“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, which were rampant across the country at the time, and these losses likely inspired 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 activists, 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 the 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 Woman’s Suffrage Association, and spoke at suffrage conferences across the country, alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
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 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.
As anti-polygamy legislation in Utah had outlawed polygamy for Church officials, and so 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. After he died, 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 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 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 great State of Utah. She is currently a CNN Correspondent and enjoys speaking around the country encouraging Americans to get involved in their communities. Mia is a wife, a mother of three children, and a proud American.