Utah Sending The Nation's First Female State Senator To D.C., As A Statue

Aug 12, 2018
Originally published on August 18, 2018 4:58 pm

Utah is sending a new representative to the U.S. Capitol, but it might not be what you think.

The state legislature recently voted to send a statue of a nineteenth-century doctor named Martha Hughes Cannon to represent Utah in Statuary Hall. Each state only gets two statues, so Dr. Cannon will knock Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of the television, out of the circle. She'll join the Mormon leader Brigham Young.

The statue is part of a modest plan to combat Utah's reputation as behind the curve for women's advancement. The plan is to trumpet the state's early history as a leader in women's rights.

"We're putting our faith in the power of history to change perspective and identity," said Neylan McBaine, the CEO of Better Days 2020, a grassroots group that pushed hard for the legislature to send Martha to Washington.

On a busy summer day in the U.S. Capitol, no one had heard of Martha Hughes Cannon. Even Utahans were puzzled by the news that Philo Farnsworth would get the boot.

"I'm sure I've read her name, but I wouldn't be able to tell you what it was," said Lisa Cox, visiting from Logan, Utah. She was excited, though, that Martha Hughes Cannon's statue would soon represent Utah. "There's not a lot of women here," she noticed.

Of the 100 statues in Statuary Hall, just nine are women.

McBaine and the legislators in Utah who carried Martha's bill taught a little early Utah history to their colleagues in order to get the bill passed.

"Martha Hughes Cannon as a young girl came across the plains with a group Mormon pioneers, and settled in Salt Lake City," said Becky Edwards, the Republican State Representative who carried the bill. She praised Martha Hughes Cannon as a public health advocate, and as a pioneer in running for the State Senate in the 1800s.

"When she ran for political office when Utah first became a state, she ran both against her husband, Angus Cannon, and against her best friend. And she beat them both," Edwards said.

Cannon was the first woman elected state senator in the country. She was also the fourth of polygamist Angus Cannon's six wives.

She and many other women in Utah advocated around the country for universal women's suffrage, testifying before the U.S. Congress and representing Utah women in national suffrage associations. Utah first enfranchised women in 1870 — 50 years before the 19th Amendment gave all American women the right to vote.

With the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment approaching in 2020, Utah women will also celebrate the 150th anniversary of their first vote.

"Now is the time to really highlight her as a legislator, as a physician, and her role in the suffrage movement," Edwards said. Edwards notes that she is part of the Martha Hughes Cannon Caucus, the small group of women in the Utah House and Senate.

But somehow Utah has slipped from the leading edge of women's rights all the way to the back of the pack when it comes to measuring women's advancement.

"Worst place for women in business, worst place for women in politics, worst place for women medically," said Neylan McBaine. Better Days 2020 is backed by some big Utah businesses that have trouble recruiting people from out of state.

"These corporations are highly invested in changing the narrative about Utah women," she said.

The results of their campaigns are already visible in Utah. Salt Lake City is renaming streets after suffragists. Utah has a new license plate that says "First to Vote." We should note that Wyoming women technically got the right to vote first, but Utah had an election first. McBaine's group is also writing a new curriculum for elementary and middle schools about Utah women's history.

She hopes that the cumulative effects of these seemingly small gestures — like a statue of a Utah woman at the Capitol — will be transformative.

"Utahans will have a different sense of their identity, their capacity, and their place in the world if they are thoroughly familiar with this history," she said.

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LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

And finally today, as many continue to remember the legacy of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, we're going to take a moment to revisit a conversation my colleague Michel Martin had with her back in 2009. They spoke not long after Franklin's memorable performance of President Barack Obama's inauguration. Here's their conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: When did you find out you would be singing at the inauguration? What was that like?

ARETHA FRANKLIN: Oh, my God, that was like - oh, my God. Maybe about three weeks prior to the inauguration I got a call and was told that I had been invited to sing at the swearing in. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

MARTIN: You sound like you were excited. You were as excited as we were.

FRANKLIN: I could hardly sleep at night. I was, like, jumpy, just excited, and I couldn't hardly settle down after the first night or two.

MARTIN: Why was it so exciting for you? You've had many, many honors in your time.

FRANKLIN: Well, I've had many, many honors, but that was unparalleled, I think.

MARTIN: What do you think made it so special?

FRANKLIN: That will happen one time in history, and it happened.

MARTIN: Was it just the fact of speaking at an inauguration or this inauguration?

FRANKLIN: They both would have been terrifically exciting but particularly because this was so historical and because it will never happen again. And I thank God and Mr. Obama that I was there and played a significant role in it - a supporting role.

MARTIN: I hope this isn't a ridiculous question, but I have to ask - were you nervous?

FRANKLIN: No, I wasn't nervous. I was very, very cold - extremely cold. I had been checking the temperatures long before I left home. I said, well, OK, that should be OK. I know it's outside. And I rarely sing outside, but I think that'll be OK. Checking the national weather, they were saying 37 is the average temperature in D.C., at that time of year, on that day - somewhere between 37 and 40. And I said, OK, that sounds pretty good. I think that'll be all right. And I got up at morning, checked the weather one more time. It was 19 degree. I said, oh, no. Oh, no. I knew how cold that was going to be, and I thought that it would have an effect on my voice, and it did.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you that. Did you make any special preparations to warm up your voice? Or how did you try to protect your voice?

FRANKLIN: I did everything I could to guarantee my voice would be where I wanted it to be and where it should have been. But Mother Nature just said I don't think so. So I just - I got so many requests, though, even still - so many requests after that asking would I record it? Was I going to record it? And I said absolutely because I just wasn't happy with my performance that morning, and I just rushed right into the studio to do the commemorative and 40, 50 years from now, people can play it for themselves - the younger adults and older for their grandchildren, their children's children - and look back at that moment in time - that one moment in time.

MARTIN: Let's play a little bit. Shall we? Let's just play - just have a little taste.

FRANKLIN: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANKLIN: (Singing) My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, to thee I sing. Land where my father died. Land of the pilgrim's pride. From every mountain side, let freedom ring.

MARTIN: All right. I have to tell you, though, I was out there that day, as were - with many of my colleagues - and I think about 2 million other people - I don't know too many people who thought your original performance was lacking other than you.

FRANKLIN: I wasn't happy with it. Everyone else prerecorded. I said I should have prerecorded, but I didn't. I didn't even know that they had prerecorded until I heard it on TV later. And then I said, heck, that's what I should have done.

MARTIN: Were you able to recapture the emotion of that day, the specialness that you felt?

FRANKLIN: Oh, absolutely. I just went to that moment. So it is the absolute same thing that I would have sung.

SINGH: That was Aretha Franklin speaking with my colleague Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Protect us by thy might - freedom. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.