Carter Olson podcast: The Women’s Press and Utah’s Battle over the Vote
For the 26th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke with Candi Carter Olson about how women in Utah used the power of the press and rose up in protest as Congress considered taking away their right to vote in the late 1800s.
An assistant professor of media and society in the Department of Journalism and Communication at Utah State University, Carter Olson is the co-author, along with Erin Cox, of “A Mighty Power: The Defenses Employed by Utah’s Women against Disenfranchisement by the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887” in the June 2019 issue of Journalism History.
This episode is sponsored by the Communication Department at William Paterson University.
Teri Finneman: 00:10 Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Teri Finneman, guiding you through our own drafts of history.
This episode is sponsored by the Communication Department at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. Offering award winning programs in journalism, broadcasting, and other areas, the department is committed to preparing its students for life in the professional world after graduation. Our greatest strength is helping you find yours. More information is at wpunj.edu.
In 1887, Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act. This law took away the voting rights of women in Utah Territory, even though they had been voting for almost two decades by that point. Women in Utah protested via public forums, including the Mormon women’s periodical, the Woman’s Exponent. In this episode, Candi Carter Olson from Utah State University discusses the suffrage movement in Utah and the importance of the 19th amendment.
Teri Finneman: 01:23 Candi, thanks for being on the show today. I think a lot of people would be surprised to learn that Utah was one of the first areas to grant women the right to vote back in 1870, which was 50 years before it became national law. Talk about how that came about and why that was.
Candi Carter Olson: 01:41 So, actually, Wyoming was the first territory to get the right to vote and they got it in 1869 and then Utah’s women got the right to vote. They were the second to actually be granted the right to vote, but our balloting day actually came before Wyoming. So, we were the first women to officially vote. How that came about. Interestingly, people don’t think of Utah as a very progressive place today, but back in the 19th century, especially the mid-19th century, women had to pull their weight and they were seen as an important part of the process of life, in many different ways. We think of 19th century Utah as a place where polygamy kind of flourished. Yeah, polygamy did flourish here. And a lot of the women that I talk about in my paper were plural wives, or sister wives, or celestial wives, whatever term you want to use for them.
Candi Carter Olson: 02:48 Interestingly, though, they wouldn’t have been able to participate in the political process as much as they did if they didn’t have sister wives because they rotated who took care of the kids and who did the housework and that sort of thing. So, it was a system that was both really difficult for women and really liberating for women. Coming up on 1870, women were already participating in the political process in many ways. After women got the vote, many of them were encouraged to run for office. Like Emmeline B. Wells ran for office a couple of times, but U.S. law actually said she couldn’t be in office even though she could vote here. So, interesting kinds of issues just overlapping there.
Teri Finneman: 03:37 The progressivism ended up being short lived and your article focuses on how Congress passed a law in 1887 that took away voting rights from women in Utah Territory, even though they had been voting for 17 years by then. So, why did this happen?
Candi Carter Olson: 03:56 So, again, going back to, Utah was known for polygamy at this point in time. Good Christians were not polygamists and interestingly the Congress decided that Utah could not join the Union if they were going to continue the practice of plural marriage or celestial marriage, whatever you want to call it. And so the 1887 law, which is called the Edmunds-Tucker Act, named after the senator and the representative who worked together to get it together, was one of a series of laws that had happened over a couple of decades that had brought out the women of Utah in droves to protest the revocation of their rights. And the earlier ones hadn’t succeeded obviously because women were still voting. And up until 1887 and women started protesting this one in 1886 cause they started hearing rumors that it was coming down and they were seeing these men in Washington D.C. who had never actually been out to Utah and talk to them.
Candi Carter Olson: 05:18 Judging them and framing them as like these children who couldn’t be trusted with the right to vote. Interestingly, the right to vote was first proposed for the women of Utah in The New York Times or a New York paper. I can’t remember exactly which one right now. I can look it up later. But it was expected that when women were granted the right to vote, that they would vote against their husbands. And the women said, excuse me, we have this system worked out where our men protect us. We work, they work. We kind of have this symbiotic thing. We don’t know you people in Washington D.C., we don’t trust you. Why would we vote against our own interests? Well, this goes into this interesting framing of these women as incapable of voting. And also this voting rights act also came in and said, you know what?
