Susa Young Gates: This is What a Suffragist Looks Like

August 18th marked the 90th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which formally granted women the right to vote in the United States. When we think about the women’s suffrage movement, we usually conjure images of women wearing purple sashes and carrying banners that say “Votes For Women.”

Women of the western states are often overlooked in the discussion about suffrage. This is especially true of women in Utah. Mainstream culture likes to depict Mormon women as subservient to a patriarchal religion, particularly if we think about women in the 1800’s. However, a brief glimpse of Mormon suffragists gives us a very different view of women during the 19th Century.

Utah women initially obtained the vote in 1870, by a bipartisan vote of the state legislature. However, Congress repealed Utah women’s suffrage in 1886 as part of a series of anti-Mormon bills that were passed through Congress. There was quite a debate in Congress about whether Utah women should retain the right to vote. Many Easterners felt that if Mormon women could vote, they would vote to end polygamy. That view was soon shattered when members of Congress realized that Utah women favored polygamy. The vote was restored when Utah became a state in 1896, and there was overwhelming public support for universal suffrage.

One of the primary movers and shakers in the Utah suffrage campaign was Susa Young Gates. Susa was the daughter of Brigham Young, the Mormon leader who was responsible for bringing the Mormons to Utah. Gates was born in Salt Lake City on March 18, 1856 in what has become know as the Lion House. When she was born, Susa’s mother exclaimed, “Shucks!” upon discovering that she had borne a second daughter.

Aunt Zina responded, “No, it isn’t all shucks, it’s wheat, and full weight, too!” And now you have a thumbnail sketch of my life ever since. I am usually trying to convince myself and the rest of folks that it is all wheat and full weight at that. Sometimes, of course, I let it go at shucks.

Despite the early disappointment of being born female, Susa Young Gates went on to become one of the most accomplished of Brigham Young’s children. Brigham Young placed a high value on education for all of his children, including the girls. He established the first colleges in Utah, and it was expected that all of his children would obtain a higher education.

Despite the gender equity amongst Brigham Young’s children, Susa Young Gates was considered to be one of her father’s favorite children, and she often boasted of being nicknamed the Thirteenth Apostle, because she served as her father’s secretary for a time. Gates became a prolific writer, and is one of the most published of the early Latter Day Saint writers. At one point, Susan B. Anthony offered Gates a leadership position in the National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA), but Gates turned the offer down because it was contingent upon her renouncing the Mormon faith.

Gates had a complicated view of women’s suffrage and its intersection with polygamy. In an 1890 article that she wrote for the North American Review, Gates argued that women in polygamist marriages were often responsible for running independent businesses to support their families. In fact, Utah was one of the few places in the 1800’s where women could practice law and medicine, own property, or sign business contracts. Gates believed that women should be free to refuse marriage or to choose a profession, although she felt that most women preferred to do domestic activities. These views were very much in line with Mormon dogma, which isn’t surprising, considering the position that her father held within the church.

Women’s voting behavior in Utah was also consistent with these views on gender roles. Women had higher voter participation rates in Utah than men; 90% of women went to the polls, versus 86% of men. Women were particularly interested in ballot issues that involved schools and child welfare; 89% of Utah’s state revenues were spent on schools, and Utah ranked second in the nation for its education system. It was also the first state to pass a minimum wage. And child labor laws were not needed because Utah’s compulsory school attendance laws were so strict.

In 1871, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton visited Utah as part of the tour of the Western states. On June 27, 1871, they addressed 5000 women at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. Elizabeth Cady Stanton delivered a speech on the history of marriage. She spoke openly about family planning and told the Mormon audience that they should focus on “quality over quantity” of children, and not become pregnant more often than once in five years. Stanton critiqued polygamy because she felt that it oppressed women, but she also conceded that it was better than husbands taking a mistress.

After their stop in Utah, Anthony wrote a letter home that was later published in The Revolution, where she criticized all marriage arrangements. She argued that women could never be free, regardless of the marriage system, as long as they were economically dependent on men. As a result of Stanton’s speech and Anthony’s letter, the two women were barred from speaking at a Mormon podium again. Unlike the American Women’s Suffrage Association, which opposed polygamy at any cost, Anthony and Stanton made sure that the NWSA maintained contact with the Utah suffragists, and they opposed Congress’s efforts to disenfranchise Mormon women.

The history of Mormon women’s participation in the women’s suffrage movement is complicated, and it cannot be easily summarized in a single article. When I began my research for this piece, I was surprised to find that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton made no mention of their trip to Utah in any of the six volumes of their History of Woman Suffrage. Very little, in fact, has been written about the subject. As Utah prepares to celebrate its 163 birthday on July 24th, I hope that this article can cast at least a little bit of light on the role that Utah women played in the suffrage campaign.

Sources Used
Beverly Beeton and G. Thomas Edwards. “Susan B. Anthony’s Suffrage Crusade in the American West,” Journal of the West, April 1982, pp. 5-15. Available at the BYU Library in the American Special Collections.

Susa Young Gates. “Family Life Among the Mormons,” North American Review, March 1890, pp. 339-350. Available at the BYU Library in the American Special Collections.

Susa Young Gates. “Utah Women in Politics,” a letter written to Mr. Arthur W. Page. No date provided. Available at the BYU Library in the American Special Collections.

Leland P. Hofeling. Mormon Women and Woman Suffrage in an Era of Political Conflict in Territorial Utah, 1870-1896. 1977 Master’s thesis in History at International University. Available at the University of Utah library in Special Collections.

Patricia Lynott. Susa Young Gates, 1856-1933: Educator, Suffragist, Mormon. 1996 PhD dissertation from Loyola University of Chicago. Available at the BYU Library in the American Special Collections.

Comments

  1. Very informative. Great article. Thanks for taking the time for all the research and then sharing it with others.

  2. I agree, this looks like you did a lot of research. It was really worth it, I had no idea that Mormon women were such feminists in a certain sense. I have a good friend who is Mormon, and getting to know her, I have been grappling with my opinions about Mormonism. I don’t think it’s as simple as the stereotypes represent it: there are aspects of Mormonism that I really don’t respect, but others that I think other religions could learn from.

    • Juliana, I think Mormonism is a lot like other sects of Christianity. There are lots of good things about the theology, and then lots of things that don’t coincide with our feminist beliefs. I really respect Mormon feminists who work to reconcile their religious and their political beliefs. I just couldn’t make it happen – which is why I left the Mormon church.

      Mormons did, in fact, play a big part in the suffrage movement. Susa Young Gates was just the most prominent of the women who were involved.

  3. The Mormon religion is a true a wonderful belief and you should all join

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