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Holladay Journal

Locals celebrate the life of Martha Hughes Cannon

Mar 08, 2023 12:42PM ● By Collette Hayes

Lt. Gov. Deidre M. Henderson with students standing in front of the Martha Hughes Cannon statue at the Utah State Capitol. The statue will be moving to the National Statuary Hall Collection in the Nation’s Capital. The Martha Hughes Cannon statue will be replacing the statue of Philo Farnsworth. (Photo courtesy of the Office of the Lieutenant Governor)

Jan. 11 has been officially designated in the State of Utah by Congress as Martha Hughes Cannon Day, a day to recognize the suffrage movement, women’s voting rights and to honor the life and work of the first female state senator, Martha Hughes Cannon. 

In partnership with the Holladay Arts Council and Better Days 2020, a nonprofit organization dedicated to popularizing Utah women’s history, two evening events were held at the Holladay Library to celebrate the life of Cannon and her accomplishments. 

By the time Cannon was 25, she had earned four degrees: a chemistry degree at the University of Utah (then the University of Deseret) and a medical degree from the University of Michigan in 1880. Cannon completed a degree in pharmaceuticals at the University of Pennsylvania and also a degree from the National School of Elocution and Oratory in Philadelphia. Cannon had a plan to make life better in Utah by getting the medical training, the public speaking and other skills she would need to affect change in the Utah Territory.  

The choice Cannon made to enter a polygamous marriage and become the fourth wife of Angus Cannon was an intentional one. She was a well-educated person and a doctor at the Deseret Hospital (now LDS Hospital/IHC) who had means of her own. She saw her marriage as a love match and also something that was part of her religion.

Sheryl Gillilan, executive director of the Holladay Arts Council, and her committee created and organized the two-night event including storytelling with Holladay Political Women and Cocoa with Cannon, an opportunity to meet Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon, portrayed by historical storyteller Cassie Ashton. A traveling exhibit created by Better Days 2020 featured a model statue of Cannon. Informative posters about her efforts to gain equal rights for women were displayed as the backdrop for the event.  

Better Days 2020 and the Utah Division of State History promote the traveling exhibit to educate Utahns about Cannon’s story before her statue, which now stands in the Utah State Capitol, is moved to Washington, D.C. Every state is allowed two statues in The National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol. The Cannon statue will be replacing the statue of Philo Farnsworth.

Katherine Kitterman, former historical director for Better Days 2020, continues to hold a small role in the organization and has recently accepted a position with the Utah Women’s History Initiative. Kitterman holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from American University, where she completed a dissertation on Utah women’s suffrage petitions. 

“One of the things I think is so remarkable about Martha Cannon is she is pretty representative of many Utah women,” Kitterman said. “She is part of this generation of Utahns who had ideas of what she could do and what problems she could address in the world if she received training. She is part of a large cadre of women working in Utah to make Utah a better place.” 

While Cannon is remarkable, she is representative of three local present-day women in Utah, City of Holladay Councilmember Drew Quinn, former State Sen. Jani Iwamoto and State Rep. Carol Spackman Moss. Each of these women participated in the Cannon celebratory event reading women’s suffrage historical fiction. During their lifetime these three women have continued the Cannon legacy of using their interests and skills to improve their community. 

Moss taught English at Olympus High school for 33 years. She is a strong advocate up on the Hill for families and education. She was first elected as a state representative in 2000 and is the longest serving woman state representative in the history of Utah. Moss read the book “Marching with Aunt Susan by Claire Rudolf Murphy, a children’s picture book reminding readers of the women’s rights movement and the courage it takes to speak up and take a stand to create change. Moss commented that when she was given the book to practice for the reading, she was so impressed with the book that she ended up buying her own copy. 

Councilmember Quinn is currently the only woman sitting on the Holladay City Council. She is a mother, a grandmother and a retired attorney. 

Iwamoto, now retired, was the first Asian-American woman to serve in the Utah State Legislature and was elected as the Assistant Minority Whip by the Democrats in the Utah Senate. She has practiced law and also has served on the Salt Lake County Council.  

Quinn and Iwamoto shared the books “The Voice that Won the VoteHow One Woman’s Words Made History” by Elisa Boxer and “Equality’s CallThe Story of Voting Rights in America” by Deborah Diesen. Both books emphasized the theme of history voting rights and the suffrage movement. 

In a recent conversation, Kitterman spoke extensively about Cannon and the women’s suffrage movement. She provided an outline of historical events leading up to Cannon becoming the first woman to serve in the Utah State Senate and the passing of the 19th Amendment giving voting rights to all women. 

Utah women were the first women to cast a vote in the United States under an equal suffrage law. Wyoming was the first place to pass women’s suffrage in 1869 but Utah followed about six weeks later in 1870. Due to Utah’s elections being held before Wyoming, Utah women became the first women to vote in the nation. With the controversy over polygamy that affected Utah’s suffrage, Congress took away women’s right to vote in 1887 with the Edmunds-Tucker Act. Utah was the only place ever to be disenfranchised in that way. Utah was a territory at that time so Congress had the power to enforce the Act. In 1896, Utah women regained the right to vote and joined the union as the third suffrage state. Leading up to this time, Cannon had become involved in the Democratic party. She was nominated for state senator and won the 1896 vote defeating her husband, Angus Cannon, who just happened to be one of the Republican party candidates on the ballot. Cannon became the first female state senator in the country. In 1920, the 19th Amendment became law extending voting rights to women. 

In Kitterman’s book, “Thinking Women: A Timeline of Suffrage in Utah,” coauthored with Rebekah Clark, Kitterman quotes Cannon who calls for a wider sphere for women. 

“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 10, a successful mother.” 

If you are interested in scheduling the Martha Hughes Cannon exhibit or signing up for a free digital tool kit, visit: