Martha Hughes Cannon

Martha Hughes Cannon
Bust photo of Martha Hughes Cannon
Member of the Utah Senate from the 6th district
In office
January 11, 1897  January 13, 1901
Predecessor George Mousley Cannon
Political party Democratic Party
Personal details
Born Martha Maria Hughes
(1857-07-01)July 1, 1857
Llandudno, Clwyd, Wales
Died July 10, 1932(1932-07-10) (aged 75)
Los Angeles, California, United States
Resting place Salt Lake City Cemetery
40°46′37″N 111°51′29″W / 40.777°N 111.858°W / 40.777; -111.858 (Salt Lake City Cemetery)
Alma mater University of Deseret
University of Michigan
University of Pennsylvania
Spouse(s) Angus M. Cannon
Children Elizabeth R.C. McCrimmon
James Hughes Cannon
Gwendolyn H.C. Quick
Parents Peter Hughes
Elizabeth Evans

Martha Maria "Mattie" Hughes Cannon (July 1, 1857 July 10, 1932) was a Welsh-born immigrant to the United States, a physician, Utah women's rights advocate and suffragist, and Utah State Senator. On November 3, 1896 Cannon became the first female State Senator elected in the United States, defeating her own husband, who was also on the ballot.


Early life

Martha Maria Hughes Cannon was born near Llandudno, Clwyd, Wales on July 1, 1857, the daughter of Peter and Elizabeth Evans Hughes. She was known by the nickname, Mattie.

The Peter Hughes family were converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and emigrated to the United States. They embarked from Liverpool, England on March 30, 1860, on the ship Underwriter and arrived in New York City, New York on May 1, 1860. In 1861 with the assistance of the Mormon church the family was able to leave New York City in 1861 and travel to Utah. Shortly before the family's arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, on September 3, 1861, Martha's sister Annie Lloyd Hughes died and was buried in an unmarked grave. She was 21 months old. Three days after the remaining family had arrived in Salt Lake City, on September 17, 1861, Peter Hughes died. Elizabeth Hughes was left a widow with two young daughters at the age of 28.

Thirteen months later Elizabeth married James Patten Paul, a widower and had five additional children with him. After Elizabeth's marriage to Paul, Martha, at different times in her life, went by the surnames of both Paul and Hughes. Later in life, Paul encouraged Martha to follow her dream of becoming a medical doctor.

Education and career

By the age of 14 Hughes was working as a schoolteacher and, while attending the University of Deseret, became a typesetter at the Women's Exponent, a women's newspaper in Salt Lake City published by Emmeline B. Wells and affiliated with the LDS Relief Society. Hughes chose to study medicine and, after receiving her chemistry degree in 1875, attended the University of Michigan medical school beginning in 1878, receiving her MD in 1880. She briefly practiced medicine in Algonac, Michigan. In 1882, she earned a B.S. in Pharmacy from the Auxiliary School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania, and also received a diploma from the National School of Elocution and Oratory. Hughes returned to Salt Lake City, Utah and served as resident physician for the newly founded Deseret Hospital from 1882 to 1886.

Plural marriage and exile

On October 6, 1884, Hughes married Angus M. Cannon, superintendent of the new hospital and a local official of the LDS Church, who was twenty-three years her senior. She became the fourth of his 6 plural wives, and bore him three children. In April 1886, under pressure from agents of the federal government, Martha Cannon left Utah with her infant daughter Elizabeth Rachel. Cannon sought to avoid providing federal marshals with proof of her plural marriage to Angus. She also feared being forced to provide testimony against others, based on information gathered through her obstetrical practice. In 1885, Cannon wrote:

Hence I am considered an important witness, and if it can be proven that these children have actually come into the world, their fathers will be sent to jail for five (5) years....To me it is a serious matter to be the cause of sending to jail a father upon whom a lot of little children are dependent, whether those children were begotten by the same or by different mothers - the fact remains they all have little mouths that must be fed.[1]

In exile for two years, the mother and child lived in England, Switzerland, and Michigan before returning to Salt Lake City in June 1888. Recently published correspondence between Cannon and her husband during this period provides a window into 19th-century polygamous life in Utah and also on "the underground" just prior to the practice's abolition. It was a time when many polygamous families went into hiding to avoid legal pressures which threatened to sever polygamous families. "I would rather be a stranger in a strange land and be able to hold my head up among my fellow beings," she reflected late in her exile, "than to be a sneaking captive at home."[2]

Political career

After 1888, Cannon resumed her Salt Lake medical practice and taught nursing courses through a school established at Deseret Hospital. This school was later absorbed into the University of Utah School of Medicine. She took an active interest in the work of the Utah Equal Suffrage Association, and became involved in the national women's suffrage movement. Cannon was a featured speaker and served as a member of Utah’s delegation to the Columbian Exposition, 1893 Chicago World Fair. In 1898, she traveled to Washington, D.C. to speak to a Congressional Committee in favor of granting women the right to vote in the United States. Cannon felt that education and public service were vitally important for women, stating:

Somehow I know that women who stay home all the time have the most unpleasant homes there are. You give me a woman who thinks about something besides cook stoves and wash tubs and baby flannels, and I'll show you, nine times out of ten, a successful mother.

By 1896, a suffrage clause in the new state constitution had restored the right to vote to Utah women. In a much publicized election, Cannon was one of five Democrats running as "at large" candidates for state senator from Salt Lake County. Suffrage activist Emmeline B. Wells and Cannon's husband Angus were among the Republicans running for the office.

"Local newspapers gave play to the fact that a leading Mormon polygamist was defeated by his fourth wife. The Salt Lake Tribune, proponent of the Republican view, editorialized that Angus Munn Cannon was deserving of readers' votes. The Salt Lake Herald, a Democratic newspaper, countered: "Mrs. Mattie Hughes Cannon, his wife, is the better man of the two. Send Mrs. Cannon to the State Senate and let Mr. Cannon, as a Republican, remain at home to manage home industry" (see link, SL Tribune).

On November 3, 1896, Martha Hughes Cannon became the first woman ever elected as a state senator in the United States. She served two terms in the legislature and was noted for her efforts on public health issues. She spearheaded funding for speech-and hearing-impaired students, establishment of a state board of health, and a law regulating working conditions for women and girls, "An Act to Protect the Health of Women and Girl Employees." Cannon's third child was born at the end of her second term in office.

Last years, death, and legacy

After leaving the legislature, Cannon served as a member of the Utah Board of Health and as a member of the board of the Utah State School for the Deaf and Dumb. After her husband’s death in 1915, Cannon settled near her son in Los Angeles, California where she worked for the Graves Clinic. She died in Los Angeles on July 10, 1932.

The Martha Hughes Cannon Health Building in Salt Lake City, housing the Utah State Department of Health, was dedicated in her honor in 1986. An eight-foot-high bronze statue of Dr. Cannon by Laura Lee Stay Bradshaw, dedicated in 1996, was housed in the Utah Capitol Rotunda. Her grandson, Robert J. Cannon, spoke at the dedication. After the Utah Capitol rededication in 2008, the bronze statue of Dr. Cannon was moved to the foyer of the Utah State Senate building on Utah Capitol Hill.

See also


  1. Constance L. Lieber and John Sillito (eds.), “Letters from Exile: The Correspondence of Martha Hughes Cannon and Angus M. Cannon, 1886-1888.” Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1993; pg. xv.
  2. Lieber and Sillito (eds.), “Letters from Exile, pg. 269.

Further reading

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