Political Remembering

August 4, 2008 | 12 comments
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Fascinating Utah history factoid: Kanab,Utah, claims the first all-woman city council in the United States. The five women were elected on November 7, 1911, to serve during the 1912-1914 term, and one of them was elected to serve as chair of the council, a position that doubled as mayor. My inner feminist cheers, but my inner scholar laughs. Because what I find more fascinating than the election itself is that everyone is so darn proud of the women . . . now. Well, aren’t we forward-thinkers? We elected the first all-woman city council! “We” (Utahans, Mormons, whoever–fill in the blank) congratulate ourselves and claim the Kanab women’s victory.

No doubt we all wish history could re-write itself and overlook a few small details—such as the fact that none of the women ran for election; that some “loafing” men at the post office arranged it and meant for the election to be a joke (and not a funny-ha-ha joke but a mean-in-your-face joke); that the women found it near to impossible to accomplish things because they couldn’t convince any local males to be the “marshall” and enforce their laws; and that we here in Utah have alternatively mocked, overlooked, ignored, grudgingly approved, and heralded this election, depending on the time period, the cultural feelings toward women, and current national politics.

The election and the way it has been remembered makes me wonder how much I, too, am merely a product of my philosophical and theological environment. Am I sensitive to gender issues because of some egalitarian make-up in my soul . . . or because I went to college in the 1990s, and that was what I was taught?

If I were the daughter of one of Kanab’s councilwomen (three of the five had babies born during the two year term) and had been raised in the first half of the twentieth century, would I have listed my mom’s term on Kanab’s town council in her 1950’s obituary? Or simply ignored that aspect of her life and acclaimed her mothering and church skills? It was the 50’s, after all.

If I had been born and raised during the 1950’s would I have intrinsically agreed with a 1968 article in the Salt Lake Tribune which sarcastically argued that “TV heroes” of westerns may have problems, but nothing like the “real” problem of “a frontier western cowtown run entirely by women,” and then wind it all up with the unsubstantiated claim that “there is no known town record saying just WHY the gals ran, or why the rugged Mormon husbands let them.”

Obviously it’s impossible to know, but I can’t help wondering if I have a clue how to think outside the box . . . or if “thinking outside the box” is a cultural ideal that has faults of its own . . . or if I am so enveloped by my box that I really can’t understand what it would be like to be out of the box anyway. Just some thoughts for your Monday morning.

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12 Responses to Political Remembering

  1. Julie M. Smith on August 4, 2008 at 9:21 am

    This is a great post–kind of reminds me of that old line about how every generation reads Hamlet differently.

  2. Researcher on August 4, 2008 at 10:08 am

    Wow. This post almost blows my mind. You sure managed to pack a lot of issues into a fairly short post.

    Do I address women’s suffrage? Women in politics in the 1890-1920 period? How reliable the history of the Kanab election was? The fall-out or results in Kanab? How women elected to office were viewed in subsequent decades? Men’s views of women’s suffrage? The 1950s female view of women’s suffrage and/or political office holding? The 1950s male view of women’s suffrage and/or political office holding? The view of suffrage in rural communities vs cities? The re-writing of history? How we learn gender roles? How I understand history differently than someone in prior decades? Whether my way of approaching and understanding history is better, worse, or simply different than previous generations?

    Since it’s Monday morning and my brain is not quite up to sorting out any of these issues yet, I’ll simply ask a connected question which someone may know the answer to:

    Were there any women involved in Utah politics after the 1890-1925 period?

  3. Cole on August 4, 2008 at 11:50 am

    Can you list the women? My grandmother and her family were from Kanab.

    Regarding the post… yes, it does seem a lot of these historical ‘victories’ were a mixed bag.

  4. Marjorie Conder on August 4, 2008 at 12:21 pm

    I’m coming off the top of my head here. I’m sure of the general outline but I haven’t got the specific years, so you will need to give or take about 5 years. From about 1925 to 1945 there were more women in the Utah State Legislature than at any time since. These women included Amy Brown Lyman and Reva Beck Basone (sp?) The RS magazine in about 1940 had an editorial titled “That Which Is Ours” and warns it’s readers that the political and social gains of the last half century could be (and indeed many of them were) lost, if we as Mormon women were not vigilant and involved.

  5. Rechabite on August 4, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    Mary Elizabeth Woolley Chamberlain, mayor
    Vinnie Jepson (later replaced by Ada Seegmiller)
    Tamar Hamblin
    Blanche Hamblin
    Luella McAllister

    (Mary C. was plural wife #6 to my g-g-grandfather.)

  6. Aaron on August 4, 2008 at 1:45 pm

    How interesting. What\’s even more interesting is that today not one of these women — if they were LDS — could run anything in the church without a man\’s approval.

