Martha Hughes Cannon, 1857-1932

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Woman Category: Activism & Feminism, Health, and Politics & LeadersWoman Tags: Physician and Senator

  • HerStory

    One of the first female physicians in the US, a public health reformer, and the first female State Senator elected in the US.

    Martha Hughes Cannon was born in Clwyd, Wales, UK. When she was three years old, her family, who converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, immigrated to the US. They stayed in NYC for a few months before settling in Salt Lake City, Utah. Three days after their arrival, her father had died, and in the following year, her mother married the Mormon pioneer, James Patten Paul. At the age of 14, she taught for a year before learning to typeset. She then worked in various papers and magazines, including the Women’s Exponent, a suffrage publication edited by Emmeline B. Well, who encouraged her to become a doctor.
    At age 16, Hughes began taking pre-med night classes at the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah), from which she graduated five years later with a degree in chemistry. Afterward, she continued to medical studies at the University of Michigan with the church blessing and financial support. After graduation, she practiced for a short time in Algonac, Michigan, before moving to Philadelphia to further her studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was the only woman in her class. At that same time, she also learned Pharmaceuticals, Science, and Oratory, graduating at the age of 25 with four degrees.
    Upon her return to Salt Lake City, Hughes opened a private practice, and not long after, she was appointed by the LDS Church as the first resident physician of the new Deseret Hospital. There, she established a nurse training school and gave lectures on obstetrics. At the age of 27, she married Angus Munn Cannon, a Mormon polygamist who was 23 years older than her, and she became the fourth wife out of six. After her husband was sent to jail for been a polygamist and afraid of the option to testify against her husband, she exiled herself and her oldest daughter and stayed in Europe until the warrant against her had expired two years later.
    When she returned to Salt Lake City, Hughes became a prominent figure at the Utah Women’s Suffrage Association, giving public speeches and participating in suffrage conferences alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. She believed that polygamous marriage is a feminist act that provides more freedom to women than a monogamous marriage. In 1896, Utah had restored women’s right to vote, and Hughes decided to run for state senator. She was 39 years old and became the first woman in the US to be elected as a state senator. In the four years Hughes held office, she authored numerous legislative bills promoting public health and sanitation. She lobbied for regulating working conditions for women and girls, education for children with disabilities, and pure food. She helped found the first state board of health and served as a board member. In that position, she established a commission to regulate contagious disease and tried to prevent unvaccinated children from attending school.
    In 1889, Hughes had her third child, and she did not run for a third term. She continued to serve at the Utah Board of Health, at the Utah State School for the Deaf and Dumb, and in 1902, she was appointed as a member of the psychology section of the Medico-Legacy Society of New York. In later years, she moved to California, where she served as vice president of the National Congress of Tuberculosis, and after her husband died, she settled in LA, where she passed away at the age of 65.

    “All men and women are created free and equal”

    “All men and women are created free and equal”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • A few years before she got married, polygamy became a felony, and she had to keep her marriage a secret, even from her mother.
    • She was known by the nickname “Mattie.”
    • She referred to herself as Martha Hughes Paul Cannon, honoring her stepfather.
    • During college, she worked for the physician and social reformer, Bethania Owens-Adair.
    • She ran for senator against both her husband and her mentor Emmeline B. Wells.
    • She was the first to present a bill about protecting working women and girls.
    • The Utah Department of Health building is named in her honor in 1986.
    • A statue of her is placed at the Utah State Senate building on Utah Capitol Hill.
    • A statue of her will represent Utah at the Statuary Hall Collection in the US Capitol in Washington, DC.
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  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Woman Tags: Physician, Senator

    Martha Hughes Cannon | The Legacy of the First Female State Senator

    For a woman in politics, it's hard to be the "first" in any position. Martha Hughes Cannon, as the first female state senator in the United States, paved the way for many other "firsts." Watch the full documentary on Martha Hughes Cannon for free online:

  • Photo credit - Wikipedia