Candi Carter Olson: 06:25 Polygamy, bad, men, if you’re going to vote, you have to publicly renounce polygamy and say you will not have plural wives, otherwise you are going to be thrown into jail. And so all of these things came out of this law, including a receiver was brought in to take things away from the church itself. And so the members of the church got together and were like, oh my gosh, the receiver is raiding our church buildings. So, what they did is they took all of the things that belonged to the church and they spread it among the members because the receiver couldn’t raid the members themselves, only the church. But this brought up a lot of fear among the believers of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the receiver himself. Women were forced to testify against their husbands, which is something that had never been done before and was actually against the law at that point in time.
Candi Carter Olson: 07:31 Let’s see here. The children of celestial wives. So, if they weren’t from the first wife, if you were the second or third or whatever number wife you were, your children could not inherit anything. That was another part of this law. And so it was actually a sweeping law that not only disenfranchised women altogether, and it wasn’t just plural women, but every single woman in the territory of Utah. And it was actually just a small percentage of the women who were plural wives. So, it didn’t matter. You live in Utah. You can’t vote any more. Men, you have to say that you will renounce polygamy and get rid of your plural wives or you’re not going to be able to vote. If we find that you are still practicing polygamy, we will arrest you and draw you up into a trial and then drag your wives into court, whether they’re the first, second, whatever wife you were, and then we’ll throw you into jail. And so the women lost their men and their husbands, who were the providers at that point in time even though there were a lot of women working. And it was this interesting dictatorial law coming down from Washington D.C. that was very anti-Mormon, anti-polygamy trying to crack down on the practice. And again, Washington D.C. had been trying to do this for years unsuccessfully. This is the one that succeeded.
Teri Finneman: 09:13 You examined reaction to all of this in more than 80 articles that ran in the Woman’s Exponent, which was a Mormon suffrage publication based in Salt Lake City. Tell us more about the Woman’s Exponent.
Candi Carter Olson: 09:24 Oh, the Women’s Exponent is cool and actually it was such a well-known publication, not just here in Utah, but nationally and internationally, that when a Progressive Mormon group restarted in the mid- to late 20th century, they named their publication the Exponent II. And there’s still an Exponent II running online and there’s an Exponent group on social media. This is a benchmark publication for the women of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was never an official publication of the church, even though Emmeline B. Wells, who was the longtime editor, did ask the church to take it on as the Relief Society publication. The church did turn it down and that’s when the publication started to die because Emmeline B. Wells was old at this point in time and she just couldn’t keep it running. And she was the heart and soul of this publication.
Candi Carter Olson: 10:31 If you think of the Exponent, you think of Emmeline B. Wells, who was a sister wife herself, an unhappy one for part of her marriage. And then later in the marriage, if you read her diaries, you’ll see that she gets closer to her husband and they finally start to talk and establish a good relationship. And she was also a really well-known suffragist. And so when Susan B. Anthony was coming West, the women of Utah hosted her and they hosted these big-name suffragists because the women of Utah were so well known for their activism and for the Exponent. Now, the Exponent itself only had about a circulation of 1,000. But when you look at that circulation, it was bigger than that because issues were picked up and they were read during relief society, outsiders from across the United States and internationally would stop by Emmeline B. Wells publication office. And they would say, ‘I’ve heard about this magazine, this periodical that you’re writing, can I get a copy of it?’ And she would hand it out and it would be distributed and handed around nationally and internationally. It was an interesting mix of church politics.
Candi Carter Olson: 11:59 Pro-polygamy rhetoric, there was a lot of that because a lot of the writers were sister wives, again. Emmeline B. Wells, the longtime editor, although not the founding editor, Emmeline B. Wells was a sister wife herself. So, again, pro-polygamy at the same time as it was very pro-suffrage, pro-women’s rights, pro-women working, pro-women doing all these really interesting things, pro-women’s education. Yeah. So, it was this benchmark publication that didn’t have what looks like a large circulation but had a huge impact because it was handed from hand to hand to hand and that’s how its circulation happened.
