Nearly 25 years before the 19th Amendment gave white women in America the right to vote, a female doctor was elected as the country’s first female state senator – and she had run against her husband.
Astoria author Marianne Monson’s latest work of historical fiction, “Her Quiet Revolution,” is based on the complicated real-life story of suffragist Martha (Mattie) Hughes Cannon.
As a girl, Mattie traveled by wagon train to Salt Lake City with her immigrant family, converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her baby sister and father died during the difficult journey.
This traumatic loss instilled a determination in Mattie to become a healer. Despite coming from humble beginnings and being female, she impressed enough people with her work ethic and intellect that in 1878, as a young woman, she was able to enter medical school at the University of Michigan.
After earning her medical degree there, she proceeded to the University of Pennsylvania to earn an additional degree in oratory because she wanted to be able to communicate the urgency and importance of adopting new health practices.
When she returned to Salt Lake City, Mattie was eager not only to start her own practice, but also to implement improvements in the public health arena. Within a short period, this “doctress” achieved some degree of fame.
But her head was turned by a prominent leader in the church, and the attraction was mutual.
Angus Cannon was a polygamist, and when he proposed marriage to Mattie, she understood that she would become his fourth wife. They tried to keep their marriage a secret, because while polygamy was accepted by their religion, the federal government was cracking down on the practice.
But Mattie soon became pregnant, her husband was taken into custody and a warrant was issued for her arrest. She was forced to flee to avoid imprisonment – leaving behind her family, career and country. She traveled abroad with her infant.
Another story thread that Monson weaves through this tale centers on Utah’s efforts to achieve statehood, which had an effect on church practices and voting rights. Women in Utah Territory had exercised the right to vote since 1870, but political wrangling took the right away in 1887.
When Mattie returned from exile, she was propelled into the effort to restore Utah women’s right to vote. She met success beyond her wildest expectations, which came at great personal cost.
This is a painstakingly researched story, rich in period detail and political intrigue. Monson writes lavish sentences, but she also keeps the story moving at a brisk pace.
Martha Hughes Cannon’s story of balancing motherhood and career will resonate with 21st century readers, while her struggles to adjust to polygamy and fight for suffrage may shed some light on the curious customs of another time.
“Her Quiet Revolution” is a fascinating book.