“Women’s Suffrage,” Church History Topics
In the 19th century, women’s social and political opportunities in most countries differed sharply from those of men. Women typically could not claim the same rights as men in government, property ownership, education, employment, and custody of children. Those who ran for office and voted in elections were almost exclusively men.1 Nevertheless, women in increasing numbers began to participate in public life in the United States. They formed and joined benevolent societies and became a significant force in movements to encourage temperance and to end slavery.
In July 1848 more than 300 social activists met at Seneca Falls, New York, for two days of speeches and debates on questions relating to women’s civic and religious rights. At the end of the convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton advanced a Declaration of Sentiments, a document identifying the legal, financial, educational, and social constraints on women and demanding that women be given the right to vote.2 Meetings such as the Seneca Falls Convention gave rise to an organized campaign for the right to vote, a cause known at the time as “woman suffrage.”
Latter-day Saint women had also gained experience in civic life in both Missouri and Illinois. These women had petitioned the government for redress after experiencing persecution in Missouri and had initiated the founding of the Relief Society in Nauvoo. In Utah, stake and ward Relief Society leaders encouraged women to voice their opinions.3
Government opposition to plural marriage mobilized Latter-day Saint women into political action in the 1870s.4 In the Salt Lake Fifteenth Ward Relief Society, for instance, President Sarah Kimball called women together to decide on how to respond to pending federal antipolygamy legislation. Bathsheba Smith added, “We demand of the governor the right of franchise.”5 These leaders believed that woman suffrage would enable the Saints to preserve their marriages and religious freedom. Unaware of how deep such convictions went, some federal antipolygamy activists reasoned that if granted suffrage, Utah women would vote to outlaw polygamy.6
In 1870, to the surprise of the nation, the Utah territorial legislature established a law granting women suffrage, and Utah women became the first in the United States to cast votes in municipal elections.7 Utah women also joined the national campaign for women’s rights alongside suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, although some in the national organizations protested the inclusion of Latter-day Saint polygamist women.8
In 1887 the federal government rescinded woman suffrage in Utah as part of the antipolygamy Edmunds-Tucker Act. Utah women responded by organizing the Territorial Woman Suffrage Association, determined to regain their full rights. For the next eight years, they planned events in Utah towns and cities, dispatched members to national women’s rights conventions, and lobbied territorial legislators for their reenfranchisement.9
At the 1895 constitutional convention in Utah, legislators debated whether to include woman suffrage in their proposal to the United States Congress for statehood. Orson F. Whitney, who later became an Apostle, forcefully endorsed woman suffrage. “It is woman’s destiny to have a voice in the affairs of government,” he said. “She was designed for it. She has a right to it.”10 Convention delegates voted in favor of woman suffrage, and when granted statehood a few months later, Utah became the third state of the Union to extend political equality to women. In 1920 women in the United States gained the right to vote with the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The expansion of women’s voting rights outside the United States likewise began in the 19th century. Several countries, territories, states, and colonies began to introduce voting rights for some women, typically those who were widowed, divorced, owned property, or paid taxes. In 1893 New Zealand became the first sovereign nation to grant universal suffrage for women. Other governments granted women’s suffrage throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. As recently as 2015, women in Saudi Arabia voted for the first time.
Latter-day Saints, both men and women, continue to participate in civic and political activities and are actively engaged in worthy causes to improve their communities in accordance with the laws of their respective governments.