Teri Finneman: 12:50 So, I think it’s interesting because in what you’ve just talked about and in your study itself, you provide this historical context about polygamy and the outsider’s impression that this was an oppressive practice toward women. But what you’re talking about here is that there were really feminist opportunities, and was that interesting for you to see?
Candi Carter Olson: 13:07 That was really interesting for me. Straight up, I am not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I started studying these women because I study women’s press clubs and many of the women who wrote for the Exponent were members of the Utah Women’s Press Club. And as I started digging into these women’s history, it was fascinating to me to see how beautifully educated and outspoken and well-spoken these women were. They didn’t need men to defend them. They could defend themselves. They had the power of words, both spoken and written. And it was fascinating to me to uncover this history. And I’ve talked to many women here in Utah, actually lived here their entire lives. They are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And they say they don’t know this history about their own women and they find it fascinating and important. So, I think telling this story is important because it adds a layer of complexity to this one-note story that we’ve been told about the 19th century members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Candi Carter Olson: 14:32 They were polygamists and that’s all they were. And they were uneducated and scary and all of these things. Well, no, actually they were really highly educated. They were a fascinating group of people who knew what was happening nationally and internationally. They were really savvy about protecting themselves, protecting each other, working together. I’m not gonna say that the practice of polygamy was great for women 100%. There are diaries that definitely show, including Emmeline B. Wells’, just how oppressive it could be and how hard it could be, particularly if you weren’t a favored wife. But it did give women many interesting opportunities. Just that quote that I have in my paper from one wife and this was a letter submitted to the Exponent, and she said, ‘without my sister wives, I wouldn’t be able to do as much as I’m doing because one day, one of us does the washing.
Candi Carter Olson: 15:43 One day, one of us does the child care and one day, one of us goes out.’ And you’ll actually see that there were many women here in the Utah territory who were doctors, medical doctors. And of course, they took care of women because that was what women doctors did at that point in time. But they were highly educated women and they were part of the Utah Women’s Press Club, too. And it was because, and one of these women who became the first woman doctor actually here in Utah, she had children, and she chose to go back East for her education. And while she went back East, which was so hard on her, she had to leave her kids and her family and all of these things, her sister wives took care of her kids for her while she went back. And she got her medical degree and came back and then she was able to contribute to the family income by being a doctor in the territory.
Candi Carter Olson: 16:43 And then, the family, the larger family, was able to bond together and make sure that she was able to do what needed to be done as a doctor. Even while her husband was doing other things as well to provide income for everybody.
Teri Finneman: 17:00 Tell us a little bit more about the findings in the Exponent articles and what kinds of arguments women were making for why they should be able to vote.
Candi Carter Olson: 17:07 I wrote this paper with an undergraduate named Erin V. Cox, who is now graduated and working as a reporter at a TV station in Salt Lake City. I am so proud of this woman. She’s amazing. She started working with me on this project when she came in as a freshman and then she left for 18 months to go to Hong Kong on her mission for the Church of LDS or for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And when she came back, I was still working on this project.
Candi Carter Olson: 17:38 I’m sorry, this project is going to take me forever. There is so much work to do on these women. They’re so amazing. There’s so many stories to be told. But she came back and she said, ‘I want to help tell those stories. I didn’t know that these women existed and this is my history.’ And so this was really important to her. And so she was really interested in the political science part of it. And so she did some of the research on the laws that the women were referring to and the legal arguments that they brought in and how those legal arguments connected with the national arguments being made by national suffragists. Because the suffragists as a whole really relied on legal arguments because hey, if you can’t get protection from the law, where are you going to get protection? And so these women were really smart about what they went into.
