Who was Martha Hughes Cannon?

The first female state senator was a woman who lived in Utah named Martha Hughes Cannon. Cannon was important to the women’s suffrage movement in Utah and the United States.

Born in Wales on July 1, 1857, Cannon moved to the United States in 1860 and was part of the Joseph Horne Company, which was a pioneer company that traveled from Nebraska to Utah in 1861. According to the Church History Biographical Database, Cannon was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Nov. 26, 1875.

Cannon began working as a typesetter for the Deseret News while she was in medical school. According to utahwomenshistory.org (run by Better Days 2020), Cannon enrolled in the University of Deseret to study medicine at age 16. She became a women’s rights advocate while working at the Woman’s Exponent, and went on to become the resident physician at the Deseret Hospital.

She served in the midwives and nurses mission, which was a mission for women to teach midwifery and nursing to other women as well as provide care for their communities, when she was 22 in 1880. In 1887, she was married to Agnus Cannon. According to a BYU Religious Studies Center article, Agnus Cannon practiced plural marriage and had six wives. Hughes Cannon was his fourth wife.

In a video about Cannon’s life, PBS interviewed Jenny Reeder, a historian at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, along with Mia Love, the first Black woman elected to Congress and a former Utah representative.

During the interview, Love spoke about how she was inspired by Cannon, saying, “She helped pave the way for women to get involved in politics.” PBS also added, “‘It has proved to the world that woman is not a helpmate by the fireside, but she can, when allowed to do so, become most powerful in the affairs of the government.’ On Nov. 3, 1896, Martha Hughes Cannon became the country’s first female state senator.”

According to the Church News, Cannon ran for state senate as a Democrat while her husband ran as a Republican. She won.

Before and after her senate career, Cannon, as a fierce advocate for women’s suffrage and an expert on health — especially women’s health — became instrumental in promoting public health practices for women that were innovative, according to the interview published by PBS. She is still noted today for her contributions to public health.

Cannon is one of many women who helped Utah become the second state to grant women the right to vote and the first state in which a woman voted.

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