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Strange Bedfellows – Polygamy + Suffrage

By Linda Ulleseit
February 11, 2020

Though it would take another fifty years for Congress to pass the 19th Amendment, in 1870 the Utah Territorial Legislature took a gamble on women’s suffrage. On Valentine’s Day of that year, the first woman cast her vote in a modern American election. 


The territorial legislators were primarily Latter-day Saints who believed that, if given the right to vote, women would show their support for polygamy—or, as the Mormons called it, “plural marriage.” Those not of the faith figured that once Utah women were given the right to vote, they would hasten its demise.


The Mormons’ gamble paid off. The enfranchised Utah women defied outsiders’ expectations and defended the right to govern and marry as they pleased. Through public rallies and widely distributed publications, they championed their way of living to demonstrate they were not the oppressed, helpless and enslaved women many anti-polygamists claimed. (Though privately, their feelings about plural marriage were more complex.)


The introductory editorial in the 1872 inaugural edition of The Woman’s Exponent, a Salt Lake City based  newspaper written by and for “Utah Ladies” proclaimed: “The women of Utah today occupy a position which attracts the attention of intelligent thinking men and women everywhere. They are engaged in the practical solution of some of the greatest social and moral problems of the age, and a powerful interest is manifested throughout the United States.”


Indeed, the Utah women’s right to vote attracted the attention of prominent suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The practice of polygamy was frowned upon by many of these leading activists, but an unexpected alliance developed due to the Latter-day Saints’ embrace of women’s suffrage.


“I would rather be a woman among Mormons with the ballot in my hands than among Gentiles [those not of the Mormon faith] without the ballot,” said Stanton.


Eventually, the prevailing anti-polygamist sentiment in Congress stripped suffrage from Utah women with the passage of the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887. They were not re-enfranchised until Utah was granted statehood in 1896 (after the Mormon church officially abandoned polygamy.)


The woman who cast the first vote was Seraph Young, Brigham Young’s 23-year-old grandniece. A schoolteacher, she arrived at Council Hall early on her way to work. Walking past a brass band and candidates giving stump speeches, she voted in a municipal election. She would be the first of more than two dozen women to vote that Valentine’s Day.


This Valentine’s Day, a “remembrance walk” to commemorate their votes is scheduled in Salt Lake City. Participants are encouraged to wear purple, white or yellow (suffrage colors). They will return to Council Hall to honor the 150th anniversary of American women first voting under an equal suffrage law.


Sex and power are no strangers, but polygamy and women’s suffrage made for strange but significant bedfellows in the Wild, Wild West.

Linda Ulleseit
Written by Linda Ulleseit

Linda Ulleseit writes award-winning heritage fiction set in the United States. She is a member of Historical Novel Society, Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and Women Writing the West as well as a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. Get in touch with her on Instagram (lulleseit) and Facebook (Linda Ulleseit or SHINE with Paper Lantern Writers).

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