Voices from the Past: Annie Wells Cannon

by Brooke Nelson Edwards

Just reading the list of organizations Elizabeth Anne Wells Cannon participated in her 83 years of life is tiring. But when I think about the kind of enthusiasm and persistence that such active leadership required while she was also raising twelve children and serving in various church callings, I can’t help but think about the Energizer bunny.

Annie, as she was known, served as an editor—alongside her mother, Emmeline B. Wells—of the Woman’s Exponent for 19 years and was actively involved in the suffrage movement right up until women were granted the right to vote. She also served as a stake Relief Society president for 16 years; served as a member of the Relief Society General Board; became president of the Utah Daughters of Pioneers; was a charter member of the Utah Red Cross; was the first president of the Utah War Mothers organization; served as an elected representative in the Utah state legislature for multiple terms; and was picked by U.S. President Herbert Hoover to be Utah’s chairman of the European Relief Drive, of which she was the only female member.

In a Woman’s Exponent editorial for which Annie is listed as a contributor, the publication celebrated the right to vote that had been extended to women in Utah and two other states and urged women to use their new gift to its fullest potential.1 “Women have been given the franchise in this hour of need undoubtedly for a wise purpose. The spirit that wrought upon the great women of the nineteenth century, to urge the claim of equal suffrage was just as much from the Almighty, as that which inspired Washington or Columbus. . . . The women of Utah have been given the franchise at an opportune time, they should see to it that the opportunity is not thrown away.” A woman’s duty, the editorial continues, “is not only to cast her ballot but to use her power of speech whether it be silver or golden in the direction of ‘peace and goodwill,’ and the promotion of harmony instead of friction and a spirit of contention.” Moreover, “[t]he women of the Latter-day Saints who have passed through such trying ordeals, who have been taught such lessons of humility and self-sacrifice by the very force of circumstances, above all women in the world, should be able to act wisely in the present crisis of affairs in the new state. And if they are not recognized as the peers of men, should show by their fidelity and faith, their loyalty and love for the principles of justice and equality that shine so conspicuously in all times of great undertakings or of telling events, and eventually cannot fail of recognition.”

Annie’s life began and ended in Utah. She was born to pioneer parents in 1859 in Salt Lake City, and she attended and graduated from the University of Deseret in 1879. She married her husband, John Q. Cannon, who later became the editor-in-chief of the Deseret News and served for a time as a General Authority.

Annie loved literature and was actively involved in promoting the spread of both political and artistic material to Latter-day Saint Women. “The hardships of pioneer life are not generally very conducive to the cultivation of the finer qualities of the mind and soul,” she wrote in an article about early literary efforts in the Utah territory.2 “The making of new homes and conquering desert wastes naturally calls forth all one’s energy and the tired work-worn body would naturally require all the faculties of the mind to assist in providing life’s necessities.” Nonetheless, Annie wrote, “the pioneers brought with them across the plain a printing press,” and literary societies and newspapers began to fill the “dearth” of literary work available in the territory. Annie’s own efforts to give exposure to budding writers through her work as an editor of the Woman’s Exponent, the publication through which many Utah poets, lyricists, and authors began their careers.

Annie’s list of accomplishments is especially impressive considering the hardships she endured in her personal life. After her third child was born, her husband was excommunicated from the Church while serving as a general authority for having an affair with Annie’s sister, Louie. Church leaders asked the couple to divorce so John could marry Louie, who was pregnant. The couple did so, John and Louie were married, and Louie died tragically a short time later after a stillbirth. John eventually remarried Annie and was again baptized into the Church. They went on to have nine more children. Despite the loss of her beloved sister and the rumors she was subjected to and the public interest in her life, Annie refused to fall back in the shadows and instead moved forward in confidence in her leadership roles in both the church and in politics.

Annie seemed to draw her fortitude and work ethic from her pioneer parents. She frequently praised and honored the efforts the generation just previous to hers had made to start a new life. She wrote a poem that was set to music and sung at a celebration in 1905 marking the anniversary of the arrival of the first pioneers in the Salt Lake valley.3 While Annie penned it as a tribute to the pioneers, there is no doubt that Annie herself lived with similar strength and courage:

The Pioneer

O’er prairies vast,

And deserts drear,

There came a valiant band,

Through mountain pass

And rivers clear

Unto the promised land,

Unto the promised land,

Oh praise. Oh praise his name,

Oh give, Oh give him fame

With courage bold,

With heart of gold,

His deeds we do revere,

Oh none so brave,

His life he gave,

The bold, the dauntless pioneer.


His hardship great,

And toll untold

Transformed the desert wide

Now gardens fair,

Homes rich and rare

Appear on every side,

Apparent on every side;

Oh praise. Oh praise his name,

Oh give, Oh give him fame

With courage bold,

With heart of gold,

His deeds we do revere,

Oh none so brave,

His life he gave,

The bold, the dauntless pioneer.

–Annie Wells Cannon

Sources:

  1. “Women in Politics,” The Woman’s Exponent, October 1896, Vol. 25., No. 7.
  2. “Early Literary Women of Utah,” The Woman’s Exponent, February 1914, Vol. 41., No. 14.
  3. “The Pioneer,” The Woman’s Exponent, August 1905, Vol. 34, No. 3.

Additional sources:

 

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