The Life and Legacy of Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon - Utah Senator

Megan M. Monson, Associate Editor
10 June 2024

Wife, mother, surgeon, senator, suffragette—Martha Hughes Cannon's legacy provides a lasting example of passion and determination.

“Women, as a rule, appreciate their freedom and are willing to assume their responsibilities,”1 said Martha Hughes Cannon in her speech to the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives in 1898. The former typesetter had come a long way from her Utah home to address the issue of Women’s Suffrage with one of the country’s highest governing bodies.

Martha, herself, valued freedom and responsibility. A woman of passion and frontier grit, she was an educated surgeon, plural wife, and suffragette. She also benefitted more from the women’s voting rights afforded in the Utah State Constitution than many of her contemporaries when, in 1896, she became the first woman state senator in the United States–beating her own husband in the man’s game of electoral politics.

The Early Life of Martha Hughes Cannon

Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon was born on July 1, 1857, in Wales to Peter Hughes and Elizabeth Evans.2 Her family joined the Church and made their way to the Utah Territory.

Watching her baby sister and father pass away, she became acquainted with loss and hardship. The experience also planted a seed that would later grow into a prominent career in medicine.3

As a teen, “Mattie” worked under Emmeline B. Wells as a typesetter for the Women’s Exponent.4 Every day she saw men and women using their voices to teach and effect change all around her.

Martha’s Education, Medical Career, and Marriage

One day, while working, she noticed an announcement that the University of Michigan had opened its medical program to women. From that moment on, Mattie was determined. After finishing a degree in Chemistry at the University of Deseret (renamed University of Utah in 1892), she attended medical school at the University of Michigan. As the only woman in a class of 75 students, she attended class with her male colleagues but was forced to sit apart from them to not distract them. Mattie, however, was never distracted and earned several degrees in just four years: a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Deseret, 1878; a medical degree from the University of Michigan, 1880; and a bachelor’s degree in oratory from the National School of Elocution and Oratory, 1882.5

After her schooling, Dr. Hughes returned home to Utah where she became the youngest head surgeon at the newly established Deseret Hospital, an all-female-run medical institution.6 She enjoyed helping patients and teaching others. She also enjoyed the company and affection of Angus Munn Cannon, a hospital board member. Angus already had three wives and was over 20 years older, but they fell in love. Entering a plural marriage was a serious offense under the Edmunds Act of 1882, so they married in secret in 1884.7

Angus was eventually arrested and, to avoid testifying against him, Martha went into hiding overseas with their baby. She did this again when her second child was born. “You could never realize my present situation unless you were suddenly banished 7,000 miles,” she wrote. “My nervous system has received a shock that it will never entirely recover from, I fear.”8

Advocacy for Women’s Rights and Political Career

In response to plural marriages, the federal government revoked the voting rights of all Utah women in 1887. Soon after, Martha came out of hiding, determined to advocate for women’s rights as an active member of the Utah Women’s Suffrage Association. “No privileged class either of sex, wealth, or descent should be allowed to arise or exist; all persons should have the same legal right to be the equal of every other, if they can,” she said at a suffrage event on Temple Square.9

In 1896, nearly a decade later, Utah was finally accepted into the Union as the 45th state. The state constitution banned polygamy, but reinstated female voting rights. Martha campaigned for a seat in the first Utah legislature. She ran against several contenders, including Angus—her own husband. She won, taking her seat as America’s first female state senator on November 3, 1896.

In the legislature, Martha led the effort to establish a state board of health. She introduced bills to establish a school for the deaf and blind and to require basic protections for female employees. Her one and only term in office was productive and produced laws that continue to influence Utah in the 21st century.

Near the end of her term, in 1898, she appeared before the United States Judiciary Committee and boldly declared that “the story of the struggle for women’s suffrage in Utah is the story of all efforts for the advancement and betterment of humanity, and which has been told over and over ever since the advent of civilization.”10

In 1899, her third child was born. The birth was said to be evidence that polygamy was still practiced in Utah even after the 1890 Manifesto announced its end. The controversy breathed new life into anti-polygamy rhetoric. Angus was rearrested and fined. Perhaps because of this unwanted attention, Martha chose not to run for a second term. She moved to California with her children in 1904 where she worked at the University of California Graves Clinic and served as vice-president of the American Congress for Tuberculosis. She died of cancer in 1932 at the age of 75.11

Martha’s Legacy

Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon continues to inspire women who serve in medicine and government. A statue of Martha, originally in the Utah State Capitol, is now one of two representing Utah in the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. It substantiates her claim “that woman is not a helpmeet by the fireside, but she can, when allowed to do so, become most powerful in the affairs of the government.”12

The Church History Library has collected several of Dr. Cannon’s personal effects, including notebooks, photographs, and letters. Key items in the collection include:

  1. Martha’s medical school notebook, 1879-1881 (MS 3483)
  2. A statement on woman suffrage in Utah given by Martha before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, 1898 (324.623 C22w)
  3. Letters to Angus, her husband, 1897 and 1898 (MS 1200)
  4. Letters to John Taylor of the First Presidency, 1879 (CR 1 180)
  5. Picture of Martha with Susan B. Anthony and other women suffrage leaders, 1895 (PH2296)
  6. Various portraits of Martha, 1880-1887 (PH 1700 473; PH 3293; PH 6936)