Sponsored by BYU Studies— Neylan McBaine is the CEO of Better Days 2020, founder of Mormon Women, and author of Pioneering the Vote: The Untold Story of Suffragists in Utah and the West.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and why you’re interested in telling the story of Utah Suffragists.
Neylan McBaine: 11 years ago, I moved to Utah from New York City, where I had been born and raised. I’d also lived in Boston and San Francisco, so even though we had good reasons to move here (the usual: family, cost of living, etc). I never expected to become a brand ambassador for the State of Utah! But I sure feel like one now because we’ve really loved it here and I’m deeply invested in sharing Utah’s greatness with people on the coasts who often have an incomplete impression of it.
Professionally, I worked in online marketing and brand strategy in Silicon Valley and here in Salt Lake City.. Simultaneously, I had a rich volunteer life as an advocate for Latter-day Saint women. I started the Mormon Women Project in 2008, wrote Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact in 2014 and spoke and wrote extensively. As a girl growing up in the Church in New York, and as the only child of a mother with a prominent international career, I had received different messages about being a woman in the Church than many of my gospel sisters. I sought to share some of the people and attitudes that kept me strong in the Church.
In 2016, I saw an opportunity to join my professional marketing skills with my personal advocacy work: I realized that 2020 would mark not only the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment (which extended women’s voting rights across the nation), but it would also mark the 150th anniversary of Utah being the first place an American woman voted under an equal suffrage law. This fact seemed almost unknown and entirely forgotten among Utahns and members of the Church.
In addition, I kept reading discouraging articles about Utah being the “worst state for women” based on statistics around education, workplace and political leadership. I was familiar with the dynamics that led to these statistics and felt that the positive example of our history – the fact that Utahns were among the national leaders in the women’s advocacy movement of the 19th century – would offer just the right shock value to spur us to imagine Utah becoming a champion for women once again. Thanks to an early appropriation from the Utah State Legislature, Better Days 2020 was born.
What are your most important goals as CEO of Better Days 2020?
Neylan McBaine: Better Days 2020 was organized as a non-profit with the mission of popularizing Utah women’s history in creative and communal ways. We choose early on to focus on educational curriculums, public art, events and legislation. We wanted to use the positive example of our history to change perceptions of Utah both internally and outside the state. I’ve had an incredible team over the past three years and we’ve been able to add so much to the women’s history landscape!
Happily, the research we’ve done has shown that perceptions around girls’ potential for leadership has skyrocketed when kids are exposed to the stories of these Utah women leaders. One of the reasons it’s been such an incredibly rewarding project is because the responses aren’t just measured by statistics and data; it feels like everyone who encounters this material has a very personal, emotional reaction to seeing themselves and their community in a very different—and more positive—light.
Introduce Pioneering the Vote: The Untold Story of Suffragists In Utah and the West.
Neylan McBaine: Pioneering the Vote is a narrative history of the early suffrage triumphs in the West, focused on the experiences of Emmeline B. Wells and the suffragists of Utah territory. It alternates between a fictional voice that gives personality and conversational opportunities to the characters, and a non-fiction voice that presents the facts and context.
My motivation for writing it like this is simply that it was what I was comfortable with and what I would want to read myself. The story doesn’t need to be fictionalized because it’s so incredibly rich—and the fiction sections are still entirely derived from primary source material.
But I also didn’t want to write a straight history book that might be too academic for a mainstream audience. I want people to feel like they can know and love these characters and sympathize with the complexity of their lives—as plural wives, as the subjects of federal legislation and media disparagement. I wanted to honor their words while still making them feel vital to us today.
Describe the relationship between Emmeline B. Wells and Susan B. Anthony.
Neylan McBaine: One of my favorite discoveries in our research from the past few years has been the closeness of the friendship between Utah’s leading suffragist (and later, fifth General Relief Society President) Emmeline B. Wells and America’s leading suffragists, Susan B. Anthony.
It was an unlikely friendship: Anthony was the East Coast Quaker who was unmarried, and Wells was a polygamous wife in a remote American territory.
But Anthony and Wells formed a friendship through their prolific writing and by attending conferences together, and Anthony was an important and treasured ally to the women of Utah: as many of the other national suffrage leaders shunned the Utah polygamists, Anthony routinely embraced them and praised them as doing something—voting—which few other American women were able to do.
The strength of the Anthony/Wells friendship became clear when I learned that on her deathbed, Anthony bequeathed Wells one of her gold rings, sending it to Utah with a note that it was a token of the women’s 40-year friendship.
I love thinking of Emmeline, separated from her Eastern childhood home, widowed by three husbands and subjected to private loneliness and heartache, being comforted by her friendship with one of the most famous women in the United States.
What was the Rocky Mountain Suffrage Convention?
Neylan McBaine: In May 1895, Susan B. Anthony and Rev. Anna Howard Shaw visited Salt Lake City to co-host—alongside Emmeline Wells and the Utah suffragists—the Rocky Mountain Suffrage Conference. A proposed constitution for the new State of Utah had just been drafted by an all-male delegation, and the purpose of the trip was specifically to congratulate the women of Utah on this triumph. Utah would be the third state in the nation to enfranchise its women.
Anthony and Shaw routinely criscrossed the country, speaking and appearing at suffrage conferences.
But this one was different: it was one of the largest conferences ever held in the West and it attracted thousands of women from around the country. On the agenda were discussions on how to carry forward the good momentum to states like Idaho, California and Washington.
I use the Rocky Mountain Suffrage Conference as the focal point for the narrative of my book because it represented a rare moment of unity among the nation’s suffragists. The tensions between the Utahns—most of whom were Latter-day Saints and who were either in polygamous marriages or supported the practice—and the rest of the movement had been insurmountable in the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s after Utah women had been the first American women to vote. But after the Manifesto of 1891, the standoff eased and Utah women were tentatively welcomed into the embrace of the larger movement.
