Utah Women 20/20: Walking Tour Highlights Salt Lake City's Suffragist Sites

Sep 26, 2018

At the top of State Street in Salt Lake City, there is an old sandstone building that sits across from the state capitol. The structure is home to the Utah Office of Tourism and a gift store where visitors can buy souvenirs like honey in Utah-shaped bottles and Christmas tree ornaments made from the Great Salt Lake.

This building is historic Council Hall and housed city and government offices when Utah was a territory. Then in 1961, the structure was moved here -- seven blocks north of its original location.

“I just love looking at that building. It’s got a warm color because of the sandstone, and I like thinking about the women who might have walked in there,” said Katherine Kitterman, the historical director for Better Days 2020, an organization celebrating the role Utah lawmakers and activists played in the suffrage movement.

women“Council Hall was the place where the first woman voted in the modern United States, and that is an incredibly important event,” Kitterman said. “This was in February of 1870. Sereph Young voted. She was a school teacher, she was on her way to work. She voted in the city election and then went on with her life.”  

Young was one of 25 women who voted in that municipal election. Two days prior, in that same hall, the territorial legislature voted unanimously to extend voting rights to women. Although Wyoming had already agreed to give women the right to vote, Utah held the first official election.

Council Hall is the first stop on a Better Days Salt Lake City walking tour. 13 sites are marked and remembered as important to both state and national efforts to support the suffrage movement and the passage of the 19th Amendment nearly 100 years ago.

“There are several reasons why it’s important to be in a place,” Kitterman said, “and one of them is there is a power of place. There is a sense of place. However you want to describe it, there is something different about standing in the place where something happened and learning about it.”

As we walk, Kitterman tells me Salt Lake City has more standing suffrage sites than the city of Seneca Falls, New York, the location of the first women's rights convention held in the United States and home to the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. She hopes the tour will highlight this area of the country - the West.

Kitterman uses her iPad to show me historic photos of the places we visit during the tour. These photos and information about the sites, along with a map can be found on the Better Days website for anyone to use.

“We’re looking at the spot where the old tabernacle used to stand in Salt Lake City,” Kitterman said.

Just before women gained the right to vote in Utah, a group of five to six thousand women from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints staged a large indignation meeting at the old tabernacle

They were there to protest an anti-polygamy bill Congress was considering. Reporters were the only men allowed into the event, including one from the New York Times who wrote a front-page story about the meeting.

“And so you’d say, 'Why does this matter for women’s suffrage?'” Kitterman said. “It’s because this was a show of women’s political strength, of their unity, of their ability to organize. And they were signaling both to outsiders and insiders in Utah that they could be trusted and that they could exercise wisdom and judgment in public affairs.”

Historians believe this meeting played a large role in the territorial legislature’s decision to give women voting rights.

“I just love the thought of them advertising these in the newspapers and then packing thousands of people in here,” Kitterman said. “I don’t know how many people sit in here now, but I think we give each other more space than they did then.”

National suffragist Susan B. Anthony visited Utah after women here gained the right to vote. She encouraged them to participate in the women’s rights movement and addressed them during the Rocky Mountain Suffrage Convention in 1895.

“Utah women weren’t only at the forefront of the national campaigns just because they were the example or they were some of the first voters,” Kitterman said. “They were also organizers who helped take suffrage tactics, suffrage literature, suffrage meetings to states nearby in the West.”

Between our visit to Council Hall and the Tabernacle, Kitterman took me to the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, which was once the Hotel Utah. Here prominent suffragist Emmeline B. Wells met with President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson. Kitterman also took me to the sites of other indignation meetings. Along the way, she pointed out the homes where some of Utah’s suffragists had once lived and worked for women’s rights.

“Being in that place can help you put yourself in their shoes,” Kitterman said. “And I think it also creates a sense of pride. This is my place as well. As Utahns, this is part of all of our cultural heritage. And I think when we stand in a place where women worked for the benefit of people today, and where there is still more work to do, we can be inspired.”

That was Katherine Kitterman with Better Days 2020. This is the first story in our Women 2020 series.  Throughout the rest of the series, we will explore other individuals and organizations like Better Days and how they are continuing this work of improvement on the legacy left by Utah suffragists.

The Utah Women’s Giving Circle, a grassroots community with everyday philanthropists raising the questions and raising the funds to empower Utah women and girls. Information available here. And the Utah State University’s Center for Women and Gender, providing a professional and social climate to enhance opportunities through learning, discovery, and engagement. Information available here. 

The song "Going to the Polls" was sung by Elizabeth Knight and can be found here.