Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Lost in the Desert, Then and Now

The envoys got lost in the desert in eastern Nevada, at night, on their way to Salt Lake City.

This was despite having hired a fellow who supposedly knew the route (this was the second and last time the Swedes hired a driver; from then on they relied on their own prowess.) At midnight, overdue at the ranch in Ibapah where they were supposed to rest and refuel, Sara told the driver to stop at a crossroads so she could look around for a signpost, and almost stepped on two “cowpunchers” rolled up in their blankets asleep. The sleepy cowpunchers were able to direct them to the ranch, though they had to retrace many weary miles and didn’t arrive until just before dawn. The ranchers lit fires and gave them hot coffee and food, but as Sara wrote Erskine they were chilled to the bone. “Our teeth chattered and we shook as with ague. We were half-tipsy from the wind’s continuous beat against our eyes, and we were dead from lack of sleep…”[1] But they left the ranch after a few hours’ rest; they didn’t trust their driver in the night again and the ranch owner had advised them to take an 86-mile detour from the Lincoln Highway due to bad roads. Sara sat in the front seat next to the driver, keeping him awake, “calling directions and being general prodder and boss” until they reached Salt Lake City after midnight.

Despite its hardships, Sara remembered the beauty of the night trip through the desert, and the “great wonderful sense of infinite space” surrounding them. At top speeds of 15 mph they had plenty of time to enjoy it… Here’s a link to a little video my husband shot with a Go-Pro camera of Highway 50, which gives you a little better sense of the landscape than a single photo can convey.

In Salt Lake City Mabel Vernon had worked with local activists to plan the official ceremony, and it sounded pretty magical. A band led a cavalcade of cars from the Hotel Utah, where the envoys were staying, up to the steps of Utah’s brand new State Capitol, built on a hill above the city. As Sara described it “Behind it are the great black mountains. Before it is the whole world…The sun was sinking in golden fire into the lake…” Various public officials, including the Governor, the Salt Lake City mayor, and a US Representative were lined up on the steps to greet the envoys. Utah’s own Emmeline B. Wells, (whom Sara described as a “darling old lady, 88- a Mormon, a pioneer in suffrage, an intimate of Susan B. Anthony”) introduced the envoys to the men, and speeches commenced. “There was music and a deep, reverential sort of spirit abiding in the great crowd that swarmed the steps and Capitol grounds,” wrote Sara.
Photo from envoys' event at the Capitol. From Salt Lake Herald, Oct. 5, 1915. I love how none of the important men present is mentioned...

Bust of Emmeline at the Capitol
I got a tour of the state capitol from Jenn Gonnelly, Co-President of the Utah League of Women Voters and a state house regular, and it certainly is magnificent. There’s some nods to women’s history, like this bust of Emmeline B. Wells and a lovely statue of Martha Hughes Cannon, the first woman to be elected state senator in the United States. 

Emmylou Manwill, Visitor Services &
Community Engagement Coordinator
at Utah State Capitol
Luckily, the Capitol employs Emmylou Manwill, who among other cool things leads women's history tours around the building and grounds. Jenn brought me over to meet Emmylou and I was delighted to find that one of the posters she uses to advertise her tours features Sara Bard Field.

Jenn Donnelly
Born and raised a Mormon, Jenn likes to say she “came out of the womb a feminist” and is no longer part of the church, but her background gives her an interesting perspective on Utah’s politics and history. 

Over lunch at Salt Lake City’s historic Lamb's Grill we discussed Utah’s unique suffrage history, which is integrally entwined with the Mormon Church. The territorial government granted women the right to vote (though they still couldn’t hold office) in 1870, to thwart threats by Congress to end polygamy. Mormon leaders believed that their women wouldn’t use their votes to end the practice, and Eastern politicians were surprised to discover this was true. Utah was the first state, after Wyoming, to enfranchise its women.

Congress wasn’t ready to give up, though. Despite strong opposition from national suffrage leaders, Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker anti-polygamy act in 1887, which also stripped voting rights from Utah women.

So after being able to vote for 17 years, with no apparent ill effect to society, women were back to square one. With support from Mormon church leaders, their wives, daughters and other prominent women within the church mobilized to win back the vote, mostly through the church’s existing committees and organizations. But they made little progress until 1884 when Utah was allowed to become a state, and began planning a constitutional convention. Utah’s suffrage leaders, including Emily S. Richards, Margaret N. Caine, Zina D. H. Young (wife of Brigham Young), and Emmeline B. Wells, fought hard- and successfully- to include the following language in the new state’s constitution. “The rights of citizens of the State of Utah to vote and hold office shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex. Both male and female citizens of this state shall enjoy equally all civil, political and religious rights and privileges." (Note they got the office holding language in there too, just to be sure...Pretty sure that was a smart thing to do, given how hard women have had to fight for other rights along the way.)

