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A Powerhouse

Martha (Mattie) Hughes Cannon, 1857-1932

Martha Hughes Cannon

Martha Hughes Cannon in 1892.

In short: 

Mattie Cannon led an extraordinary life of travel, adventure, and controversy.  She received her degree from the University of Michigan, and became a doctor and crusader for public health and hygiene.  She also was a polygamous wife—her husband’s fourth—but she did not take a back seat to him.  Mattie ran against her own husband for the state senate and defeated him by more than 2,500 votes. This made her the first female state senator in the United States!

More of the story:

How do you get to be a doctor?
Mattie Cannon, as her friends called her, wanted to be a doctor from the time she was young. Utah Territory didn’t have many doctors then, and Brigham Young encouraged many women to go east and train to be doctors.

Mattie’s family couldn’t afford to send her to school, so the LDS church “called” her to a job as a typesetter for the Deseret News. This, along with teaching elementary school, helped her save money for college. 

After earning a degree in chemistry from the University of Deseret, she went to medical school in Michigan.

She graduated at age 23, then she got a pharmacy degree in Philadelphia. And, because she wanted to become a strong voice for health issues, she also studied oratory (the art of speaking).

Getting married—and running from the law.
After she returned to Salt Lake City, she met Angus Cannon. He was 23 years older than she and a polygamist. With a belief in polygamy as a religious principle, she married him--as his fourth wife. 

Because the U.S. had passed laws outlawing polygamy, federal marshals were in Utah arresting men who had plural wives. So after Mattie gave birth to her first daughter, she escaped to Europe.

She did this to protect her husband and also to protect the fathers of the babies she had delivered. She knew that as a doctor she could be called to testify in court that babies had been born to polygamous fathers, and she didn’t want to be responsible for sending these men to jail.

Mattie didn't like England much, and she longed to come home. In 1890 the LDS church published the Manifesto, which ended the church’s public support for polygamy. Mattie no longer had to hide, so she came back to Utah. 

First woman state senator!

Martha Hughes Cannon

Martha Hughes Cannon with one of her baby daughters.

Mattie jumped into politics when she returned.  She was a staunch suffragist (in other words, she believed that women should have the right to vote). 

Investigate: When did U.S. women get the vote? Hint: it was long after Utah women could vote!

She also believed women should be educated and get involved in public matters. She said:

"You give me a woman who thinks about something besides cook stoves and wash tubs and baby flannels, and I'll show you, nine times out of ten, a successful mother."

She also defended polygamy. She explained that being one of several wives gave a woman more freedom in life!

In 1896, Mattie agreed to run for State Senate District 6 as a Democrat. But her husband and a good friend were running for the same seat on the Republican ticket!

That race was an “at large” race, which meant that there could be many winners.  But in the end, Mattie and four other Democrats won. Her husband lost.

Mattie was the first woman to be elected to any state senate in the United States. In the senate she did not simply do what her husband told her to do, as some people thought she would.

As a senator, Mattie sponsored bills promoting:

Working for healthy people.
After leaving the senate, Mattie worked with the new Board of Health.  She was concerned about public health and hygiene. She wanted to stop the spread of contagious diseases. 

In 1906 Mattie moved to Los Angeles, because she thought that living at sea level would improve her own health.  She continued to practice medicine there, in the orthopedic department of the Graves Clinic, until she died in 1932.