Inside the newsroom: Women winning the vote was about persistent leadership

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Valley University President Astrid S. Tuminez was 5 years old and living in the slums of the Philippines when Catholic nuns offered her a chance to go to school. As she tells it, that invitation changed the trajectory of her life. Hopes and dreams can mean something when they are matched with opportunity.

Today’s Deseret News contains an opinion piece from Tuminez, now a remarkable college president. She details the learnings that have come since COVID-19 changed everything for higher education. But to me the most compelling observation is this striking comment about the change that came when the virus hit.

“As reality sunk in, I realized that my team and I had to step up to a new level of leadership.”

That winning approach led her team to move 4,000 course sections online within two weeks. And they were just getting started. Ruth V. Watkins, president of the University of Utah, showed similar leadership, as her opinion piece in the Deseret News last week revealed, “The 4 key lessons COVID-19 has taught the University of Utah.”

Salt Lake Community College President Deneece Huftalin is charting a new course for thousands of students in Salt Lake City. She detailed that vision in her piece “COVID-19 brings a new look to community college,” with remarkable improvements in technology.

Strong leadership from women in Utah is the norm, with leaders not just in education, but in media, technology, philanthropy, religion, civil rights and government. You can draw a direct line to today’s leaders from the leadership of women 150 years ago when women won the right to vote.

“In Utah, every man and now — through the act passed by our Legislature last season — every woman is at perfect liberty to nominate and vote for any candidate they chose for any office that is vacant,” the Ogden Junction newspaper reported on this same weekend in July of 1870.

The newspaper, with Franklin D. Richards as editor, was putting its weight behind William H. Hooper who was again running for Congress. This time the appeal was also to women in this territory-wide election. Acting Governor S. A. Mann had signed the legislation allowing women to vote on February 12, 1870. Two days later, Salt Lake City’s first municipal election was held and history records that Seraph Cedenia (Young) Ford was the first woman to vote in a U. S. election on that day.

The newspaper article in the Ogden newspaper concluded with this appeal:

“We say once more to our friends, let every man and every woman who has the right, go to the polls on Monday next and vote freely, honestly, and with good will for the men of their choice.” It was a starting line, not a finish line.

Perhaps the real lesson of suffrage is the work that followed; women used their newfound influence to lead and that leadership brought positive changes and respect.

My friend Ron Fox, who searches attics and archives for historical documents and photos, introduced me to a periodical that included a report of a letter sent by Utahn Ellen B. Ferguson to presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan following his successful nomination to represent the party in 1896. He had given a stirring speech denouncing the gold standard in favor of increasing silver coins.

While others from Utah would catch the train home to Utah from the Chicago convention site, Bryan wanted to meet Ferguson because of her letter:

To the Honorable W. J. Bryan of Nebraska.

Dear sir.

In the name of the Democratic women of Utah who will cast their first ballots for president of the United States next November, I congratulate you upon the glorious victory gained today, by the Free Silver Party in nominating you as the standard bearer of the army of human progress whose success will bring hope and comfort to the tolling millions that have so long groaned beneath the burden of the “cross of gold.”

As the first woman who ever occupied a seat in a national convention I pledge you the votes of the Democratic women of the new born state of Utah together with my personal efforts to return a large majority for democracy, free silver and W.J. Bryan in November next.

Sincerely, Ellen B. Ferguson, alternate delegate to Utah.

He met with this trailblazer who wasn’t simply content with attending the convention. She sought a greater measure of leadership.

20140403 Martha Hughes Cannon was a pioneer woman with many remarkable state and national achievements.
20140403 Martha Hughes Cannon was a pioneer woman with many remarkable state and national achievements.
KUED/Deseret News Archive

Later this month a statue of Martha Hughes Cannon, described as a wife, doctor, orator polygamous wife and women’s rights advocate, as well as a suffragist and the first woman state senator in the United States, will take its place in National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.

In addition to her faith, devotion to church and family, she helped create the State Board of Health, a statewide sanitation bill, the Pure Food Act, won an appropriation for a hospital for the “deaf, dumb and blind,” and worked to prohibit the sale of alcohol to minors.

The lessons of these leaders is clear. Winning a victory doesn’t mean a fight is over. It means more is required. That’s true whether it’s wining the right to vote, or working to overcome the coronavirus.

Doug Wilks is editor of the Deseret News.

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