Introducing Mattie (Martha Hughes Cannon)

Deseret Hospital, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1885

“Stand aside!” Mattie Hughes reportedly ordered the hospital board member who was in her way as she cleaned the floors at the Deseret Hospital where she was resident physician in 1884. That board member was the great Angus Munn Cannon, a prominent Mormon official who was used to deference and to being the one giving the orders. He must have been impressed: not a year later he became her husband.

Seven years before that, in 1878, as federal persecution against polygamists in Utah increased, punctuated by lurid tales perpetuated in the national press, Mattie had dared to leave Mormon society and enter medical school. In mid-19th century Utah it was not ground-breaking for a woman to study medicine. But even in this endeavor, Mattie went her own way. Instead of choosing to study at a female medical college like many of her peers, she chose to study at the University of Michigan for her MD, with an additional degree from the University of Pennsylvania. The University of Michigan medical school had been admitting women for several years; in Pennsylvania, Mattie was the only woman in her class.

She was determined to get the best medical training available and to do so she chose to enter a man’s world and meet men on their own turf. How would she engage that world? Would she be frank about being a Mormon? Or would she be more circumspect and hide that part of herself? This was the first of many things she dared to do that forced her to bridge the insular world of the Mormons in Utah by entering the rather unforgiving world of those critical of Mormonism. She was both equipped and spectacularly unequipped for such a move. 

On the one hand, she was not fearful but was willing to step out when the other girls, her peers, were staying at home, teaching school, or getting married. Her granddaughter, Mary Nichols identified Mattie’s defining trait as the ability “to forge ahead—just to keep forging ahead and making the best of whatever you had to manage.” Nichols points out that Mattie’s stubbornness was an asset: “Well, if she got an idea in her head, she pretty much went ahead with it . . . and she wasn’t deterred very easily.” Perhaps the character trait that best enabled her to take a step into making a new future for women was that “she wasn’t sorted by the old; she was [ready] to learn more and think of the new things that were coming . . . and [how] learning has just developed constantly.” In modern parlance, Mattie thought outside the box. 

She was frank, outspoken and honest in her appraisal of others, though perhaps less successful in her appraisal of herself. Her daughter Elizabeth Rachel called her a woman’s woman. However, her bluntness made it difficult for her to keep and make female friends. Still, she did not wish to be a man. She wrote her husband, commenting on the comments of a mutual friend that women were “purely local creatures . . . a [creature] of impulse, as distinguished from her stronger brother in whom reason predominates”: “That was a thundering lie or else I am a departure from the genuine feminine standard; that I was never so thoroughly miserable in all my life as when I was so thoroughly ‘localized,’ that the more I ‘spread out’ after the manner of men . . . the happier I was. And yet I am not a bit ‘mannish’—I wouldn’t be a man for all creation!” Indeed, by physical standards, there was nothing masculine about Mattie; she was a small woman, barely five feet tall and wearing a size four shoe. She was very feminine and particular about her clothing, even as a child: her half-brother, Joshua Paul, called her “a damned little peacock.” As an adult—much to Angus’s dismay and at the cost of his pocketbook—she became known as one of the best-dressed women in Utah. 

But her petite stature belied the bold way in which she stepped out into the larger world. In addition to her medical career, she immersed herself in the struggle to obtain the vote for women. In a booklet describing the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans in 1884, one male observer comments: “They talk of woman’s sphere as though it had a limit . . . [but] all the avenues of trade and invention open to man are being closely contested by the advancing genius and intelligent research of woman . . . save helping make the laws that govern her, woman is doing her full share to make this age a progressive and prosperous one.”

In little more than a decade, Mattie would force that last bastion of male domination to open to woman’s influence. Yet aside from a very pragmatic approach to accomplishing her goals, Mattie’s thought processes and manner of achieving her goals were, in a way, hampered by both her fervent belief in her religion and her inherent romantic nature.

On the one hand, her pragmatism led to her choice to go East for her medical training even though she would be in a situation in which her religious beliefs would be called into question and even ridiculed. Letters she wrote in 1884 and later make it clear that she did not tell all, even to her best friend, Barbara Replogle:  March 21, 1885: “[I]t has been widely rumored hereabouts that I am the third wife of one of the leaders of the Mormon Church.” She further tells Barbara – falsely, that she had given testimony before the Grand Jury and “that august body came to the unanimous conclusion that if the Mormon Chieftain had married a lady Doctor they had got hold of the wrong one – So it goes.” But by 1887 Barbara knew all; Mattie was still cautious, writing: [R]elate nothing of my married status to your folks as they would not understand like you.”

