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Seraph Young Ford, First Woman to Vote in Utah and the Modern Nation

1846–1938

Seraph Young Ford
Illustration by Brooke Smart

First Woman to Vote in Utah and the Modern Nation

 

by Rebekah Clark

Historical Research Associate, Better Days 2020

 

On Valentine’s Day in 1870, Seraph Young arrived early at the polls in Salt Lake City on her way to work as a schoolteacher. Amid stump speeches and music from the LDS Tenth Ward brass band, she entered Council Hall, cast her ballot in the municipal election, and made history as the first woman to legally vote in the modern United States.  

Seraph’s historic vote made Utah the first place in the modern nation in which women exercised the elective franchise. Although Wyoming Territory merits distinction as the first to grant women the vote in December 1869, Utah Territory quickly followed and extended suffrage to its much larger female population on February 12, 1870. Just two days after the passage of the women’s suffrage bill, Salt Lake City held a local election that provided Utah’s newly-enfranchised women an almost-immediate opportunity to exercise their expanded political rights. The small population of Wyoming women did not have an opportunity to cast votes until September 1870.

Seraph Young’s being one of the few to participate in that first election indicates her personal enthusiasm for women’s suffrage and interest in political matters.

The election of February 14, 1870, was also the first election in Utah Territory that included opposing political parties, with the formation of the Liberal Party and the People’s Party just days before the election. This made Utah women’s participation in elections all the more significant. Though only twenty-five women reportedly cast votes in February 1870, six months later about two thousand women voted in the general territorial election. Seraph Young’s being one of the few to participate in that first election indicates her personal enthusiasm for women’s suffrage and interest in political matters.

Despite the historical significance of her vote that day, little is known of Seraph’s personal life. She was a grand-niece of LDS Church president and former Utah governor Brigham Young. Born on November 6, 1846, at Winter Quarters, Nebraska Territory, to Brigham Hamilton Young and Cedenia Clark, she traveled to Utah as an infant in October 1847. Two years after casting her momentous vote, she married Seth L. Ford on February 11, 1872. They had three children before moving to Springville, New York, in the late 1870s and then to Montgomery, Maryland. After her death in 1938, Seraph was buried next to her husband in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Today, a large mural depicting Seraph Young casting her historic ballot adorns the north House Chamber of the Utah State Capitol building. The mural, painted by David Koch, memorializes both Seraph and Utah’s contribution and commitment to the cause of women’s suffrage.  

 

Rebekah Clark holds a law degree from J. Reuben Clark Law School and a bachelor’s degree in American History and Literature from Harvard University, where she wrote her honors thesis on Utah’s participation in the national women’s suffrage movement. She is a member of the Mormon Women’s History Initiative Team and the Historical Research Associate for Better Days 2020.

Sources

Orson F. Whitney, History of Utah, Vol. 2, (Salt Lake City, UT: George Q. Cannon & Sons, 1893), 404-5. Edward William Tullidge, History of Salt Lake City (Salt Lake City, UT: Star Printing Co., 1886), 437. “The Election,” Deseret Evening News, Feb. 15, 1870. “The Woman Suffrage Bill,” Deseret News, Feb. 16, 1870, 18-19. “Seraph Cedenia Young,” Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel database, 1847–1868. “United States Census, 1880,” Springville, Erie, New York. “Seraph Cedenia Young Ford,” Find a Grave Memorial. Kathryn L. MacKay, “Women in Politics: Power in the Public Sphere,” in Patricia Lyn Scott and Linda Thatcher, eds. Women in Utah History: Paradigm or Paradox? (University Press of Colorado, 2005). Carol Cornwall Madsen, ed. Battle for the Ballot: Essays on Woman Suffrage in Utah, 1870-1896 (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1997).