Martha Hughes was born in Wales in 1857. Her parents were recent converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, immigrating to Utah when Martha was four years old in 1861. Martha’s father, Peter Hughes, died of consumption just days after they arrived. Her mother remarried about a year later and the family settled in Salt Lake City.
When Martha grew up, she accomplished her lifelong dream of becoming a doctor. When she was sixteen she started attending University of Deseret (now the University of Utah) to get her chemistry degree. While she attended school she worked as a typesetter for the Deseret News, familiarizing her with local politics.
After she finished her chemistry degree she went to medical school at the University of Michigan. It was unusual for women to become doctors at this time. There were a few all-female medical schools, but for the most part, medical programs did not admit women. However, Martha attended the University of Michigan, which had both men and women in the program. After she finished her medical degree she went to the University of Pennsylvania to get a degree in pharmaceuticals. She was the only female in the program. She simultaneously attended the National School of Elocution and Oratory for a degree in public speaking.
Upon returning to Utah in 1882 she worked at the Hospital of Deseret (now the LDS hospital). There she met her husband, who was the superintendent. Angus Cannon was a prominent Mormon who already had three wives. Polygamy, the practice of having more than one wife, was practiced by the Mormon church in the 19th century. Polygamy had already been made a felony by the Edmunds Act passed by Congress two years before, but Mormons were still practicing it, citing religious freedom. Martha married Angus in the Salt Lake Temple in a religious ceremony in 1884.
Cannon gave birth to her first child in 1886 and spent some time abroad in Europe to avoid being arrested for her marriage. She returned to Utah when the warrant for her arrest had expired, and set up a nursing school.
The Edmunds-Tucker Act passed and the Mormon church banned plural marriages officially in 1890. The Edmunds-Tucker Act also took away Utah women’s right to vote, but the State Constitution enfranchised women and gave them the right to run for office for the first time when ratified (by men) in 1895.
Martha Hughes Cannon ran for the state senate the first term after the state constitution was ratified in 1896. Also on the open ticket was her husband, Angus Cannon, as well as a well-known suffragette Emmaline B Wells. Martha won by a large margin and became the first woman senator in the United States.
Her first bill was an Act for Female Health. This required employers to provide women a place to sit when they had a lull in work. It passed in 1897. For context, the federal Adamson Act, which established eight hour work days, was not passed until 1916, almost a full twenty years later.
Her second bill was to create the state School for the Deaf and Blind. The school is still in operation today.
She also introduced a bill to create the Board of Health in Utah. It passed, and she served as its chairman for many years.
She delivered a speech to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1898 while she was in office. The title was ‘Women’s Suffrage in Utah.’ She defended female suffrage and described how Utah benefited from it:
“None of the unpleasant results which were predicted have occurred. The contentions in families, the tarnishment of woman’s charm, the destruction of ideals, have all been found to be but the ghosts of unfounded prejudice. ‘The divinity which doth hedge woman about like subtle perfume’ has not been displaced. Women have quietly assumed the added power which always was theirs by right, and with the grace and ready adaptation to circumstances peculiar to the women of America, they have so conducted themselves that they have gained admiration and respect while losing none of their old-time prestige.”Martha Hughes Cannon, “Woman Suffrage in Utah,” Church History Catalog.
Martha Hughes Cannon served only one term. She gave birth to her third child in 1899 while she was still in office. This was proof that she and her husband were still participating in their polygamous marriage, and he was arrested and fined. Newspapers emphasized the scandal, especially Cannon’s position as the first female Senator. She decided not to run for office again.
After her husband died in 1915, she moved to California to be with her son. She died in Eagle Rock, California at the age of 75 on July 10, 1932.
In 2018 a statue of Martha was selected to be one of Utah’s two on display in the U.S. Capitol Building, cementing her legacy of service to the people of Utah.
Baker, Jennifer. “Martha Hughes Cannon.” National Women’s History Museum. Accessed July 9, 2020. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/martha-hughes-cannon
Cannon, Martha Hughes. “Woman Suffrage in Utah.” Church History Catalog. https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets?id=0c6ab85e-8707-4f9f-8c4d-366b48bcc084&crate=0&index=4
Clark, Rebekah. “Martha Hughes Cannon, First Female State Senator.” Better Days 2020. Accessed July, 9, 2020. https://www.utahwomenshistory.org/bios/marthahughescannon/
PBS Utah Productions. “Martha Hughes Cannon.” PBS Utah. Accessed July 9, 2020. https://www.pbsutah.org/whatson/pbs-utah-productions/martha-hughes-cannon
Stevens, Taylor. “Utah leaders unveil design of new Martha Hughes Cannon statue heading to D. C. next year.” The Salt Lake Tribune, September 20, 2019. https://www.sltrib.com/news/politics/2019/09/21/utah-leaders-unveil/