Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon: A woman not defined by her marriage

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Mattie was multi-faceted in every way. She was religious, educated, and opinionated. (Allie Kneeland)

Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon, known among her family and friends as “Mattie,” is nothing if not a complexity. Born in Wales, she converted with her family to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and ventured to Utah along with many other members of their faith in the late nineteenth century. 

Like many Latter-day Saints of the time, Mattie embraced faith, but appeared to be somewhat of an anomaly amongst the women of her time. While she practiced polygamy, she also attended medical school and, in 1896, was elected the nation’s first female senator for the state of Utah. 

Mattie studied medicine and received diplomas from both the University of Pennsylvania and the National School of Elocution and Oratory. At the time, women were generally discouraged from attending secondary school, and although Mattie found herself at odds with such sentiments, she advanced and found success in the medical field. 

Author and archivist Constance L. Lieber, author of Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon: Suffragist, Senator, Plural Wife, discovered Mattie “by accident” while going through old documents. Though records of Mattie were scarce despite her apparent success and progressive thinking, Lieber searched letters, documents, and other traces of her existence to piece together the life she lived. 

When Mattie returned to Utah after graduation from medical school, she met Angus M. Cannon who was already married. The two became close and later married in 1884. 

There is much to be considered regarding the Church’s practice of polygamy in the mid to late 1800s — doctrine from the Lord was set at naught with federal laws of the time. Today, polygamy remains illegal in the U.S. and the Church no longer practices it, after President Wilford Woodruff issued a manifesto ending the practice in 1890. Some also view polygamy as a source of oppression among women.

… From now on, whatever she did, professionally and privately, was seen through that lens.

Constance L. Lieber

“By entering into a polygamous marriage relationship, Mattie embraced a principle that would bring her joy and that she never denounced, but that also complicated her life,” Lieber said. “From now on, whatever she did, professionally and privately, was seen through that lens.”

Mattie faced constant turmoil surrounding the practice of polygamy and her husband was eventually summoned to court for violation of federal laws and was charged with cohabitation. So, Mattie entered a period of exile and escaped to England with her daughter Elizabeth to protect her husband, where eventually the rumors of her identity spread and prompted her to leave once again. 

The question must be asked, why did Mattie so willingly accept and embrace a practice that brought her such heartache? She expresses in a letter to Cannon that she feared he loved her less, or “not at all.” Was her acceptance due to her faith, or the allure of this man who was handsome and charismatic to her?  

Mattie thought polygamy was to the benefit of women. “I think and the women of Utah think with me that we were better off in the state of polygamy. Sixty percent of the voters of this state are women,” she said. “Oh, we control the state.” 

It’s also important to note that Mattie converted to the Church at a young age, thus, she grew up in a world that emphasized faith in God’s commandment. If, to her, polygamy was God’s command, then she would be inclined to follow it. 

Mattie kept a constant diary, but she instructed her daughter Elizabeth to destroy the journals she had written throughout her life. Her reasoning centered on her desire for privacy and fear of others’ judgements, according to Elizabeth.

“It was at this time that Mattie began to develop the habit of keeping people at arm’s length — a character trait that only intensified as she got older,” Lieber said.

At one point, Mattie ran for state Senate against her own husband — and won. 

Mattie was multi-faceted in every way. She was religious, educated, and opinionated … She was driven to succeed, but she also faced extreme bouts of depression, anxiety, and intense loss. 

While she worked to advance women’s suffrage, Lieber asserts that Mattie and her cohorts should not be ascribed the same qualities of today’s feminists. “We should not assume they completely shared our concept of women as fully equal to men,” she said, “able to take on any role a man does.” 

Though Mattie encouraged women to pursue voting rights, she still had strong opinions on “unseemly offices” for women. “Take the governor, for instance, that’s too mannish altogether,” she said. “I can’t bear a mannish woman or a mannish man either.” 

Mattie’s great success at the start of her life: a happy marriage, medical career and successful political run, contrasts with loss at the end of her life. 

As pleasantly as her relationship with Angus began, there are records of later disagreements and marital battles, though she never filed for divorce. She was also forced to abandon her medical practice upon her exile to England, and she eventually left her political office after the birth of a child, though she remained involved in politics throughout her life. 

One might presume that her perceived failures and shame led her to embrace privacy once again and eventually destroy her own records of her life. For this reason, Lieber says, the paper trail on Mattie Cannon is “very thin.” 

However, these days her name has been on the rise along with Lieber’s biography of her life. In fact, Utah decided in 2018 to place her statue in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall. 

So then, what has caused the renewed interest in Mattie? 

Mattie was multi-faceted in every way. She was religious, educated, and opinionated. She embraced progressive measures for women’s rights and rejected others. She was driven to succeed, but she also faced extreme bouts of depression, anxiety, and intense loss. 

In essence, Mattie was human. There was so much to her, yet so little space for someone like her during that time. Maybe she would have had a better chance to thrive in today’s world. 

Though her time on Earth has passed, her memory can, perhaps, inspire society to embrace others like her, and hopefully, accept and love the elements of Mattie we find in ourselves. 

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