Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Life and Times of Martha Hughes Cannon

Martha Hughes Cannon’s biography pretty well speaks for itself. There are also a number of online sources that discuss her life in depth. So without further ado, here are a few highlights from Ms. Cannon’s life:

-Like many Mormon kids in the 1860s, she walked across the Plains to Utah with her family. Unlike many, she had already decided She Was Going to Be a Doctor When She Grew Up.

-Worked as a typesetter for the Deseret News and Women’s Exponent starting at the age of 15, and saved the income to pay for education down the road;

-Earned a B.S. in chemistry at 18;

-Went to medical school far away from home, graduating at 24;

-Earned an additional B.S. in pharmacology at 25;

-Served a residency at the brand-new Deseret Hospital from 26-29;

-Married at 27 (the fourth wife out of an eventual 86 (!) married to Angus M. Cannon);

-After an extensive education and establishing herself professionally, she had her first child at 28;

-Lived in exile for two years, from age 29-31, to avoid testifying against her husband and her obstetrics patients in polygamy trials. (And I might add that she didn’t just drift to the next state over—she went all the way to England and Switzerland, and took her infant daughter with her during her years abroad. I don’t have any specifics on what she did in her time in Europe, but I’m guessing she must have practiced medicine or taken on some other kind of work to support herself.)

-Continued to practice medicine after returning from exile, and taught nursing classes at what eventually became the University of Utah school of medicine.

-Became heavily involved in the nationwide women’s suffrage movement. Traveled to Chicago and Washington, DC with Emmeline B. Wells and other LDS suffragists to speak and testify in support of granting the vote to women.

-This is my favorite: In 1896, Martha ran for a state senate seat against (among other people) her own husband… and won. She thus became the first female state senator in the United States.

-While in office, she worked to improve social conditions. Her accomplishments include public health legislation such as establishing the state board of health, regulating the working conditions of female and child workers, and obtaining state funding for speech- and hearing-impaired students.

It’s worth noting that her medical career seems to have been instrumental in preparing her for being an effective lawmaker—she would not have had the education, experience, or moral and professional authority to do what she did without both being a mother and having run a medical practice for several years.

-Had her third child near the end of her second term in office. As the first lady state senator, one assumes this also makes her the first state senator to give birth while in office as well.

Ms. Cannon also left us with a legacy of quotable quotes, including this statement:

“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.”


Julie Beck (president of the Relief Society, the LDS church's women's association) has encouraged LDS women to get to know their history better. So here's a bit of our history: Martha Hughes Cannon healed the sick, raised her kids-- in exile sometimes, even-- cracked heads at least three different ways in politics, and dealt with work/life balance issues back when there weren't even washing machines and toilets. She did important things out in the public sphere that would have been impossible without having been both a mother and a professional.

Something to think about.

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