Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Martha Maria Hughes ("Mattie") Cannon, 1857-1932
By Dr. Isabel Asensio, Professor of Spanish and Chair, Foreign Languages Department, Weber State University, Ogden, UT.
Doctor, polygamist, and political leader.
Martha Maria Hughes was born in Wales in 1857. Her father was Peter Hughes, a carpenter in the village of Llandudno, Caernarvonshire; her mother, Elizabeth Evans Hughes, was from a prominent family in Birmingham. At age two, Martha's parents decided to emigrate to the United States. After two years in New York, the Hughes family had the opportunity to travel to Utah. Martha's youngest sister Annie Lloyd, scarcely a year old, died during the family's journey; and her father, who had been ill for years, died three days after reaching Utah in 1861. Elizabeth married James Patten Paul, a widower with four sons, and had five more children, making for a combined family of eleven children.
At age fourteen, Martha--Mattie, as she had begun to be called--became a schoolteacher and then went to work as a typesetter for local newspapers including the Woman's Exponent, the Mormon women's magazine. During her time working for the magazine, she met other powerful LDS women such as Emmeline Wells and Eliza Snow, who became a mentor to Mattie. Also, about this time, Martha determined to become a doctor. It was a time when few women studied medicine and even fewer schools offered to teach it to them. In 1876, Martha started her undergraduate studies at the University of Deseret in Salt Lake City. Upon graduation, she left Utah to study medicine at the University of Michigan. She did postgraduate work in science and pharmacy at the University of Pennsylvania. She also studied public speaking at the National School of Oratory. Martha returned to Utah in 1882 and practiced medicine, specializing in women's health and pediatrics. As an independent businesswoman, she run a private practice until she was called from the Church to be the resident physician for the Deseret Hospital. While working for the hospital, she met and married Angus Munn Cannon in 1884. She became his fourth wife, thus starting to practice polygamy and publicly defending it. This forced her to flee from authorities on several occasions. In 1886 she moved to England with their seven-month old daughter. Before her exile, she spent some time on the East Coast visiting nursing schools in New York and Boston. She returned to Utah in 1888 and revived her private practice and opened a nursing school, making use of her degree and knowledge learned while in Boston, New York, and England. Martha and Angus's son, James Hughes Cannon, was born in May 1890. That same year, Martha left Utah with her two children--this time for San Francisco--once again due to her polygamist beliefs.
Upon her return to Utah from her second exile in 1892, she became involved with politics and became a leader of the fight for women's voting rights. She joined the Territorial Suffrage Association and attended the national Women's Conference in 1893 where she gave a speech about women in Utah. In 1896 Utah ratified a state constitution and held its first elections as a state, with women able to vote. The Democratic party asked Martha to run for a senate seat and was indeed elected to the newly created Utah State Senate, defeating her own husband in the process, who was running as a Republican candidate. Martha became the nation's first female state senator; she gained national prominence and used that to speak on behalf of the national suffrage movement. During her tenure as state senator, she helped pass bills related to public health and wrote Utah's first sanitation laws. She was appointed a member of the State Board of Health and the State School for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind. Martha's political career came to an end in 1899, when her third child, Gwendolyn Hughes Cannon, was born. Although she was done with her political career, she continued practicing medicine back and forth between California and Utah. In fact, at age seventy, she was a staff member of the Graves Clinic in Los Angeles. Martha died after an operation on July 10, 1932, and her funeral was in Salt Lake City's Tenth Ward Chapel, where she taught Sunday school many years earlier, and where, in 1878, her friends had held a fundraiser in the ward hall to send her off to medical school.
Martha Hughes Cannon remains a model of compassion, determination, and faith. A statue of her was installed in 1996 in the Utah State Capitol rotunda.
Grana, Mari. Pioneer, Polygamist, Politician. The life of Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon. Guilford, Connecticut: TwoDot, 2009.
Karras, Christy. More than Petticoats. Remarkable Utah Women. Guilford, Connecticut: TwoDot, 2010.