Candi Carter Olson: 18:31 What we found, and I divided it into three different themes here, is that the women, first of all, argued against the framing of them by the politicians. And they said, ‘you are calling us children. You are calling us not smart enough to be able to make our own decisions, but we’re going to tell you that that is a whole big load of bull honky. And here’s why.’ I think this is a great poem. And the women wrote poetry. They wrote songs. They wrote all sorts of things to argue their case. This is just a part of a poem by Emily Hill Woodmansee. And it was read in an 1886 indignation meeting. An indignation meeting is a gathering of really, women, who get up. They stand up and they give speeches and talks about something in the public sphere that is oppressing women.
Candi Carter Olson: 19:37 And in the 19th century, this was how women got their voice out there. But let’s think about this. 19th century women are supposed to be in the home. Indignation meeting, women are out there talking in the public sphere and not just talking in the public sphere, but they’re talking about political things in the public sphere. Politics are a man’s thing. Well, no, not really. And indignation meetings really showed that. So, Emily Hill Woodmansee read it in an 1886 indignation meeting, which more than 2,000 people showed up to. And they were spilling out in the streets to protest this Edmunds-Tucker Act. She said:
Our foes trouble little, or nothing to mention,
For Poor Mormon women,” or “down-trodden wives.”
Were polygamy only the bone of contention,
The “Mormons” might vote all the rest of their lives.
Our foes may not count us smart, sensible folks;
But we see through their purpose — contempt it provokes.
Candi Carter Olson: 20:42 So, they were really disdainful of this idea that they were not wise enough to fight their own battles, to be full citizens of the United States. Another woman says, ‘I defy any of our bitterest enemies to bring one single solitary proof that any woman in Utah has cast an unrighteous ballot or voted for those whose lives or characters were stained with infamy or dishonor.’ And then Ruthinda E. Monch said that, ‘you know, you’re treating us like children. We are citizens during tax paying time, but many of us are not considered so on Election Day and now they feign would wrest the franchise from all the women of Utah because forsooth, they vote for brave and honorable men whom they can trust. And not for those who are their enemies. Are our rights, like children’s toys to be given and taken away at will?’ Their argumentation style, their rhetoric, their framing of themselves,
Candi Carter Olson: 21:49 it’s really interesting how they took that idea of they’re just children and she’s like, are they just toys? But is voting just a toy to you to be taken and given away at will? So, that was their first argument. The second argument looked at the constitutionality and citizenship of this. And these are where the women really show that they are constitutional scholars. They know what’s in it. They know about the United States. They know why Utah should be a state. They know why they should already be allowed the vote because they already are. And I love this quote from Prescinda L. Kimball. And again, this is at the 1886 indignation meeting. She says, ‘I stand before you a native born citizen of the United States.’ So, she’s claiming citizenship. She’s fighting to say, Hey, I am a citizen.
Candi Carter Olson: 22:45 That means I should have all citizenship rights. ‘My grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War to establish a free government on this continent. And my father fought in the War of 1812 to secure and perpetuate a free government and to protect the rights and liberties of the citizen of the republic. I, their descendant, stand up before this assembly to protest against the oppression of those who would take from us the rights and liberties which our fathers risked their lives to obtain.’ So, if you look at this quote, in the Bible, there’s this person begat this person then begat this person begat this person, lineages that are set out that establish a person’s credibility. And interestingly, Prescinda not only claims citizenship and says, Hey, I should have all the rights of a citizenship, but she creates lineage that shows just how much she has credibility as a citizen in the United States because of her grandfather fought and her father fought and she’s fighting now.
Candi Carter Olson: 23:56 That means they together, they’ve had generations of people in this country, they belong here and it’s a biblical argument underlying it, but also a constitutional argument. Kind of interesting. So, I think that’s my favorite quote from that particular section. But it does go through, and I talk a little bit in this section about how the women used men when they were convenient to them. Really the women spoke for themselves most of the time because why wouldn’t they? They were smart enough to do so. They were educated, they knew what they were talking about. But if you’re talking to men, men wanted to talk to men at this point in time. And so in the Exponent, you’ll see that they bring in their bishops or other leaders within the LDS church to speak about the issue of suffrage and against the Edmunds-Tucker Act in really interesting ways.
