Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Mary Jane Robinson West, 1848-1914

By Beverly Wilson Palmer, Research Associate, History Dept., Pomona College

Mary Jane Robinson West was known both for her marriage to a prominent Mormon and her leadership in the Snowflake, Arizona, Relief Society. West was born in Farmington, Davis County, Utah Territory, on October 24, 1848. Mary's mother, Susan McCord, was one of three wives of Mary's father Joseph Lee Robinson, who fathered 27 children in all. Mary Robinson married John Anderson West in 1865. She bore 10 children, of whom six lived to adulthood.

Latter-day Saints records state that Mary's husband Joseph had previously married Betsy Fish (1855-1919) in 1854; the couple divorced sometime after 1869 when their fifth and last child was born. The Mormon church outlawed polygamy in 1890. Before the ban on polygamy, at least a quarter of Mormons lived in what was termed "plural marriages" and the practice was still observed among many families until 1904. Vigorously promoted in the Utah and Arizona territories along with the campaign for statehood, the women's suffrage movement in part sought to counter the image of women in plural marriages as mere dependents.

The West family apparently moved back and forth from Salt Lake to Snowflake, Navaho County, Arizona, several times. In 1870 the Wests lived in Parowan, Utah Territory, where in 1875 John was High Priest in Parowan Stake (an organization composed of five "wards" or congregations). According to LDS records, John served on two missions to Hawaii, one, 1854-58 before his marriage to Mary, and again in 1872-75. By 1880 Mary and John were living in Snowflake with some of their children. Snowflake, founded in 1878, was named for its two prominent Mormon settlers, Charles Flake and Erastus Snow. There John became Superintendant of Sunday Schools of Eastern Arizona Stake and Mary started her involvement in the Mormon Relief Society, a vital outlet for women's activism founded in 1842.

According to an article by Leonard J. Arrington, "Latter-Day Saint Women on the Arizona Frontier, Mary West assumed a leading role in Snowflake. She had helped organize the Arizona Suffrage Organization in 1891. The next year she was one of the founders of the Snowflake Academy. West also served as Stake President of the Mormon Relief Society for ten years. Arrington states that in the 1890s Carrie Chapman Catt asked West to become chairman of the Navajo County Woman Suffrage Movement, but little is known about her role in the movement. Unfortunately, only one written artifact by West apparently survives. The Woman's Exponent , a regular publication of the LDS, contains an 1893 description by Mary Jane West of a birthday party for 88-year-old "Grandma Hunt" in Snowflake on September 19 at the home of Mrs. Charles Flake.

At the turn of the century the West family were recorded as living in Salt Lake City with three of their children. They were back in at their farm in Snowflake in 1910, where Mary Jane is mentioned as a member of the Arizona Equal Suffrage Association (AESA) committee working for the woman suffrage amendment to Arizona's constitution in 1910. However, later that year, the Wests sold the Snowflake property and moved to Salt Lake City. Thus it's doubtful that Mary West remained active in the Arizona campaign for statehood and women's suffrage, ultimately achieved in 1912. Mary West died in Salt Lake City on August 15, 1914 and is buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. John West died in Salt Lake in 1917 and is also buried there.

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Thanks to Kimberly Willis, board member of the Snowflake Heritage Foundation and Sarah Brimhall, president of the Snowflake Heritage Foundation, Snowflake, Arizona

Sources:

A photo of Mary Jane West is located in the Jesse W. Smith home in Snowflake Arizona.

Colleen McDannell, Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy [Oxford, 2019], 22, 32-33; Heidi Oesselaer, Winning Their Place: Arizona Women in Politics, 1883-1950 [University of Arizona Press] 2009, 7-8, 34.

Leonard J. Arrington, "Latter-Day Saint Women on the Arizona Frontier," (April 1874 http://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/new-era/1974/04/latter-day-saints-women-on-the-arizona-frontier?lang=eng)

Woman's Exponent, Vol . 22, No. 7, p. 50.

U.S. Federal Manuscript Census, Utah, 1900 and 1910. Accessed via Ancestry Library Edition.

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