So Utah was an early leader in giving women civil rights, primarily because the Mormons needed their help to protect polygamy, but you’d be hard put to it to find much progressive about Utah’s treatment of women these days. According to Jenn, the state is falling behind on lots of measures. Just as an example, women in Utah earn 70% of median male earnings, compared to 79% of women nationally. Fully 35% of female-headed households with children live below the poverty line compared to 9% of married couples.
A huge frustration for Jenn and for the Utah League of Women Voters is the state’s failure to adopt Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. The legislature is controlled by conservative Republicans, mostly men, who don’t want to take any money from Washington. Because of this stance, over 123,000 Utahns who would be eligible for the expansion remain uninsured. The state’s own research shows this pigheadedness will cost it thousands of jobs and several billion dollars in negative economic impact. The League has been doing a lot of lobbying around this issue, but so far without a lot of success.

“It’s really hard to talk about poverty in this state,” says Jenn. The Mormon church runs its own welfare programs, so its poor are largely taken care of, and the tea-party Republicans figure everyone else should just pick themselves up by their own bootstraps.
I got a taste of that attitude when chatting with a security guard at the Utah State Archives, where I’d gone to do some research. Just down the block from the Archives are several nonprofits serving people who are homeless, and there was quite a gathering of them across the street from the building. The guard, who said he’d been homeless once after his first wife kicked him out, was proud to report that he’d sought no help from anyone. Instead, he’d advertised in the newspaper that he’d work for room and board, and eventually worked his way out of the hole he was in. He was certain that the sad looking people wandering the streets could have made a different decision but had chosen homelessness, and that many could point to four or five generations of relatives before them who’d done the same. Nothing I could say would change his mind. That’s what the League is up against in this legislature.

The state has also effectively blocked funding for Planned Parenthood Association of Utah. Following the release of a “sting” video by anti-abortion activists, Gov. Gary Herbert told state agencies that they couldn’t pass through federal funding to the organization any more. I’m going to address the whole Planned Parenthood craziness in my next blog, but it definitely seems as if Utah’s a lot less friendly to women than it was a hundred years ago when Sarah and the Swedes came to town.

In later newspaper coverage of the envoys' trip they're quoted as saying that the only time they hired a man to drive them he got them lost. I feel like that may be a metaphor for women generally; when we put men in positions where they can make important decisions for us we're likely to find ourselves lost in the desert. Let's do our own damn driving, ladies!

[1]  Sara Bard Field to C.E.S. Wood, October 6, 1915, WD Box 276, C.E.S. Wood Papers, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California


  1. I hear ya'. LET'S do our own driving. Fascinating post on so many different levels. I'm inspired by the history and deflated by the present day lack of progress. Your points about women and the right to vote in Utah/connection to polygamy and about church charitable programs make me think.

  2. I think Utah's early suffrage history, and how that was inextricably linked in many ways with the religious practice of polygamy will help you understand why the state's current stance on abortion isn't really a step back as you suggest in the post. In any event, it's an informed opinion on the matter from an insider.

    In the 1800's, Susan B. Anthony and the New York Times suggested that if given the right to vote, Mormon women would undoubtedly vote to escape polygamy (which they viewed as clearly being oppressive to women). When Congress decided not to enfranchise the women, the Utah legislature did it for them, and the nation was perplexed when the Mormon women remained in polygamy. They didn't vote themselves clear of the practice, but went on to defend it in Washington D.C. themselves. That's where you get women like Emmeline Wells, Susa Gates, Zina Williams, etc. They fought for equality, while wholeheartedly choosing to remain in polygamy.

    Now you come to abortion, an issue which seems entirely about dictating what women can and cannot do with their bodies. Again, oppression, right? Yet again in Utah, religion is a major factor, and the same women who today comprise the largest and longest running women's organization in the world are most commonly found rejecting abortion in all but the most extreme cases. It is because of that same faith, becoming some of the most outspoken and bold advocates of life. They believe that the life inside them is precious, and not really theirs to terminate.

    Polygamy in the 1800's, and abortion today, all defended fiercely in their respective times by women of principle and faith. It is not men oppressing them in either, or a step backward in women's rights. It is women choosing. With the franchise, they vote those measures and stand behind them more often than not.

    That's my take on it, in any case. Enjoyed your post. Thanks!