Candi Carter Olson: 24:48 So, there was an interesting allyship there between the male members of the church and the female members. And then the final one is that, the final theme that we identified, is that the women argued that by taking away their right to vote, the U.S. Congress was saying that the women were criminals because the only people who had their right to vote revoked were people who were criminals. And they had, and not just minor criminals, you stole a little thing. These were people who had large prison sentences for good reason, right? But they saw that this was, they were really angry about this and they were saying, we are not criminals. And they would say things like, Dr. Ellen B. Ferguson, again, a doctor, women doctors were huge here.
Candi Carter Olson: 25:59 ‘Madam Roland, one of the most illustrious victims of the French revolution, exclaimed, ‘oh, liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name’ and we may well say, religion and morality, what crimes are committed in your names.’ And so they took the idea that they were being branded as criminals and they turned it around on their Congress people and they said, we’re not the criminals. You are. Look at the crimes you are committing in the name of religion and morality. To heck with that. There was also this interesting – within here, the women calling on their religion and faith throughout here. And they would say things like, hey, if this person in the Bible could stand against oppression, we can stand against this oppression. There was so much fear, though, among these women, and I really felt bad for them. It hurt my heart to read some of these things. Like Emmeline B. Wells’ diaries, she wrote, ‘these are dreadful days for me. The case in court’ – she was called in to court to testify against her husband. Again, unprecedented – ‘the case in court hanging over us all the time and such dismal forebodings and terrible dreams. Oh, my heart is broken and my nerves are completely unstrung. I have no one in whom I can confide my feelings, nor is it in my nature to do so.’
Candi Carter Olson: 27:26 She actually, the next day, court decided she didn’t need to protest or she didn’t need to speak against her husband in court, which was a huge relief to her, but so much fear throughout all of this. And that just really got to me. As a historian, I feel like I get to know these people and they become kind of friends and people that I want to follow and tell their stories because their stories are so compelling. And sometimes I get so into their stories that I feel their emotions and I’m like, Oh, I’m so sorry. I wish I could do something to help you.
Teri Finneman: 27:57 So, Utah women finally got the right to vote back in 1896. What public relations strategies do you think feminists today could learn from the suffragists of the late 1800s?
Candi Carter Olson: 28:07 I should say that it’s important to note that the women only got the right to vote back in 1896 because the church officially renounced polygamy in 1890 and that cleared the way for the United States Congress to ratify them as a state in 1896. Once they became a state in 1896, the women got their right to vote back.
Candi Carter Olson: 28:39 So, what can women today learn from the women of Utah, and all suffragists really? Those indignation meetings, just showing how educated and smart and willing to speak for yourself and create cogent arguments that were clear, concise, and easily followed and that relied on legal arguments, constitutional arguments, and biblical arguments so that they ran the full gamut of law and religion and morality, which is what this law was hitting. I think women today can learn from that and think about, well, what rights are being hit? How are they being hit at? And how can we use our education, our knowledge, what we know and craft clear, cogent arguments that really capture public attention and public minds and public imaginations. Also, the idea of allyship, the national suffragists, I said they came through Utah, they visited, they were hosted multiple times.
Candi Carter Olson: 29:55 That idea of creating networks of women supporting women, I don’t know, we’re so fragmented in today’s society. It’s really hard to see a lot of groups of women supporting women. So, yeah, we’ve got the women’s rights marches with thousands of women roaming through the streets. But between those marches, where do you see the connections between a whole bunch of different organizations that distribute each other’s work, that distribute each other’s arguments, that are not just their own arguments but are saying, hey, we will speak for you. I think that is a really important thing to do. And just the idea of writing and getting it down and speaking directly to power is important, not speaking around it, but speaking directly to power. So, yeah, the indignation meeting was in Salt Lake City, but like all indignation meetings, it was published in a pamphlet.
