon suffragettes reportedly infiltrated the meeting to prevent a unanimous vote.
Despite the efforts of those opposed to woman suffrage, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention passed it by more than a two-thirds majority. During the November 5, 1895 election, some 80 percent of Utah’s voters—still all male—approved the new Constitution. Utah had indeed chosen to remain one of the few places in the nation to accept universal suffrage. Fear that such a situation would ruin Utah’s chance for statehood were unfounded. Two months later, on January 4, 1896, Utah became the 45th state of the United States.