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19th-century Utah Women’s Education and Careers

By Ian McLaughlin, Better Days 2020 Historical Intern
Group of nursing graduates in 1911 holding diplomas.

LDS Hospital nursing graduates, 1911. Church History Library.

“As I have often told my sisters … if they had the privilege of studying, [they] would make just as good mathematicians or accountants as any man; and we think they ought to have the privilege to study these branches of knowledge that they may develop the powers with which they are endowed. We believe that women are useful not only to sweep houses, wash dishes, make beds, and raise babies, but that they should stand behind the counter, study law or physic [medicine], or become good book-keepers and be able to do the business in any counting house, and this to enlarge their sphere of usefulness for the benefit of society at large.” –Brigham Young, “Discourses,” Deseret News, 28 July 1864, 294

“It was [at Brigham Young Academy] under Bro. Maeser’s gentle care that I imbibed a love for the application of the gospel to every study and every pursuit.” –Susa Young Gates, Young Woman’s Journal, 1892

In an era where women were largely confined to housekeeping, child-rearing, and the schoolhouse, Young’s vision of women’s sphere was breathlessly expansive for its time. To what extent does it reflect the reality of nineteenth-century Utah? Did women stand behind the pharmacy counter, etc.? And if they did, when and why did they stop?

Utah—like other territories and states throughout the Mountain West[1]—offered women and girls more access to education than their Eastern counterparts. Still, on balance, women lagged behind men, especially in the upper grades. In the early years of Brigham Young Academy (est. 1875), for example, the flagship Latter-day Saint school, women comprised just one-third of the student body.[2] Teenie Smoot Taylor, one of two female teachers, recalled being bullied by male students until a male authority figure intervened and it took until 1911 for the Academy to appoint its first full female professor.[3] Alumni like Susa Young Gates and Alice Louise Reynolds reported being encouraged to pursue feminine-coded fields like teaching and literary studies, while men went on to study philology, history, and the sciences.[4] In this way, education often functioned in Utah, as elsewhere, more as a way of reinforcing rather than challenging what the world perceived as womanly pursuits.

The one arguably masculine profession women did pursue in large numbers was medicine. The LDS Church sponsored several dozen women to obtain MDs from Eastern schools like the University of Michigan. Martha Hughes Cannon was one of the first of these women, departing Utah in 1878. After obtaining her MD, she undertook studies for a degree in Pharmacy from the University of Pennsylvania–of 75 students in her class, she was the only woman.[5] Even in the more progressive Utah context, women’s participation in the medical field trailed: by 1910, there were 55 female physicians and surgeons in the state of Utah, compared to 481 men.[6]

Although limited by today’s standards, Utah women’s education and professional attainment in the 19th century was still notable for the time. For reasons that historians don’t fully understand, it faded over time.[7] In the 1910s, for example, the number of female doctors fell by more than half to 22 in 1920. Nevertheless, the legacy of Utah’s early progressivism cast a powerful shadow. As late as 1923, even as women were disappearing from most professions amid renewed conservatism, Alice Louise Reynolds wrote an editorial commemorating the progress that had been made in women’s education—“even so conservative an institution as Yale admits women to its graduate school”—and encouraged Utah women to look forward to a future “big with promise.”[8] As in so many areas of women’s history, when it comes to parity in education and careers, Utah has managed to be both before and behind its time.

Ian McLaughlin is a recent graduate of Brigham Young University who grew to love his adopted state and its history over the course of his studies, especially its women’s history. He is obsessed with literature, pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, and politics. He is grateful for mentors like Rachel Cope who taught him to “find the silences” of history and fill them in. This fall, he will begin graduate studies in political philosophy at Columbia University.

[1] Andrea Radke-Moss, Bright Epoch: Women and Coeducation in the American West (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008), 1-2.

[2] Ernest L. Wilkinson, ed., Brigham Young University: The First One Hundred Years, Vol. I (Provo, UT: BYU Press, 1975), 147.

[3] “The Old B. Y. Academy,” The Young Woman’s Journal, Vol. III, May 1892.

[4] Ian McLaughlin, “Is it wrong to want to help build up God’s kingdom?”: An examination of the gendered experience of early Brigham Young Academy students,” AWE: A Woman’s Experience, o. X.

[5] Shari Siebers Crall. (March 1985). Something More:A Biography of Martha Hughes Cannon (Honors). Brigham Young University.

[6] Women in Utah History: Paradigm or Paradox?, 192.

[7] Thomas W. Simpson, American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867-1940 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2016), 55.

[8] Alice Louise Reynolds, “Women and Higher Education,” Relief Society Magazine, vol. X, 492-493.