Power Of The Past: Retelling Utah's Suffragist History To Empower Modern Women Women in Utah became the first in America to vote under an equal suffrage law on Feb. 14, 1870. There are celebrations, but it means confronting the state's uncomfortable polygamy history, too.
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Power Of The Past: Retelling Utah's Suffragist History To Empower Modern Women

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Power Of The Past: Retelling Utah's Suffragist History To Empower Modern Women

Power Of The Past: Retelling Utah's Suffragist History To Empower Modern Women

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

An unusual plan is brewing in Utah to get more women elected to public office. The women of Utah were among the first to vote and hold office in America. Advocates hope that retelling this history will encourage Utah women today to run and encourage people to vote for them. But Utah history also has its dark side. Dianna Douglas reports.

DIANNA DOUGLAS, BYLINE: A few years ago, Neylan McBaine decided to move from New York City to Salt Lake City. She was shocked by the negative reactions she got in New York, especially how people said it was going to affect her three girls.

NEYLAN MCBAINE: You know, that they would have no examples of empowered modern women to look up to.

DOUGLAS: Ready to prove all the haters wrong, McBaine moved to Utah anyway. Now she's trying to change what people believe about the state.

MCBAINE: The more we are told that we are the worst place for women, the more that becomes a reality.

DOUGLAS: She started a grassroots organization called Better Days 2020 to retell what Utah women were doing 150 years ago - specifically, pioneering the right to vote.

At a ceremony on Wednesday, Governor Gary Herbert signed a bill honoring the Utah women who were first in America to vote.

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GARY HERBERT: Today, we celebrate all those women - those who helped with the women's suffrage movement, those who trailblazed for the rest of us to follow.

DOUGLAS: Wyoming women were enfranchised first, but Utah had an election first. Why were Utah women - at least those who were not Native American - voting 50 years before everyone else? It all started with a hot take from The New York Times in 1868.

LAUREL THATCHER ULRICH: (Reading) Female suffrage might perhaps be tried with novel effect in the territory of Utah. Perhaps it would result in casting out polygamy and Mormonism in general.

DOUGLAS: This is Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich reading from a Times editorial.

When this idea reached Utah, people loved it. But rather than casting out polygamy, Utah women hoped that voting would finally prove that they weren't brainwashed but had chosen the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormonism, willingly.

ULRICH: They wanted people to know that they were intelligent, that they understood their rights as citizens and that they didn't want to be treated this way.

DOUGLAS: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is famous for writing the sentence...

ULRICH: Well-behaved women seldom make history.

DOUGLAS: I bring this up because Utah women weren't behaving like Victorian women in multiple ways. They had joined a radical religious movement. Some had married polygamously. And on Valentine's Day in 1870, they started voting. And herein lies the problem with excavating women's history in Utah. It can jeopardize all the work people have done to distance themselves from polygamy. Here's Republican state Senator Deidre Henderson.

DEIDRE HENDERSON: Utah early on understood that women brought a perspective that was needed to public life.

DOUGLAS: Still, she's just one of six women in the state Senate. She wrote that bill honoring Utah's early suffragists and included a resolution encouraging Utah women to participate more in civic life. Why is she meeting any resistance to this?

HENDERSON: It is because of polygamy, and it's a part of our past that we're embarrassed about that we don't like. It's really uncomfortable.

DOUGLAS: She hopes that 150 years is far enough in the past that people can stop focusing on how Utah women once married and start celebrating the ways that they led the charge for equal voting rights.

For NPR News, I'm Dianna Douglas.

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