I've wanted to highlight the life of this amazing and trailblazing woman for some time now, but it's taken months to get to this point. As a result I'm just posting this as is and apologize if it is choppy and full of grammatical errors. I should note that much of this post is made up of direct quotes from this book. I would recommend it because I would like people to know more about this woman. She was part of the first wave of women to attain higher education (getting her MD in 1880 at University of Michigan, and a BS in Pharmacy in 1882 from the University of Pennsylvania, in addition to a degree in Chemistry and a diploma from the National School of Elocution and Oratory), she was the first ever woman to be a state senator, she was the first woman to be on the ballot for a US senate race, she was a mother to 3 kids, and she was a mormon. What follows is a summary of her life:
Martha Maria Hughes (Mattie) was born in July 1st 1857 in Wales. Her family converted to the mormon church not long after she was born and just before age 3 her family moved to live in the Rocky Mountains with the church. Both her sister and father died on the trek, and her mother was left a widow at age 28 with two young daughters. Her mother remarried a year later and her step-father was kind and encouraging.
By age 14 she was studying at the University of Deseret and was working as a schoolteacher. She then became a typesetter for the Women's Exponent. She became so skilled with this typesetting that in addition to doing this for the Exponent, she did typesetting for the Deseret News and was able to set type for Church publications in Scandinavian languages (even though she didn't speak or understand them). While typesetting for the Exponent, she became aware of women's issues, especially event occurring at both the national and international levels. This experience helped her to seriously consider continuing her studies beyond the completion of her degree in chemistry. It also allowed her to meet several prominent and powerful women in the church, including both Emmeline Wells and the "Matriarch of Mormonism" Eliza Snow. Even though Eliza was quite elderly when she met Mattie, she recognized Mattie's intelligence and became a mentor to her. Mattie had a strong desire to help educate the Saints on the importance of public health, so with the support of Eliza Snow, Emmeline Wells, and her stepfather James Paul she continued her studies and prepared to go east to pursue an MD. In 1878 she graduated with a degree in chemistry and was accepted at the University of Michigan's medical school.
Mattie had come close to marrying someone with whom she had become deeply involved. Several in the community expected that she would marry (she was already 21-years-old). However her desire to pursue her education won out and she broke off the engagement to go east and pursue her MD. Others in the community weren't so shocked as Mattie had already shown her non-conformist nature. She was so busy working and studying that caring for her long hair seemed too much bother. She cut it short (a shocking transgression, along with her boots, of the Victorian image of female beauty and propriety).
Mattie wasn't the first woman in Utah to get a medical education. One woman, Ellen Ferguson, arrived in Utah in the late 1870's. Ellen started a practice in Utah and in 1878 organized classes for women in obstetrics and the diseases of women and children. Having been given an extensive private education by her father, a Cambridge professor, she also taught classes in French, Latin, German, drawing, elocution, drama, and music. In addition to these varied talents, she was an avid feminist, and she became the first woman deputy sheriff in the United States.
Mattie was one of three women in the 1870's who were called to study medicine by the church leaders. The first woman to receive the call was a woman named Romania Bunnell Pratt. She was 34 and a mother of five. She left her kids with her mother, sold her home and piano and went east to study medicine. She studied at Bellevue College (and was the first woman to attend the college) but by the 2nd year she couldn't afford to continue her studies and returned home. However, with the Relief Society's help, Romania returned East, this time to the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Established in 1850, the college was the second orthodox medical school for women in the United States. Romania earned her MD in 1877, specializing in ear and eye surgery.
The second woman who was called to study medicine was Ellis Shipp, a plural wife of Milford Shipp. In 1875 she left her children with her sister-wife Margaret and joined Romania at the Woman's College in Philadelphia. At the end of the second year, she gave birth to her fourth child but continued her studies while a landlady took care of the baby. After Ellis completed her degree, her sister-wife Margaret went east and got her MD, then their husband also went east to get his MD. As often happens when one member of a marriage is off studying for some years, the marriage, even a polygamous marriage, cannot survive the separation. Romania's marriage to Parley Pratt Jr. and Margaret's marriage to Milford Shipp ended in divorce not long after the two women returned to Salt Lake City.