She was fearless in performing her duty. In 1885, with warrants out for her arrest to be a witness against her husband and also in federal cases against other polygamous husbands (because she delivered their wives’ babies and could therefore attest to the polygamous unions) she nonetheless did not hide, but was seen openly on the street tending to her patients. Her political career began with her involvement with the votes for women movement which culminated with her speaking to a House committee in Washington DC on women’s suffrage and meeting with Susan B. Anthony. As one of the leading Mormon women, she was a featured speaker at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and made sure to be the first in line to register to vote in Utah when women regained suffrage in 1895 upon Utah’s gaining statehood.

The drama heightened when she ran for State Senator on the Democratic party ticket even though her husband was running for the same office on the Republican ticket. She was elected; he was not. 

She went on to serve one term as State Senator and was so highly regarded that her name was put forth as a possible candidate for United States Senator. In all these endeavors, she did what she did best and silenced the critics of Mormon women who—according to the national press—willingly subjected themselves to a version of slavery as plural wives, subject to an evil, lascivious Mormon elder who subjugated his wives. Harriet Beecher Stowe described polygamy as a form of slavery “which debases and degrades womanhood, motherhood, and family.” These same critics were forced to look at Mattie as an example of a Mormon woman and admit that that stereotype did not apply to her—and if not, how, then, did that stigma apply to other Mormon women?

On the other hand, her devout faith combined with a romantic nature led her to marry a man old enough to be her father who already had 17 children and 4 step-children, many of whom were her contemporaries. Even though she knew that if news of that marriage became general knowledge, Angus would certainly be put on trial for “lascivious cohabitation,” she didn’t appear to go to any particular trouble to stay out of the spotlight. She further confirmed her marital status by bearing a first (Elizabeth Rachel) and a second (James Hughes) child even though she knew that to protect her husband she would have to go either underground or into exile until the warrants for his arrest expired.

Those two worlds, which Mattie straddled successfully for two decades, imploded with the birth of her third child, Gwendolyn. The backlash, when it came, was severe. Mattie’s political career was over, her name splashed out in both the national and international press as a prime example of why Mormons were not to be trusted: even though through in the 1895 Manifesto, President Wilford Woodruff had assured America that polygamy was a thing of the past, thus allowing Utah to become a state. Mattie’s third child, the product of a (clearly not abandoned) polygamous union, belied that promise. Condemnation was swift; Angus was arrested and tried a third time for polygamy and cohabitation. 

Mattie spent the last thirty years of her life oscillating between Utah and California, supporting the widowed Elizabeth Rachel in rearing her children. Her life centered on her own three children and her professional ambitions gathered dust. Still, she acquired a library of over 200 books with the goal of reading them and reentering public life by giving speeches. The books remained largely unread; the speeches unwritten. Mattie struggled with depression, illness, and a dependence on the medicine, with which she dosed herself. When she died, at least one granddaughter, who knew Mattie had been a physician, only learned through reading the obituary that her grandmother had been the first female state senator.

Still, Mattie had been able to meet her life’s goal, as articulated to her friend Barbara Replogle in a letter in 1885: “Barbara, even if we have to be poor, let us not waste our talents in the cauldron of modern nothingness—but strive to become women of intellect and endeavor to do some little good while we live in this protracted gleam called life.”

By the time of her death in Los Angeles in 1932, Mattie was largely forgotten, and in spite of a spirited campaign by Elizabeth Rachel in the late 1930s through 1950s to celebrate her mother’s accomplishments, remained so except for short mentions in accounts of Utah women in politics. Highly fictionalized articles detailing scenes from her life appeared in various magazinesand a couple of western historical journals and continue to appear today. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish the facts within these largely mythical and fanciful accounts which were based largely on Elizabeth Rachel’s reminiscences. These ranged from anecdotes she must have heard from her mother or grandmother to flourishes added by herself or by early biographers such as Claire Noall, who produced a series of dramatic accounts of Mattie’s life in the 1940s.

So why should we revive Mattie’s story? In his book Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan describes the earth as a “very small stage” roaming in the immensities of space. Yet, because it is our home, we perceive the earth as a large and marvelously diverse place. Martha Hughes Cannon lived her life on an even smaller stage, the remote, idiosyncratic place that was 19th century Utah. Yet she always expected herself to live large, on a more national stage than Utah, setting her trajectory to encompass a world beyond its borders. What makes Cannon’s life worthwhile of biography is the unique make-up of that small stage and how she challenged its expectations of women and projected herself into the national consciousness. She deserves a place in ours.