Candi Carter Olson: 31:09 There were extra letters and speeches at the end that women, there was not enough time to deliver or women were not there. And they delivered it to Congress and said, hey, read this sucker. They wrote letters directly to Congress, they wrote editorials in the Exponent, which they knew the Exponent would eventually get out of Utah and be circulated elsewhere. So, all of these things were important strategies that they use. It seems like maybe they were talking, they were in talking to themselves, they used actually a form of code switching where they would talk to the people here in Utah on one level and you could get that and understand that they’re talking to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a way that non-LDS members wouldn’t get. And actually Erin was a really important part of this research because again, I’m not LDS, so having her research and she’d go, ‘oh, that is a reference to the book of Mormon. That is a reference to this speech, that is a reference to this person who is an important part of the history of the church.’ She was an important part of me seeing that code switching in action.
Teri Finneman: 32:21 You’ve been very involved with the planning for the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment. Why do you think it’s important to share that history and to celebrate it?
Candi Carter Olson: 32:28 We’re still struggling for voting rights today. We see it on so many levels and it’s not just women. It is people, minorities, ethnic and racial minorities, our Native American people are being disenfranchised. To look at the way that white women, and I think it’s really important to note that 1920, white women got the right to vote. But it wasn’t until much later that Asian women, African American women, Native American women, got the right to vote. That was in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Candi Carter Olson: 33:12 So, thinking just about how long that took and how we’re still struggling today. I think looking at the anniversary of suffrage and the arguments that these women made and the way that they made them and what they were willing to go through, they did marches where they were pelted with things. They stood in front of the White House and were arrested. They were tortured in jail. They were willing to put up with all of that because they understood that the right to vote gave them a voice in making our government work better for women. And I think looking at today’s voting rights battles and how they correlate to so many of the suffrage battles, is important to think about. What do we need to go through to overcome the deficits we have in voting today, and how do we fill in those holes? How do we make sure that everybody’s voice is heard today?
Teri Finneman: 34:16 Tell us about some of the plans that you’re working on for the suffrage anniversary year.
Candi Carter Olson: 34:17 So, my co-teacher Cathy Bullock and I are planning a workshop around suffrage in the media and the media strategies that suffragists used to get their voice out there and how they were these wonderful public relations practitioners and we never think about them that way, but they are. And so during that week we are going to have living historians come in. A living historian reenact Frederick Douglass and another one’s going to reenact Lucretia Mott. We are going to have a display of Nina Allender, who was a cartoonist for the National Women’s Party. We’re going to have a display of her work, an installation of her work, come in for 12 weeks, which is going to be awesome. I’m so excited about it. And then during that week, we are going to run the students through how to create their own media campaign and write their own contemporary declaration of sentiments that we are going to walk through the city of Logan and present to our mayor here and have her sign it, because we have a woman mayor right now, so we may as well include her because she’s awesome.
Candi Carter Olson: 35:33 So, that’s one thing. Next year, there is a group of us who are going to bring in a workshop called the Tanner workshop here on campus at Utah State University. And that workshop is going to include national speakers talking about contemporary voting rights in what I was just saying about minority rights and thinking about whose disenfranchised today and what do we need to do to get them enfranchised? We’re also doing voting rights campaigns here on campus using the students and those sorts of things. So, trying to get out the idea that the right to vote is important and that the strategies that the women used are still valid and important today is really everything we’re doing.
Teri Finneman: 36:22 The final question of the show is why does journalism history matter?
Candi Carter Olson: 36:42 Why does journalism history matter? Journalism history matters for so many different reasons. I love journalism history. Journalism itself is the first draft of history. And I was organizing a research symposium here and I called over to our History Department to see if anybody wanted to participate, and somebody who was like, ‘well, I use newspapers as my primary sources, but I don’t know that that’s really media research.’ And all I could say was, yes it is. You are using the media because you understand that the media created the culture of the time. So, whatever media we have saturates our culture, it creates it. It drives it. So, journalism history is the study of culture. It is the study of how cultures are created. It is the study of how cultures are transmitted. Without journalism history, we do not understand our culture and how it has developed and evolved.
Teri Finneman: 37:41 All right, well, thanks so much for joining us today. Thanks for tuning in, and additional thanks to our sponsor, the Communication Department at William Paterson University, and to Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal Journalism History. Until next time, I’m your host, Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. Good night and good luck.