“I am willing and not afraid to tread the paths of my destiny, whether they be rugged or whether they be smooth. I have no regrets.”

– Martha Hughes Cannon

Martha Hughes Cannon’s Story

Martha Hughes Cannon was born in Wales on July 1, 1857. Her family converted to the new religion of Mormonism, and in 1860, emigrated to the United States seeking religious freedom. Along their long journey by ship, train, and wagon, Hughes’ younger sister died of typhoid. Hughes’ father died three days after they arrived in the Mormon settlements of Salt Lake City in the Utah territory. Throughout her childhood, Hughes saw many people around her die of typhoid, tuberculosis, and scarlet fever, infectious diseases which were rampant across the country at the time, likely inspiring her decision to become a doctor and a public health advocate. 

At age 15, Hughes became a typesetter for The Woman’s Exponent, a newspaper printed by women members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While working for the newspaper, she learned about current affairs, including that the University of Michigan had opened its medical school to women, and she made plans to attend. Hughes would walk six miles each way to work to save money for her education, and attended classes at Deseret University at night.

With the blessing and encouragement of the Church, Hughes went to medical school at the University of Michigan. From 1880 to 1882, she attended a graduate medical program at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was the only female in a class of 75 students. Passionate about teaching her community about public health, Hughes also attended a leading school for public speaking. 

After graduating, Hughes returned to Salt Lake City and developed a thriving private practice. In 1882, she became the head resident physician at Deseret Hospital, a hospital established by a group of Mormon women, which trained women nurses and midwives. There, Hughes fell in love with Angus Cannon, who served on the board of the hospital and was a prominent church leader. In 1884, Hughes became his fourth wife, marrying him in secret, as the nation was in the midst of a crackdown against polygamy

In 1882, the U.S. Congress passed the Edmunds Act, which outlawed polygamy and made it a crime punishable by five years in prison. When Hughes Cannon found out she was pregnant, she went into hiding to avoid testifying against her husband. She lived in hiding for two years in England among other Mormons in exile on what became known as “The Underground.” 

In 1888, after returning to Utah, Hughes Cannon established the state’s first nurse’s training school. She also became a leader in the women’s suffrage movement, and spoke at conferences across the country, alongside prominent suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. 

With the Manifesto of 1890, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially repudiated polygamy, paving the way for Utah to achieve statehood. In 1896, Hughes Cannon campaigned for a seat on Utah’s first elected senate, as a Democrat. Her husband ran as a Republican. Democrats won the most votes, and so on November 3, 1896, Martha Hughes Cannon defeated her husband on the ballot, and became the country’s first female state senator. 

While in office, Hughes Cannon focused on legislation to improve Utah’s public health. She immediately established Utah’s first board of health, through which she created laws to restrict the spread of epidemics, control water and air pollution, and create safer work environments for women and girls. Hughes Cannon also established Utah’s first school for the deaf and blind. While serving both as a senator and on the board of health, she continued treating patients at her private practice. 

When Hughes Cannon became pregnant with her third child, she retired from politics to avoid further scandal and the arrest of her husband. After the birth of the child, her husband, who by then maintained illegal polygamous marriages with six women, was arrested.

Hughes Cannon moved to Los Angeles to live with her daughter. There, she joined the UCLA medical program, practiced medicine at a clinic for the poor, and studied treatment for drug addiction. She died of cancer in Los Angeles on July 10, 1932, at the age of 75. 

Featured in the Film

Jennifer Reeder

Jennifer Reeder is the nineteenth-century women’s history specialist at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints church history department. She earned her PhD in American history from George Mason University with an emphasis in women and religious history, and memory and material culture. She has compiled books containing the words of Latter-day Saint women, including At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses of Latter-day Saint Women and Witness of Women: Firsthand Experiences and Testimonies of the Restoration. She has also worked with Better Days 2020, an organization celebrating and educating the public about Utah woman suffrage from 1870 to today.

Mia B. Love

Mia B. Love is a former City Council member and Mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah. In 2014, Mia was the first female black Republican elected to the U.S. Congress representing the State of Utah. She is currently a CNN Correspondent and enjoys speaking around the country encouraging Americans to get involved in their communities. A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Love is a wife, a mother of three children, and a proud American.

Her Life & Times

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Primary Sources

Letters From Exile: The Correspondence of Martha Hughes Cannon and Angus M. Cannon, 1886–1888, Edited by Constance L. Lieber and John Sillito (February 1888): https://archive.org/stream/LettersFromExileMarthaAndAngusCannon/Letters%20from%20Exile-Martha%20and%20Angus%20Cannon_djvu.txt

Books & Sources

Pioneer, Polygamist, Politician: The Life of Martha Hughes Cannon, Mari Graña (TwoDot, 2009) https://www.amazon.com/Pioneer-Polygamist-Politician-Martha-Hughes/dp/0762752726

Women in Utah History: Paradigm or Paradox by Jessie Embry and Lois Kelley (University Press of Colorado; Utah State University Press) https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/j.ctt4cgr1m.4.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A6fd9ed73b3be41ab55f340be0f261650 

Between Two Fires: Women on the Underground of Mormon Polygamy by Kimberly Jensen James, Journal of Mormon History , Vol. 8 (1981) https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/23285872.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A8f2c563969a03c66590407edf8599ac6

Utah Women: Pioneers, Poets & Politicians by Emily Brooksby Wheeler (Arcadia Publishing, 2019).

At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women Kindle Edition by Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook (The Church Historians Press, 2017) https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B06XDDK5KL/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tkin_p1_i1

Her Quiet Revolution: A Novel of Martha Hughes Cannon: Frontier Doctor and First Female State Senator. Author: Marianne Monson (IndieBound, 2020) https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781629726090

FOR KIDS: Martha Hughes Cannon – America’s First Female State Senator, Drew Conrad (Splashread, 2021) https://splashread.com/martha-hughes-cannon-americas-first-female-state-senator/

Online Resources

Utah Women’s History: Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon, First Female State Senator 1857-1932: https://www.utahwomenshistory.org/bios/marthahughescannon/ 

MarthaHughesCannon.com: Introducing Mattie (Martha Hughes Cannon): https://marthahughescannon.com/introducing-mattie/

National Women’s History Museum: Martha Hughes Cannon: https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/martha-hughes-cannon

Better Days 2020: Utah Women’s History: https://www.utahwomenshistory.org/

Better Days 2020: #SendMartha: https://www.betterdays2020.com/sendmartha

Deseret News: How a Mormon Pioneer Woman Became the Nation’s First Female State Senator By Lauren Fields: https://www.deseret.com/2017/11/3/20635785/how-a-mormon-pioneer-woman-became-the-nation-s-first-female-state-senator#martha-hughes-cannon-was-the-first-woman-elected-to-a-state-senate-in-the-united-states-she-was-a-democrat-and-defeated-her-husband-a-republican

Send Martha: “About My Mother: Martha Hughes Cannon” by Elizabeth Cannon Porter McCrimmon (*Some of the information in this source is contested): https://www.sendmartha.com/about-my-mother-martha

PBS Utah Documentary: Martha Hughes Cannon: https://www.pbsutah.org/whatson/pbs-utah-productions/martha-hughes-cannon

National Park Service: Utah and the 19th Amendment: https://www.nps.gov/articles/utah-women-s-history.htm 

WQCS: Power Of The Past: Retelling Utah’s Suffragist History To Empower Modern Women: https://news.wqcs.org/post/power-past-retelling-utahs-suffragette-history-empower-modern-women

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