On Martha Hughes Cannon

Martha Hughes Cannon was a notable, if complicated, woman in Utah history. Although somewhat forgotten (partly due to her son burning all her journals, at her request), she has become more widely remembered in recent years. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog, From the Desk, biographer Constance L. Lieber shared some of her thoughts on this fascinating individual. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.

To start, Constance L. Lieber explained some of who Martha (Mattie) Hughes Cannon was:

Martha Hughes Cannon, 1857-1932 was a Latter-day Saint physician and politician, and the first female state senator in the United States. She was the fourth (of six) wives of Angus Munn Cannon, a brother of Church apostle George Q. Cannon and president of the Salt Lake Stake.

Mattie is known as a doctor, a state senator, a Latter-day Saint, and a suffragist.

Perhaps the best-known story of Mattie’s life is her election to the Utah State Senate on the Democrat ticket while her husband was running as a Republican, though it wasn’t a head-to-head contest of wife against husband, as it is sometimes made out to be:

No one candidate was running directly against another one; they were all candidates at large. Any configuration of candidates might have been elected. Martha Cannon and Angus might have both been elected. Or neither of them. Or (as happened) only one of them. …

There was no campaigning as we know it today. At least Mattie said she didn’t canvass for votes, but stayed close to the Democratic Party ticket and did what the Party asked her to do, went where they asked her to go, and said what they asked her to say.

The local press tried very hard to get Mattie and Angus to feud (or debate) publicly, but neither rose to the bait. The general opinion was that Angus would win, as he was a more public figure through his position as Salt Lake State President.

Mattie won because she was running as a Democrat and the Democratic platform—William Jennings Bryant and the silver standard—swept the country. She received the least votes of all the Democrats; still, it was more than any of the Republicans.

We do not know what her personal reaction to her victory was because her journals were destroyed. And if she wrote to Angus during this time, he did not save those letters.

As a state senator, Mattie helped to pass legislation that supported public health and safety, but her time as a politician ended when she became pregnant. The United States public was okay with polygamists providing for their plural wives and children, but not with them providing their wives with children, so her pregnancy was a scandal.

As a plural wife, Mattie found that her life was complicated and stressful:

Martha … wrote Angus that had they been married and been having children in the 1850s and 1860s, as he and his first three wives did, what she termed an “ordinary plurality,” their married life, or “extraordinary plurality” would have been very different.

Since she was married at the height of the persecutions of the polygamists and because she and her husband were prominent members of Church and Utah society, the federal marshals gave them no rest.

They were essentially hunted down and spent much of their time dodging the officials, going from safe house to safe house, and, in Mattie’s case, going into exile.

She had to close and then reopen her medical practice several times, which made it impossible for her to earn the income she needed to sustain the lifestyle she expected. Angus was unable to make up that difference in income, which added to their personal difficulties.

This compounded with health issues to take a toll on her:

Her mental health issues appear to have begun upon her return to Salt Lake City after her education. She writes her friend Barbara that she had what sounds like a mental breakdown, whereupon her physician forbade any “brain work.”

But Mattie was not one to take such advice; much more her tendency was towards overwork. She had a similar breakdown as she was preparing to leave her exile in England and return to Utah.

She had a difficult menopause complicated with some sort of heart disease, probably congestive heart failure. As a physician, Mattie could recognize the symptoms of mental illness—depression and anxiety.

She would deal with these medical issues throughout the remainder of her life, while she retreated from the public sphere.

For more on Martha Hughes Cannon, including some about her relationship with Emmeline B. Wells and others, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk to read the full interview with Constance L. Lieber.