Mattie and these other pioneering women had unique challenges in their pursuit of a medical degree. In the nineteenth century women were not welcome in most regular medical schools, even if officially allowed entrance. When the University of Michigan decided in 1870 to admit women-an experiment considered of "doubtful utility" by some of the faculty-it was agreed that men and women could not be taught in the same classroom. Mattie and her fellow female colleagues had to sit in a separate room where the male students couldn't see them.' There was a gynecological theory current that intellectual activity was injurious to the female reproductive organs. Some of this was the belief that women were just too frail and delicate to withstand the assaults on their modesty, inevitable in the study of anatomy. Had women been admitted to medical school a decade or more earlier, these struggles would have ended much faster. Back then one only needed to spend a year in a doctor's office and take 2 winder courses (4 months each) at medical school. Thus the education these women received were far superior to the recent past.
Among Mattie's female classmates were other progressive feminists. One friend, Bethenia Owens-Adair received her MD degree the same year as Mattie and went on to become the first woman doctor in Oregon, and, as Mattie would later become, an avid suffragist. Mattie decided to do more than the necessary coursework and took extra courses at night in pharmacology and did additional work in electro-therapeutics and bacteriology (which was a cutting-edge field at the time). Mattie received her MD on her 23rd birthday in 1880.
Mattie then practiced medicine in Michigan for a year and then in the fall of 1881, Mattie decided to continue her studies in Philadelphia. Margaret Shipp was still at the Woman's Medical College there, but instead of joining Margaret, Mattie entered the Auxiliary Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania for postgraduate training. She wrote her thesis on the study of "Mountain Fever" which was a serious medical issue for people in the Rocky Mountains. She got her degree in Pharmacology in 1882. The graduation program shows that law and medical degrees were given to several male students, but Martha P. Hughes, MD, was the only woman to receive the BS degree.
Although Mattie planned to open her own practice upon returning to Utah, she had not lost sight of her goal to teach her community the importance of public health. To this end she enrolled in the National School of Elocution and Oratory, a leading institute of public speaking, concurrently with her science studies at the university. Apparently she had quite a flair for dramatics, since her instructors thought she should concentrate on becoming an actress. She received a Bachelor of Oratory in June of 1882.
As attractive and intelligent a young woman as Mattie would be bound to leave some broken hearts in her wake as she pursued her ambitions. In addition to the young man she broke with after she left Utah for Michigan, a couple more along the way lost hope of her hand. One of these, a beau from Philadelphia, went so far as to convert to Mormonism and follow her back to Salt Lake. For Mattie the chemistry just wasn't there and she continued pursuing her own goals in opening her medical practice.
While Mattie was still developing her private practice, she received the call from the Church authorities to be the resident physician for the Deseret Hospital. She would be replacing Dr. Ferguson, who was leaving to continue her private practice. The Deseret Hospital was established by a group of activist women, under the leadership of Eliza Snow, while Mattie was still in Philadelphia. They built the funding model on the model of the mining companies. A premium payment of a dollar a year would be solicited from every member of every ward and stake in Utah Mormondom. If a family was too poor to pay, produce or work could be accepted. In addition to the individual annual dollars, every Relief Society and other Church organizations would be required to contribute a dollar a month to establish ward credit accounts. Those who were capable of paying for their care would be required to do so; those who could not would be covered by the communal funds.
The hospital was headed by a board of directors, one of whom was Angus Munn Cannon. He was the stake president of the Salt Lake Stake and brother of George Q Cannon of the Quorum of the 12. There is a story that one day Mattie rather peremptorily told Elder Angus Munn Cannon to leave the room so that she could get on with her work. The nurse assistants were appalled that a woman would have the audacity to speak in such a manner to a member of the Church hierarchy. Apparently such feistiness appealed to Elder Cannon. Within the year Mattie secretly became his fourth polygamous wife.
Her biographer thought that it was difficult to understand why an intelligent, ambitious young woman, having just finished an extensive education and rising in her career, would secretly sneak off to the Endowment House to be sealed for eternity to a man old enough to be her father-a man who was already married to three women, had seventeen children of his own plus four step-children, and who was Suspect Number One on the federal agents' "most wanted" list. She also gave the answer: That she was desperately in love is clear from the letters she wrote to Angus, which he kept and which are now in the LDS archives.
