Women in Utah were at the forefront of suffrage debates in the mid 1800s. Conflicting and strongly held views about women’s voting rights were regularly debated in local meetings, newspapers, and homes. On February 12, 1870, Utah’s acting territorial governor signed the Woman Suffrage Bill, recognizing women’s right to vote in local and territorial elections. This made Utah the second territory to ratify women’s suffrage, after Wyoming. However, by 1887 the U.S. Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act, rescinding voting rights for women in Utah. As conversations about Utah statehood emerged in the late 1890s, so did a renewed effort for re-establishing women’s voting rights. Ultimately, women’s voting rights were included in the Utah Constitution drafted in 1895, which reinstated women’s suffrage as Utah became an official state.
Utah suffrage debates occurred against the backdrop of intense national action to end slavery and to extend voting rights to formerly enslaved men in the wake of the Civil War. Simultaneously, women’s suffrage activists called for state constitutions to include voting rights for women or for a federal amendment to recognize women’s right to vote.
Activists approached suffrage issues from contradictory angles and in ways that exposed beliefs about racial and gender inequality, leaving many potential voters behind. Even after the 15th Amendment was passed declaring that voting rights would not be denied, “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” some communities actively resisted by passing local laws that limited voting rights until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
One thread in this complex history played out in Utah, where women were the first to vote in the United States. The materials in this exhibit are part of the library’s L. Tom Perry Special Collections and illuminate the story of women in Utah as they sought voting rights. An expanded circle of suffragists, depicted throughout this site, is represented with links to electronic and print library resources.