Utah became the first state to allow women to vote in 1870 and the first state to elect a female state senator in 1896, according to Neylan McBaine, the CEO and co-founder of Better Days 2020. Utah has been a leader in giving women strong roles and has a prominent background in female leadership.
McBaine came to BYU to speak about Utah’s first female politicians and the conditions that made those political firsts possible. Better Days 2020 is a nonprofit celebrating the 150th anniversary of women voting in Utah.
Each semester Valerie Hegstrom, a team instructor for the women’s studies’ Kennedy Center lecture series, invites seven or eight speakers to address students.
Hegstrom, also director and coordinator for BYU’s global women’s studies program, said McBaine is committed to educating Utahns about important contributions Utah women and women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have made in the past 150 years and what they continue to do throughout the world.
“Students should come away from McBaine’s talk with a new appreciation for the strength, courage and feistiness of nineteenth and early twentieth-century Utah women,” Hegstrom said.
McBaine opened her talk with enthusiasm, introducing history about female Utahns, specifically in politics and the Church.
“How well have we done in making sure that equal suffrage and women’s advocacy, in general, is the brightest and purest ray of Utah’s glorious star?” she asked. “125 years later, this is not necessarily what we are known for.”
Wyoming’s territorial legislature granted women the right to vote three months before Utah’s territorial legislature. However, the Utah Legislature met Feb. 12, 1870, and women cast ballots two days later in the election on Feb. 14, 1870. Wyoming did not have an election in which women participated for another eight months.
“Better Days 2020 was founded when my partner Mandy Grant and I recognized that this year would mark the 150th anniversary of Utah being the first place where a woman cast a legal ballot in the modern nation,” McBaine said.
McBaine mentioned Emmaline B. Wells, a women’s rights advocate who met four U.S. presidents in her advocacy work and eventually became the fifth Relief Society General President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“This summarizes the magnitude and breadth of what (Wells) was able to accomplish in her 96 years,” McBaine said. “We want people to know that Utah was in the mix, and we were right there with the national leaders of the suffrage movement, and Emmaline Wells specifically led in a significant way.”
According to McBaine, Better Days 2020 focuses on the fact that Utah elected the first female state senator in the nation, Martha Hughes Cannon.
During Utah’s 2018 legislative session, Better Days 2020 lobbied for a resolution that will allow a statue of Cannon to be placed in the U.S. Capitol building in August 2020.
In addition, McBaine said Better Days 2020 has introduced a new license plate design and recognition label for Utah being the first state to legally grant women the right to vote.
“Better Days 2020 popularizes Utah women’s history in creative and communal ways through education, legislation and art,” McBaine said.
McBaine said there is a community of Utahns who have given women the opportunity to get involved in the public sphere for more than a century.
McBaine said her mantra is “there are no villains,” which has defined her 10 years of advocacy work for the Church.
According to McBaine, Utah businesses have struggled because of stereotypes and characteristics portrayed in national media.
McBaine said Better Days 2020 is working to put out a positive story that can encourage students and Utahns alike to learn their history and find out what the legacy of strong women in Utah means to them.
“Great things happen in Utah, and we can put out a different narrative to the media about women in Utah,” McBaine said.