  7. Researcher on August 4, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    I’m not sure what comment 6 has to do with anything in this post. This is a discussion of women’s involvement in civil government and silly situation in Kanab or not, Utah was far ahead of most of the other states in the union as far as women’s rights, divorce rights, voting rights, and rights to hold elected positions.

    There have been a total of 29 women governors in 21 states in the entire history of the United States. Utah has had one of them.

    If you want to see a true good-ol-boys network including shocking amounts of corruption, you’ll have to visit my mid-Atlantic state, not Utah.

  8. Kylie on August 4, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    #5–that is quite a family you come from. I love the panorama photo of your gg grandfather with all the wives and kids. And the story of how Mary C. was “wooed” by him is one of my favorite post manifesto stories. Have you read her rallying poem entreating women to enter polygamy? Thanks for listing the women out. One of my favorite parts of the research was noting how interlinked all the women were. Small towns are fun that way, huh?

    #2–you’re right. I stuffed a lot in. I would love to talk more about the history and women’s issues, but I figured a lot of you might have already read my article in Utah Historical Quarterly a few years ago on these women. So I decided to use it as the jumping off point for a more philosphical question that interested me–that of how “political” our remembering is. As I said, going through the sources which sporadically remembered this election and mentioned it was a fascinating case study in historical bias and slant. I couldn’t help but wonder how much I was caught up in it myself. The fact that I even wanted to research that issue no doubt was raised by the historio-cultural time frame that I inhabit. It makes me wonder what silly things I’m saying that will make future researchers laugh at me.

    #7 I think your comment gets at what I’m talking about. I can’t help but be proud (like you) that “Utah was far ahead of most of the other states in the union as far as women’s rights, divorce rights, voting rights, and the rights to hold elected positions.” However, I wonder where that pride comes from and how much it “hides”–not in me and my psyche but in the context of historical research. For example, there were a few easy-to-find statements about how much the all-woman city council was applauded, so most researchers who brushed by the issue assumed that was true and stuck with the story of Utah and women’s rights. Of course we want it to be true. We like to be forward-thinking and far ahead in women’s issues. But there was a lot more to the story than that; in fact, given the way these women were elected and how difficult it was for them to get support on many issues, I wonder whether we can rightly place this election on a feminist pedestal at all. Probably not. Though it did happen, and the women did serve their term and do a great job. And Ada Seegmiller even ran for re-election and was elected. Perhaps this particular issue is similar to so many others–it simply can’t be reduced to a simple label or motivation, especially not a twenty-first century one.

  9. Raymond Takashi Swenson on August 4, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    The correct spelling was Reva Beck Bosone.

    The fact that one of the women ran for reelection and won tells me that men were also elected in that next election. Was that a joke too? Who was the original joke on–the women or the town? Were there no men who ran for office that year?

    Any statement about Mormons in the Tribune is automatically suspect. It established expectations in the public of being the opposition newspaper, and has strived to live up to that market even now. I cannot recall ever seeing any Church-related source calling Mormon men “rugged” or implying that the quality of ruggedness was a desirable one for priesthood holders. And what does “rugged” have to do with how a husband should treat his wife? I live in a ward with a lot of farmers and truck drivers and project engineers who like to fish and hunt and ride snowmobiles, but they are as solicitous of their spouses as anyone I know.

    When Utah was a less populous state, campaigning for election to the legislature involved more door-to-door contact and community prominence and not much costly advertising. To run for election these days costs more of your own money and the ability to persuade other people to give you theirs. Another aspect of motivation to serve in the legislature is to represent the special interests of a particular group or profession. Becoming a former legislator puts one in position to become a paid lobbyist dealing with one’s former colleagues. So my guess is that the relative scarcity of women legislators is due to the tendency of money to flow to people who are already tied into a group that has financial interests in legislative outcomes, and reflects the continuing domination of men in the business world where that money flows.

  10. Lupita on August 4, 2008 at 6:20 pm

    Excellent post. A good reminder of one of the difficulties of historical research–you are always interpreting through your box to some degree.
    I’ll admit to a tug of sadness when I read more of the details of the town council. I want to believe the heroic version. However, as you pointed out, it remains a remarkable story. No matter how the council came to office, it was still a unique historical moment. In some ways, it makes the story even more interesting (esp. Ada’s re-election).

  11. Martin Willey on August 4, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    Very interesting post, but no Utahn says “Utahan.”

  12. Kylie on August 5, 2008 at 9:43 am

    Martin Willey: good thing that I still consider that I’m from Wyoming, even though I’ve lived in Utah for over a decade. Leave it to an English professor/amateur historian to use a dictionary-acceptable/historical spelling of a word, huh?