Utahns turned out to celebrate the statue of Martha Hughes Cannon.

Martha Goes to Washington

By Reneé Leta

Scores of Utahns turned out on June 5 to say farewell to Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon at the Utah State Capitol. The sculpture of the trailblazing female doctor and politician — commissioned to mark the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment — is now heading to Washington D.C. to be installed in U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection.

We asked Rebekah Clark, historical director of the nonprofit Better Days, about Dr. Cannon’s accomplishments, and how Utahns can be inspired to stand up, speak out, and have an impact for good on our own communities in honoring her memory.

Who was Martha Hughes Cannon? Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon was a trailblazing pioneer in many respects. She made history as a frontier doctor, ardent suffragist, public health advocate, Latter-day Saint mother of three, and the first female state senator in the nation.

By the age of 25, she had earned four degrees, an impressive achievement at a time when few women even had the opportunity to attend college. She spoke at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and was described as “one of the brightest exponents of woman’s cause in the United States.”

In the first election after Utah became a state in 1896, Dr. Cannon ran for the state senate — and she ran against her own husband! She won the election and became the first female state senator in the United States. During her time in office, Dr. Cannon revolutionized Utah’s public health system and established the first state board of health. She testified before Congress and advocated for a national suffrage amendment. She helped pass legislation expanding access to education, supporting the arts, and protecting the rights of women in the workforce. 

How was Utah artist Ben Hammond selected to create the sculpture? The Martha Hughes Cannon Oversight Committee convened an artist selection subcommittee and requested models from many artists. 

Where has the sculpture been? The completed statue was unveiled in September 2020 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. When its installation at the U.S. Capitol was postponed for almost four years due to the pandemic, Dr. Cannon’s statue was put on display at the Utah Capitol. Since that time, Better Days has been hosting a traveling exhibit throughout the state, giving many Utahns an opportunity to see a smaller version of the bronze statue and to learn about Martha’s life and impact. 

To commemorate the statue’s send-off, Better Days and the Utah Historical Society hosted a public celebration at the Utah Capitol on June 5. Festivities included live music, food trucks, pioneer lawn games, and photo opportunities with the statue. Community partners ran booths with fun activities for children and families. 

After six long years, I am thrilled to finally see this trailblazing pioneer of women’s equality assume her rightful place in the halls of our nation’s Capitol building.

UTAH LT. Gov. Deidre Henderson

The program featured a historical overview about Dr. Cannon from Better Days and the Utah Historical Society, with remarks from Lieutenant Governor Deidre Henderson. The truck pulled away to the beat of the American Fork High School marching band as the crowd cheered, waved suffrage flags, and sent Martha off to D.C. in style. 

How will the sculpture travel across the country? Better Days is working with C.R. England Trucking Company to transport the Dr. Cannon’s statue to Washington, D.C. We thought it was fitting when we learned that the truck’s driver, Shanna G., is a female veteran. 

Why was the British Embassy selected to host a reception in Washington D.C.? Martha was born in Wales, United Kingdom, in 1857. She emigrated to Utah Territory at the age of 3 with her family after they joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Wales is excited to have a woman from their nation honored in the U.S. Capitol. Because of this connection, the Martha Hughes Cannon Oversight Committee will host a private reception at the British Embassy in conjunction with the statue’s installation later this summer.

What does the sculpture’s placement in National Statuary Hall mean to you about Martha’s role in Utah’s history? The sculpture of Dr. Cannon is a fitting symbol to represent Utah in the U.S. Capitol and a historic opportunity to celebrate her enduring legacy of leadership. When Dr. Cannon’s statue is installed later this summer, she will be only the 14th woman out of the 100 people featured in the National Statuary Hall Collection. 

Dr. Cannon was exceptional for her time, but she was also representative of the many women who have made a difference in their communities throughout Utah’s history including as the first in the nation to vote under an equal suffrage law. 

Utah women continue to build on that legacy, so this is about more than one woman’s accomplishments — it is a celebration for all of us. Her story inspires us to use our voices and challenges us to make a difference. Dr. Cannon’s story shows that Utah women lead!

For more background about Martha Hughes Cannon, listen to this Utah Historical Society webinar with Better Days historians. Subscribe to the UHS’s free monthly newsletter here.