This was during the time period in which the US was passing many laws banning polygamy, and disenfranchising entities (or to be honest, the LDS church) which practiced it. This was why Angus was wanted, why the marriage was secret, and why her subsequent pregnancy had to be hidden. Not only did she hide because her pregnancy would give away the proof of her polygamous marriage, but also, because she was a doctor, she was wanted as a witness at the trials of other accused polygamists. She had assisted at many births of children of polygamous marriages, and the federal agents were after her to testify against the fathers. There was a $200 bond on her head to force her to appear as a witness. As she said in a letter to her friend Barbara: "To me it is a serious matter to be the cause of sending to jail a father upon whom a lot of little children are dependent, whether those children were begotten by the same or different mothers-the fact remains they all have little mouths that must be fed."
The Utah territory was the first major region in the entire United States to allow women their right to vote in 1870. Utah also had the easiest divorce laws; women could opt for divorce for no reason. These were rights which women were fighting for in the east and being repeatedly denied. However, passage of the Edmunds-Tucker Act in 1887 took away the women's right to vote, and it gave prosecutors more ammunition by repealing the right of a wife or husband to refuse to testify against a spouse.
Mattie lived back where she'd attended medical school, as well as England and even Switzerland to avoid prosecution. During this time she wrote many letters to her husband. She once told Angus that he was too much of a polygamist or "is progressing finely, that way, while I am playing the ass over here, am wondering what the Lord thinks of the mess of us." On another occasion she wrote, "I often wonder why I have been subjected to the life I have led for the past three and a half years. It is certainly one of three things. Earning a `big' reward, atoning for past delinquencies, or else because I am a damned fool." After two years of exile she finally returned to Salt Lake City.
Before her exile abroad, Mattie had had the opportunity to visit New York and Boston to observe the nursing schools in those cities and to purchase textbooks. Her ambition at the time was to start a nursing school in Salt Lake. Of course this plan was disrupted by her exile, but she took advantage of her time in Europe to look into such organizations there as well.
Upon her return, she found that her husband had taken two more wives. He was the President of a Stake in Utah (similar to a diocese, but unpaid) and was also responsible for six wives and a great number of children. Hence Angus didn't have much money with which to help Mattie. He did what he could, but she was largely on her own to earn her living as a physician. But if he were locked up in jail on another polygamy charge, he'd not be able to provide support to any of them, so it was up to Mattie to take on the consequences of the situation. Thus Mattie had to provide for herself while also working as the resident physician at the newly formed Deseret Hospital (which was formed and operated by the church women's organization, the Relief Society).
This was very hard on Mattie. In a letter to her husband, she said "How do you think I feel when I meet you driving another plural wife about in a glittering carriage in broad daylight? I am entirely out of money, borrowing to pay some old standing debts. I want our affairs speedily and absolutely adjusted-after all my sacrifice and loss you treat me like a dog-and parade others before my eyes-I will not stand it."
Mattie continued on living essentially as a single mother, resident physician at the hospital, and running a private practice. As if that weren't enough, she channeled additional energy to another of her passions: women's suffrage. As a mormon woman, she was not only fighting for women's suffrage, but simultaneously fighting to defend her religion. She and others protested against the popular image of the Mormon woman as a slave and pointed out that she was free to divorce at any time with rights of support. Mattie quickly became a leader in the Utah Woman's Suffrage Association, giving talks to groups throughout Utah and participating in suffrage conferences in the East along with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. At the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago, Mattie was a featured speaker at the Woman's Congress. She traveled to Chicago with a group of Utah women leaders.
Mattie went on from Chicago to appear before a congressional committee in Washington, D.C., to give a status report on the women's suffrage work in Utah. The Chicago Record noted that "Mrs. Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon ... is considered one of the brightest exponents of the women's cause in the United States."
Many religious leaders in the east claimed that women were too "pure" for politics; women would just vote however their husbands or their religious leaders told them to; women were too impulsive, too sympathetic, too delicate to bear the stress; and so on. These arguments were easily dismissed in the west in a world of hardy independent pioneer women, especially women who had already had the vote and then had it taken away from them. Mattie said in a speech she gave in 1894: "One of the principal reasons why women should vote is that all men and women are created free and equal. No privileged class either of sex, wealth, or descent should be allowed to arise or exist. All persons should have the legal right to be the equal of every other."
During this time period the church dissolved the People's Party, which had essentially been the church's political party, and asked members to join one of the two major national parties. Mattie became an ardent democrat while her husband became an active republican. Mattie and her sisters in the suffrage movement pushed hard for Utah to be an equal rights state as the state formed its constitution.