Who was Seraph Young?
Neylan McBaine: Seraph Young was a young schoolteacher who became the first American woman to vote under an equal suffrage law. On February 14, 1870, Young—who was Brigham Young’s grandneice—cast her ballot at Salt Lake City’s City Hall (now known as the Council Hall) in the first election open to women.
Some may know that the Territory of Wyoming was the first place to enfranchise women in the country, but Utah’s territorial legislature followed suit just a few months later. And Utah had two elections in which women voted before Wyoming women went to the polls. So Utah women—and specifically an LDS women—were the first American women to vote in this nation.
Interestingly, Seraph’s name was recorded by the media that day, but then she fell into obscurity, marrying a Civil War veteran and living in poverty in Maryland for much of her later life. We’ve been able to resurrect her story this year and shed light on an everyday woman who did an extraordinary act.
Why is the role of the West often left out of 19th amendment histories?
Neylan McBaine: In all of the museum exhibits and documentaries and articles that have focused recently on the suffrage movement and the centennial of the 19th Amendment, almost none have sincerely explored why Western women were voting up to 50 years ahead of the rest of the nation. This Western leadership is often dismissed as an aberration of the “Wild West” and “frontier spirit”.
I propose in my book that this is an oversimplification, but that wrestling with the Western states’ real reasons is uncomfortable for us.
That is because the Western states—specifically Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Idaho—were motivated by factors that are unrelatable or unadmired by modern audiences. For example, in Utah, women’s voting was inextricably linked to debates around polygamy. In Wyoming, racism was a huge motivating factor. In Colorado, it was political forces around the silver standard. The what?
In contrast, the later part of the suffrage movement—in the 1910s—was documented by a media landscape that we relate to much more today.
We love the images of the parades and the women all in white and the stories of the hunger strikes and the women chaining themselves to the White House gates. Those were later publicity tactics, and by comparison the 19th century tactics look quite tame and boring.
But without the decades-long foundation laid by those early Western states, the door for all women might have stayed closed longer than it even did.
How did early Utahns connect the right to vote with polygamy?
Neylan McBaine: The idea to enfranchise the women of Utah was actually proposed by the New York Times in 1869 as a way of getting rid of polygamy. The Mormons’ practice of plural marriage—the “Mormon Question”—was one of the biggest political issues of the 19th century.
It’s hard for us to imagine now how much media and political attention was paid to the national consternation over this “barbaric” practice. The proposal was that, if the Latter-day Saint women were allowed to vote, they would vote out polygamous men and free themselves from their perceived oppression.
The all-Latter-day Saint male members of the Utah Territorial Legislature called the East Coast’s bluff, and did in fact enfranchise Utah women. But the women then didn’t vote the way the outsiders assumed they would: rather than using their vote to diminish polygamy’s influence, they used it to demand protection for their unusual way of life and to prove that they were not oppressed.
In retaliation, the U.S. government, through a series of legislative measures in the 1880s, eventually disenfranchised all Utah women and polygamous men, after Utah women had been voting for almost two decades.
The history is complex and full of twists and turns, but voting for women in Utah was always tied with discussions around polygamy. What I have found most interesting in telling these women’s stories is trying to understand their passion and drive to defend the practice, prove that they were independent thinkers and leaders, and demand their rights to practice their religion as they wished.
In private, many of the leading polygamous suffragists—like Emmeline Wells and Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon—expressed personal loneliness and heartache over their marriages. But they also recognized the system’s benefits for women who wanted to leave domestic chores to sister wives and themselves pursue educational, profession or political opportunities that were not possible for many other American mothers and wives of the time.
Why has your perception of history evolved since you moved from New York to Utah?
Neylan McBaine: As a born and raised New Yorker who is now a dedicated Utahn, I am uniquely aware of the bias that exists as we tell the story of our country: all significant things seem to have happened east of the Mississippi!
I’ve seen this bias so clearly now this year as our media is telling the suffrage story. I understand that our population in the non-coastal West is a fraction of what’s concentrated in our largest cities, but I definitely have an appreciation now for all of country’s various landscapes and communities that I didn’t have in my New York bubble.
How does the legacy of the suffrage movement change when considering events prior to 1910?
Neylan McBaine: Movements are seared into public memory by key images and figures, and as a marketer myself, I understand the importance of these touchstones. We have no trouble conjuring Ines Mulholland sitting astride her white horse in a parade, or picturing the women chained to the White House gates.
We’ve seen photographs of those moments and, as they say, an image is worth a thousand words.
But that kind of advanced media and those dramatic tactics didn’t exist for the first decades of the suffrage movement—from its founding in 1848 through 1910 when the movement finally gained some momentum in the East. For those six decades, the dominant tactic was the “still hunt”: a methodical approach that capitalized on feminine qualities of respect and gentle persuasion.
The “still hunt” didn’t encourage searing images and media stunts. But to dismiss it as useless and slow is missing the point. It was these six decades that paved the foundation for the Progressive Era’s leaders to build on and ultimately succeed. All kinds of advocacy are needed: the “still hunt” as well as the media drama. The methodical state-by-state approach and the attention-capturing parades and spectacles.
I think for us today who are living in an advocacy culture, this is one of the most important lessons: activism takes many different forms and to succeed in deliberate persuasion, all are needed.
We need “empathetic activism” as I call it—an approach based on bridge-building and dialogue—just as much as we need protests and lobbying.
We need to be willing to soften the ground with listening and relationship building, just as much as we demand action and even use force.
If the women of Utah and the West hadn’t chipped away for decades in softening the ground and laying that foundation, the 19th Amendment may have remained out of reach for longer than it did.
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This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.