Martha Hughes Cannon
Martha “Mattie” Maria Hughes Cannon was a physician, a woman’s rights suffragist, and the first female Utah senator in the territory, the first in the country.
Cannon was born near Llandudno, Wales, on July 1, 1857. Her parents, Peter and Elizabeth Evans Hughes, moved their family to the Salt Lake Valley in 1860 when they converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Peter Hughes died three days after arriving in Salt Lake, and his widow married James Patton Paul. Mattie was close to her stepfather and sometimes went by the last name of Paul.
From an early age, Cannon wanted to study medicine. She attended the University of Deseret and worked as a schoolteacher and typesetter for the “Women’s Exponent” to fund her education. She graduated with a degree in chemistry in 1875. She attended medical school at the University of Michigan from 1878 to 1881 and briefly practiced medicine in Algonac, Michigan.
In 1882 Cannon earned a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from the Auxiliary School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania, and also earned a diploma from the National School of Elocution and Oratory. She returned to Utah and was resident physician at the Deseret Hospital from 1882 to 1886.
Cannon met her future husband, Angus Cannon, also a physician and superintendent of the hospital, while working for Deseret Hospital. She married him on October 6, 1884. She was the fourth of his six plural wives. She and Angus, who was older by twenty-three years, had three children. Following the birth of their first child, Cannon and her baby began a two-year voluntary exile to avoid providing federal marshals proof of her polygamist marriage to Angus and to avoid having to testify against others who were practicing plural marriage. She felt strongly about not sending fathers to jail for five years while they had dependent children to feed. It was a time when many polygamous families went into hiding due to legal threats of severing their families. Cannon and her daughter lived in England, Switzerland, and Michigan before returning to Utah in June 1888.
Cannon practiced medicine in Salt Lake City and taught nursing courses at a school established at Deseret Hospital. She became an advocate for public health and women’s suffrage. She attended the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 as part of a delegation of Utah women.
In a highly publicized election, Cannon was one of five Democrats to run as candidate for territory senator from Salt Lake County. Her husband ran for the same office as one of the Republican candidates. She was elected on November 3, 1896, becoming the first woman ever elected to that office in the United States. Cannon served two terms in the Senate. Though the election caused a temporary rift with her husband, they eventually reconciled. She delivered her third child in 1899 while in office.
While senator, she established a state board of health, spearheaded funding for speech and hearing-impaired students, and established a law regulating working conditions for women and girls.
After her political service ended on January 13, 1901, she served on the Utah Board of Health and on the board of the Utah State School for the Deaf and Dumb. She divided her time between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles in her later years. Her husband died on June 7, 1915, in Utah. By the early 1920s she settled permanently near her son in California, where she worked for the Graves Clinic. She died in California on July 10, 1932.
In 1986, the Martha Hughes Cannon Health Building in Salt Lake City was dedicated in her honor. An eight-foot bronze statue of her was erected in the Utah Capitol rotunda in 1996, marking 100 years since her groundbreaking election. After the Utah Capitol rededication, the statue was moved to the foyer of the Utah State Senate building on Utah Capitol Hill.
In 2020, Utah celebrated 100 years of women voting with the passage of the 19th amendment. Women in Utah have had the right to vote for 150 years. Martha Hughes Cannon was remembered as as a trailblazer and leader.