About 20 percent of the men voted against adoption of the constitution, but women's suffrage was a reality for the new state, and Susan B. Anthony and the Reverend Anna Shaw came to Salt Lake to celebrate the words so hard won:
Article IV, Section 1: The rights of citizens of the State of Utah to vote and hold office shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex. Both male and female citizens of this state shall enjoy equally all civil, political, and religious rights and privileges.
Between Mattie's growing political involvement and her continued practice as a doctor, her concern with public health issues continued to grow. There were many such issues plaguing the people of the Great Basin. Typhoid spread easily in the urban area where most of the population drew water from open ditches and wells, the wells often situated too close to privies. The public fountains each had a single tin cup that everyone used. Tuberculosis was rampant in the crowded miners' quarters.
Perhaps the city's worst problem was air pollution. The air was full of toxins spewed from the smelters processing ore in the canyons, and the effects could be seen on the damaged foliage in the parks and residence gardens. Wind and rain blew particulates onto cropland. Additionally a general ignorance of the importance of sanitation and a resistance to the need for quarantine fed the epidemics that coursed through the city, as through many cities of the West.
In 1896 Mattie decided that she would run for State Senate as one of five democrats. Running for the same position was her friend and fellow suffragist Emmeline B. Wells and Mattie's husband Angus, each among the five republicans. The press enjoyed the prospect of a husband and wife running against each other in different political parties. When the results were in, Martha Hughes Cannon became the first woman elected to a State Senate in US history. In addition to Mattie's senate win, two non-Mormon women Democrats, Eurithe LaBarthe and Sarah Anderson, were elected to the lower house, and eleven women were elected throughout the state to county offices.
Mattie got right to work on pursuing public health legislation. In the first month she had successfully introduced three bills: an Act Providing for Compulsory Education of Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Children; an Act to Protect the Health of Women and Girl Employees; and, undoubtedly the most important to her, an Act Creating a State Board of Health and Defining Its Duties.
She also sponsored the state's first pure food law, and she beat back a consortium of lobbyists intent on abolishing the State Board of Public Examiners. The Board of Public Examiners certified the qualifications of doctors and midwives, thereby preventing incompetents or "quacks" from practicing medicine.
Although Mattie's bill to establish a State Board of Health had passed, there had been opposition. In her second senate term, Mattie introduced a public health bill that provided for regulations regarding contagious diseases. Her effort was to restrict teachers with contagious diseases such as tuberculosis from teaching in public classrooms. At this time the issue of whether tubercular teachers should be employed in the schools was controversial. Even the medical association was divided as to whether TB was a contagious disease.
Mattie was unable to get a bill passed in the legislature that would have required children not vaccinated against smallpox to be kept out of school in case of an epidemic. Requiring vaccination seemed impossible. The smallpox epidemic of 1898-99 closed an entire town in San-pete County. People evaded the quarantine and concealed the disease. The Board of Health sent vaccines, but an editor at the Deseret News spread the erroneous information that the vaccine wasn't safe. Although the News is a Church organ, some of the Church leaders did not agree with this editor, and George Q. Cannon wrote an article praising the vaccination effort-to no avail. The disease spread throughout the state. Not all doctors reported their cases, and families hid their sick. Some eleven hundred cases were reported, but the board members believed another thousand were not reported. Apostle Brigham Young Jr., who believed that God alone could heal the contagious diseases and calamities coming upon the people, wrote in the Deseret News that vaccination of schoolchildren was an example of "Gentile doctors trying to force Babylon into the people and some of them are willing to disease the blood of our children if they can do so, and they think they are doing God's service."' Utah was exceptional in the country in opposing vaccination to such an extent, and the board members feared that their opposition would try to repeal their powers. The board passed a compulsory smallpox vaccination ordinance; the legislature promptly repealed it, offering a diatribe on the board's uselessness and incompetence. In fact over the years Secretary of the Board survived more than one attempt by the opposition to fire him.
Mattie's work began to pay off. In 1896 a large gravity sewer that drained most of the populated areas of the city was installed, thereby eliminating most of the privies and hence the flies that were responsible for spreading disease. The Board of Health managed to get rid of the tin cups by the public water fountains-a single cup by each fountain, used by everyone. These municipal improvements helped to lower the rate of infantile diarrhea, the leading cause of infant death from polluted milk, and kept down the spread of typhoid, except for that spread by human carriers.
