In 1861, Welsh-born Martha Hughes Cannon and her family moved to Utah after converting to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. After the deaths of her father and younger sister, she decided to become a medical doctor. At 16 she began to take pre-med classes at University of Deseret (now known as the University of Utah).While completing her degree in Chemistry, she earned money for medical school by working as a typesetter for the “Woman’s Exponent” and the “Deseret News” which helped fuel her passion for women’s rights and suffrage. Women earned the right to vote in Utah territory in 1870.
She went on to earn a full medical degree at University of Michigan in 1880, a degree in pharmaceuticals at the University of Pennsylvania in 1882, and a degree from the National School of Elocution and Oratory in Philadelphia. By the time she was 25 years old she was a full medical doctor with four degrees. Upon returning to Utah she set up a private practice and became a resident physician at the Deseret Hospital.
In 1884 she secretly married Angus M. Cannon, a prominent church leader and polygamist. She became the fourth of his six eventual wives. Because polygamy was being outlawed and prosecuted by the federal government, she moved to England with her infant daughter in 1886 so she would not have to testify in court against her husband about his polygamy. She was also avoiding testifying that as a medical doctor she had delivered babies of polygamist marriages which were proof of consummation of the relationships. While she was living abroad, the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 not only outlawed plural marriages but also revoked the right of women to vote in Utah Territory. She returned, continued with her marriage in secret, gave birth to a son, and had to move to San Francisco to avoid being called to testify against her husband. In 1890 the LDS Church disavowed polygamy and she was allowed to return but officially she was not considered married anymore.
Suffrage was restored in 1896 when Utah became a state. She ran for state senator in 1896 and won. Cannon became the first female state senator in the country and served one four-year term while still practicing medicine. During her time in the legislature she promoted bills for sanitation, pure food laws, helped establish Utah’s first board of health and secured funding for educating children with speech and hearing loss.
Scandal erupted in 1899 when she gave birth to her third child while in office, thereby proving that she had renewed marital relations with her polygamist husband. Martha’s husband, Angus was arrested, tried and convicted. She did not run for office again. In 1904, Martha and her children moved to California and she continued her medical practice. She died in Los Angeles in 1932.