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Utah Women Lead: Emmeline B. Wells And The Importance Of A Vote

Photo of the illustration of Emmeline B. Wells
Brooke Smart, illustrator
Courtesy of Better Days 2020
A series of illustrations currently on display at the Utah State Capitol building recognizes historical women who fought for equal rights and representations.

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the first time a woman cast a vote in the United States — right here in Utah. To commemorate the occasion, KUER is exploring how three Utah women worked to further the cause of equal rights. 

In our first conversation, Neylan McBaine, the executive director of the nonprofit Better Days 2020, told KUER’s Caroline Ballard the story of suffragist Emmeline B. Wells, who championed the women’s right to vote in Utah.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: Can you tell me about Emmeline B. Wells?

Neylan McBaine: Emmeline B. Wells was Utah’s leading suffragist. She came across the plains with the Mormon pioneers and arrived in the Salt Lake Valley when she was around 17 years old. She came of age here but found her own voice around time the Utah Territorial Legislature was considering granting women the right to vote.

One of the reasons that the Utah Territorial Legislature was considering granting women the right to vote was because there were pressures from the eastern federal government over polygamy, which was the practice of plural marriage that some members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were practicing, including Emmeline. She was the sixth plural wife of Salt Lake City's mayor, Daniel Wells. 

CB: Do we know why Emmeline felt compelled to work towards equal rights for women? 

NB: Emmeline had a really unusual upbringing in Massachusetts. She went to an all-girls school and was really well educated. She also experienced the death of her father at a young age, and her mother was left to raise children on her own. 

That's a very common story for some of the early suffragists, where they saw the 19th century plight of the single mother, or even the single woman, who was limited in her ability to provide for herself and for her family. 

Emmeline, like many of the plural wives here in early Utah, felt like she wasn't able to speak for herself. She felt like she was being spoken for by the media and by the federal government, and so she was one of a movement at that time who sought to speak for themselves. 

We don't know for sure that she voted in the first election that American women participated in in 1870, but it's very likely because of her high standing in the city society. 

Emmeline went on in the decades after that to become Utah's leading suffragist, as Utah women had their vote revoked by the federal government and then sought to regain it in 1895 and 1896.

During that time, while Utah was working towards statehood and trying to get the right to vote back for its women, Emmeline became a really good friend of Susan B. Anthony. 

In fact, Susan B. Anthony and several of the suffrage leaders from the East came here to Utah. Emmeline hosted them and became dear friends with them, as did many of the early Utah suffragists. 

On her 80th birthday, Susan B. Anthony was given a bolt of the famous Utah silk that the women here made at the end of the 19th century. She had a black dress made out of it and declared it her favorite piece of clothing because it was made by free women. 

Emmeline also edited one of the longest running suffrage newspapers in the country called The Woman's Exponent. She edited it for 40 years, and most of her thousands of editorials were about giving women the confidence to think for themselves, to advocate for themselves and to claim that right to have a voice in the public sphere. 

After Utah entered the nation as a suffrage state, Emmeline went on to work towards the passing of the 19th Amendment, and then towards the international suffrage movement, as well.

Emmeline did live to see the 19th Amendment ratified in 1920, and died a year later.

She was at the very beginning and at this other important inflection point of the 19th Amendment, and saw that whole 50-year span from her front-row seat. 

CB: What can we see of Emmeline’s legacy in Salt Lake and in Utah?

NB: Suffrage was never about just voting. It was the movement in American history that opened the door for women to participate in public life — move out of the domestic sphere and actually have a role in our civic dialogue and in their broader public communities. 

And so when we talk about the act of casting a ballot, that's, of course, significant. But for people like Emmeline, it was always about claiming their voice and participating in the public sphere. That's a legacy that we all enjoy today.

Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow her on Twitter @cballardnews

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
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