Suffragists across Utah lobbied politicians and submitted thousands of petitions in favor of their efforts. But they faced a looming fear from their opposition: Would enfranchising women risk Utah’s chances of statehood?
This question became the most “hotly debated issue” of the state’s constitutional convention in 1895, according to Utah historians. Ultimately, the delegates voted overwhelmingly to enfranchise Utah women and give them the right to hold office when Utah became the 45th state the following year. This applied mainly to white women, though, leaving out women of color who weren’t considered citizens at the time.
Crowds gathered 125 years ago this month to watch the debate. “It must have been wild,” said Kathryn MacKay, a history professor at Weber State University. Women stood on tables to hear and there was “not an inch of standing room" at the Salt Lake City-County Building, according to newspaper reports at the time. At one point, there was a suggestion to move to a bigger venue.
It was new and experimental when Utah women first got the right to vote in 1870, MacKay said. Utah seemed like a safe place to test out suffrage, and East Coast politicians expected women in the territory would vote against leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and end plural marriage. But after Latter-day Saint women used their ballots to defend polygamy, Congress stripped Utah women of their suffrage in 1887.
During the push in 1895 to regain those rights, there were eloquent speeches, grassroots efforts and eventually a celebratory visit from national suffragist Susan B. Anthony. But, MacKay said, it was “really a fight."