Throughout the 1890s, as Mattie became involved in politics, and the years that she served in the senate and on the Board of Health, she continued her private practice. Because of the demands of raising her children and her legislative duties, her office was only open on weekdays between 2:00 and 4:00 p.m. Often her patients couldn't pay her, or couldn't pay her immediately, and money was very tight. Her letters to Angus during these years are full of requests for financial help, and they display a growing sense of bitterness that she and her children are not being treated fairly, or equally, with his other children and wives.
Even with those struggles, Mattie continued her work in the women's suffrage movement. She eventually spoke on suffrage to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary. Mattie gave a long and elegant address describing the positive effects of women's franchise in her state. She was invited to a reception at the White House, and she commented in a letter to Emmeline Wells, editor of the Woman's Exponent, that she found President McKinley to be a great man, "notwithstanding he is not a Democrat."
Mattie may have had a chance at attaining national public office, but given the brouhaha in 1898 over seating B. H. Roberts in the U.S. House, the fact that she was a polygamous wife may have led her to determine that there would be no political advancement for her outside the state of Utah.
Around this time, Mattie became pregnant with her daughter Gwendolyn. This was a big deal, as the terms Congress set for Utah statehood had required the agreement by Church officials that there would be no further polygamous marriages and no further polygamous cohabitation. The return of the federally escheated property, as well as the presidential amnesty, was based on that agreement. This was written into the state constitution and into Utah state law. The birth of Gwendolyn was a blatant example of the fact that members of the Church hierarchy were violating their agreement.
Angus had to be asked by Mattie in a letter to stop by 6 days after the birth of their child. Eventually word got out and Angus was arrested on the charge of unlawful cohabitation. He was eventually released.
Her husband Angus died in 1915. At this point Mattie moved with her children to the Los Angeles area where she continued practicing medicine. After the first World War she became involved in fund-raising for war orphans abroad. At the end of the Turkish war of independence in 1922, Atattirk, leader of modern Turkey, pillaged and burned the three-thousand-year-old city of Smyrna, slaughtering thousands of Greeks and Armenians, creating 160,000 homeless refugees. Mattie raised funds for the American Women's Hospitals, founded by a group of women doctors committed to working overseas. With Mattie's help, $500,000 was raised in support of medical relief.
She worked for several years at the Selwyn Emmett Graves Memorial Dispensary, which, in addition to being a clinic for the poor, also served as a teaching facility for students at the University of California, and was part of the UCLA medical program. According to her daughter Lizzie's manuscript, she became interested in narcotics and drug problems, although she apparently did not publish on this subject.'
Mattie passed on in 1932 at the age of 75. She left a powerful legacy. Her life was at least partially shaped by the mormon teachings of her time. President Brigham Young said: "We believe women are useful, not just to sweep houses, wash dishes, make beds, and raise babies, but that they should stand behind the counter, study law or physic ... all this to enlarge their usefulness for the benefit of society.... In following these things they are but answering the design of their creation." Joseph F. Smith stated in a long and passionate speech to the general conference of the Relief Societies: "Why shall one be admitted to all the avenues of mental and physical progress and the other prohibited and prescribed within certain narrow limits, to her material abridgment and detriment? ... [S]hall a man be paid higher wages than is paid to a woman for doing no better than she does the very same work? ... By what process of reasoning can it be shown that a woman standing at the head of a family, with all the responsibility resting upon her to provide for them, should be deprived of the avenues and ways or means that a man in like circumstances may enjoy to provide for them? ... If the women have equal rights, they must bear equal burdens with men...They do this already, except that their burdens are made unequal in that they are deprived of the enjoyment of equal rights."
Mattie once said in a newspaper interview when asked how a working woman could be a good mother, replied: "Somehow I know that women who stay home all the time have the most unpleasant homes there are. You give me a woman who thinks about something besides cook stoves and wash tubs and baby flannels, and I'll show you, nine times out of ten, a successful mother."
Martha Hughes Cannon is a woman all mormons should know and be proud of. She made national history. She played an important role in pursuing equal rights. She vastly improved the health and lives of thousands. She struggled to support herself and her children financially. She is an example to everyone and her story should be better known.
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