A legislative bill this session proposes a statue of Martha Hughes Cannon to be included in National Statuary Hall
By Neylan McBaine
Statues can seem like an old-fashioned sort of thing. Why should we care about a material as old as the earth being formed into a shape through a process almost as old as the civilized world? But bronze or marble or plastic or concrete, it is the image - and what it represents - that encodes the values of a culture into permanent form. It is the care we take to immortalize something longer lasting than ourselves that matters. This is why we should care what, and more importantly who, represents Utah in National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol building.
National Statuary Hall is a series of chambers in the United States Capitol building in Washington D.C. devoted to prominent Americans. Each state is allowed to have two statues, for a total of 100. Utah's statues are Brigham Young, and, for the past 33 years, Philo T. Farnsworth. States are allowed to rotate their statues every ten years. So it's time to send Martha Hughes Cannon to D.C.
Why Martha? Martha "Mattie" Hughes Cannon was a skilled physician, ardent suffragist, progressive public health reformer, and most notably, the first female state senator in the United States. She received four degrees before the age of 25, including from the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania where she was the only woman in her class.
Upon settling in Utah after her schooling, Mattie established a private medical practice and became the resident physician at the woman-run Deseret Hospital (now a part of Intermountain Healthcare).
In 1896, after Utah attained statehood, Mattie ran for a position in the new state legislature. Notably, she ran as a Democrat against her polygamous husband, Angus M. Cannon, who ran as a Republican. According to the Salt Lake Herald at the time, "She is the better man of the two," and Mattie won the election and became the first female state senator elected anywhere in the United States.
Her medical background prompted her to focus on public health legislation, and she revolutionized health services in Utah during her four years in the legislature. She lived what she preached: “[L]et us not waste our talents in the cauldron of modern nothingness, but strive to become women of intellect, and endeavor to do some little good while we live in this protracted gleam called life.” And while she was remarkable, she was also indicative of legions of Utah women of her time who were civically active, ambitious and innovative.
Images in our public sphere both reflect what is important to us as a people, and define what we value. Better Days 2020, the organization supporting Sen. Weiler's resolution and carrying out the creation of the statue, is part of a valuable movement that is identifying gaps between what we see in our public iconography, and what we value and hold dear. If we truly do value women, their contributions to public and private life and to our modern culture, then we should have powerful visual confirmations of that value in our public images. Currently in National Statuary Hall, only nine of the one hundred statues are women. A growing investment in women's history is uncovering that, even though women haven't been part of the public dialogue for most of history, they have still made important contributions that should be celebrated.
Conversely, the images and symbols we see everyday become our values. According to the well-known adage, we can't be what we can't see. When we promote public images of women, we normalize the expectation that women are vital to civic development. Women don't hesitate to reach great heights because we see those who have forged the paths already. As decision-makers and leaders shaping new generations, our choice of images for the public sphere help craft the kinds of character, accomplishments and contributions we value from our public servants.
Today, Utah has largely forgotten the tremendous legacy of women's advocacy left to us by Mattie Cannon and many others. Despite our "firsts" in the political realm, we now have some of the fewest female elected officials of any state in the country. Despite being the first to cast ballots in the United States and territories, we now have some of the lowest female voter participation of any state. Despite the tremendous educational credentials of our foremothers, we now struggle to have women graduate from college at the national rate. We need symbols in our public iconography that remind us of what kind of women we used to value and what kind of people Utah women can be in the future.
In February, Senator Todd Weiler will be proposing a resolution to the state legislature to send a privately funded statue of Martha Hughes Cannon to D.C. in the year 2020. Why 2020? Because that is the year the whole country will be celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment, granting women across the country the right to vote. Utah's women were the first to cast ballots in the nation, in 1870, and so it is appropriate that Utah plays a part in celebrating this historic milestone nationwide. When Martha arrives in D.C. in 2020, she will be carrying on her bronze shoulders the hope and promises of her generation, the bright legacy that is Utah women's history, and the promise of an even better future for women.
A version of this article appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune on Sunday January 28, 2018.