As a woman, getting a medical degree in the 1880s was no small task, and Martha Hughes Cannon was determined to do so in order to better serve those in her Utah pioneer community. Her Quiet Revolution by Marianne Monson (Shadow Mountain, 2020), a work of historical fiction, captures the life of this frontier doctor, suffragist, polygamous wife, State Senator, and public health activist. As a early example of one fighting for woman’s rights with so many impressive accomplishments, I was surprised by her complicated life story, since she did chose to enter into a polygamous marriage.
Much of the story follows the chronology of Mattie’s life. Her interest in healing and medicine began when she was a young child crossing the plains to Utah, when she watched her infant sister and father die. As a teenager, she decided to attend college and medical school, and she continued on to earn a graduate degree in public speaking, all of this in the 1880s, when such accomplishments were seldom a women’s choice or option. Despite the worries of her family, Mattie’s faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints remained a central tenet of her life, and upon her return to the frontier society in Utah, she helped those in her community receive the modern medical care they needed.
With all of her feminist leanings, Mattie’s flirtation and subsequent polygamous marriage to the wealthy and prominent Angus Cannon, who already had three wives, bothered and annoyed me. From a modern perspective, such a decision seems disturbing: a married man flirting with a woman significantly younger than he? Eww? Yet the author did a nice job of capturing this unique perspective on marriage for the faithful of this era. The community surrounding Mattie seemed to question her decision as well. Since polygamy was practiced by only 25-40% of the Utah population in the 1880s, many actually did find the practice difficult and/or disturbing, even when an accepted principle of the faith. Mattie’s family did not understand why she, an educated and independent woman, would enter into a polygamous marriage when there were so many other marriage opportunities for an accomplished woman as she.
Polygamous marriages in the 1880s were not easy. The U.S. territorial government began arresting polygamous men and questioning women suspected of being in polygamous marriages. Mattie was a well-known doctor and had aided in births to women suspected of polygamy. To avoid interrogation and compromising those who were friends, she fled to Wales with her infant daughter to avoid interrogation.
Her Quiet Revolution portrayed Mattie’s time in Wales as one of gaining understanding. Unsurprising to the reader, the polygamous marriage situation was not what Mattie anticipated, since even after she had to flee and her husband had been arrested, he entered into two more marriages. Mattie’s story then becomes one of struggling with faith, as well as the difference between her expectations and the realities of life. Her time in Wales helped her gain acceptance of her purpose as a woman and as a healer, harkening back to her female ancestors who, like her, sought to help their communities with compassionate medical care.
Mattie’s story does not end in Wales. Soon after her return to Utah, the Church abandoned the practice of polygamy in the midst of the persecution and in hopes of achieving statehood. Her expectations for her future were thus shattered (as officially her marriage was now invalid and her children considered to have been born out of wedlock). She persevered, working with Susan B. Anthony and others in fighting for women’s national right to vote, practicing medicine, and running and winning a place in the State Senate (winning against her husband, who was also running). She fought for a stronger public health board to improve medical care, promote vaccines, and improve living situations. The hopeful note at the end of the novel emphasizes her ultimate “revolution” in understanding her individual role in following her predecessors in what she knew was right: healing those around her.
I listened to the audiobook of Her Quiet Revolution and in some respects this format was disappointing. Each chapter had an epigram written by Martha Hughes Cannon, but I did not discover where those came from. Did Mattie write a book about medicine? Did her letters share this information? The author’s note mentions a few details about Mattie’s life after 1900, but little else is given as to what is true versus which parts are fictionalized.
The lack of these facts (for the audiobook listener) does not diminish the interest I had in Martha Hughes Cannon’s quite unique life. Her “quiet revolution” towards women’s rights was not as well known or vocal as those of more prominent eastern women. It certainly was quiet, and almost unnoticeable to me, considering the many happenings in her life. Yet, Martha Hughes Cannon’s revolution was significant for women’s rights, Utah’s history, and for her own life.
(I’ve got to add this note: I grew up with the author’s family, so I loved the “I KNOW HER” feeling I had as I was listening to this book! Great job, Marianne!)