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Sarah E. Anderson, One of the First Women Elected to the Utah State Legislature

1853-1900

Sarah E. Anderson
photo courtesy of Utah State Historical Society

by Gabi Price, Better Days 2020 Intern

 

Sarah Elizabeth Nelson Anderson was born in Weber County in 1853 to David Nelson and Sarah Brown. At age 17, she married Porter L. Anderson, a physician. When he died in 1888, she had five children and an agenda for change. Sarah was described as a “naturally strong woman, mentally and physically, and one of the most prominent and popular women in Ogden City and Weber County”[1] by her hometown newspaper in Ogden. A prominent and assertive woman with a strong belief in the equality of men and women, Sarah was eager to have a voice in government when the Utah state constitution was up for ratification in 1895.

That August, she approached Ogden’s registrar, Charles Tyree, and asked to be registered to vote. Utah women citizens had previously been able to vote from 1870 to 1887, when U.S. Congress revoked Utah women’s voting rights in 1887 with the Edmunds-Tucker Act. However, Sarah argued that Congress’ Enabling Act of 1894 inviting Utah to apply for statehood did not specify that only men could vote to ratify the state constitution. So she had the right to cast a ballot as well. Tyree refused to register her, but she sought a mandate requiring him to do so, which she initially won in district court.[2] However, the case was appealed to the territorial Supreme Court, which decided that the Enabling Act had not enfranchised women. They would have to wait for official statehood in 1896 in order to legally cast ballots.[3] Nevertheless, Sarah’s participation in politics did not end there.

Sarah E. Anderson. Photo courtesy of Utah State Historical Society.

Sarah decided to run as a Democrat for the House of Representatives in 1896 and was elected as one of the first three women legislators in Utah (the other two were state representative Eurithe K. LaBarthe and state senator Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon, also both Democrats). Sarah served as the chairperson of the House Committee on Public Health even though she was not particularly successful in seeing her own bills come to fruition. Her bill about police and fire commissioners was killed in committee, and her bill providing for teaching about the effects of alcohol and drugs in schools was sidelined in favor of a similar bill. However, Sarah’s fight for the vote and her service in the legislature served as an inspiration and example for women at the turn of the century and thereafter. Unfortunately, Sarah died in 1900, shortly after finishing her only legislative term.

The Weber County Heritage Foundation is working to install a marker in Ogden honoring Sarah’s fight for the vote.

Footnotes

[1] White, Jean Bickmore, “Gentle Persuaders: Utah’s First Women Legislators,” Utah Historical Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 1, January 1970.

[2] “May Women Vote?” Ogden Daily Standard, August 7, 1895, 3.

[3] “Women May Not Vote,” Salt Lake Herald-Republican, September 1, 1895, 5.


Sources

Roberts, Richard C., and Richard W. Sadler, A History of Weber County, Utah State Historical Society, 1997. White, Jean Bickmore, “Gentle Persuaders: Utah's First Women Legislators," Utah Historical Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 1, January 1970.