What Lela Thought About Playing Martha
My experience portraying Martha Hughes Cannon was one that I shall not forget. I was very impressed by the strength of this incredible woman and her amazing drive to get what she desired. Even though she was phenomenally headstrong and not to be tampered with, Martha was always on the lookout for the welfare of others and was a woman of incredible faith and loyalty to the Church. I urge anyone and everyone to learn more about her and to see what she was really about. I feel that I became very close to Mattie (as she liked to be called). While I will never have to go through many of the hardships that she faced, I shared a bond with her.
Both Mattie and I are the kind of woman that one would not be advised to cross. Both of us have our own fiercely strong testimony of the truth of the LDS Church, but perhaps that testimony includes points of view that veer off of the normal line of sight expected of a Mormon woman. We are both viewed as headstrong and driven to do what we feel we must do, whether that be because we feel that we've been given personal revelation to do so, or because it makes logical sense to us.
Like Mattie, I married a faithful LDS man not just because I loved him, but because I felt that he was the man I should marry. We married, and I then went back to school out of state to finish my degree. My patient, loving husband was supportive in this, even though I was with child when I left. Mattie was a mother away from her husband and everyone else she knew when she became an exile, running with her daughter from those who were after her family for the polygamy being practiced. She had it much harder than I did, but I felt intimately connected to her. She gave me strength at a time I needed it most, and I finished my last semester of classes with an energy and strength that most pregnant women do not have in their first trimesters.
Mattie was a remarkable woman, and I am so glad that I had the blessing of getting to know her. I only hope that I was able to portray her in a way that she would approve of.
“I am still firm in my belief in the Gospel I am thankful to say, but know not how long I may continue so... Do not compare my endurance with that of Job’s—’tis a slander on the patient patriarch. I endure my trials with a very bad grace at times.” (1)
Perhaps it was the spitfire personality of Martha Hughes Cannon that set her up to succeed against the fiery trials that made up her life. Despite contending with a myriad of difficulties, ultimately she left an important mark on her community, and on the pages of history books.
Martha Maria “Mattie” Hughes was born in Wales in 1857. When she was a toddler, her family of five immigrated to Salt Lake City. It was a journey fraught with tragedy. Just before arriving in Utah, Mattie’s little sister, Annie, passed away. And then, three days after coming into the valley, Mattie’s father, Peter Hughes, followed Annie out of this life. His wife, Elizabeth, was left a widow at age 28.
Elizabeth remarried soon after settling in Utah. Her new husband, James Patten Paul, was a widower and father of five. As Mattie grew older, James hugely supported her in realizing her dream of attending medical school.
Mattie had to work hard to get to medical school. Her parents were very poor trying to provide for their large family, so Mattie started working at a young age. At age 14 she worked as a schoolteacher before becoming a typesetter for The Women’s Exponent, a
job that gave her plenty of exposure to early feminist issues. This exposure no doubt informed her later work as a suffragette. Her work with The Exponent allowed her to become acquainted with Eliza R. Snow, who became another of Mattie’s greatest
mentors and supporters.
Mattie was quite the non-conformist. It was during the period when she worked for The Exponent that she first started wearing men’s boots. The walk into the city through the winter snow was long and cold. For such a walk, Mattie preferred men’s boots.
By 1878, Mattie had graduated from Deseret University with a degree in chemistry, and was headed off to the University of Michigan for medical school. Mattie was one of three women set apart by the prophet, Brigham Young, to leave Utah in pursuit of a such a degree.
Mattie was so driven to become a doctor that she left several broken hearts in her wake.
It wasn’t until 1884 that she married. Her husband was Angus Munn Cannon, a man 23 years her senior. Mattie was Angus’ fourth wife. They secretly married two years after the Edmunds Act (the act which enforced a previous anti-polygamy act) was passed, and consequently she went into exile two years later.
To both protect Angus and avoid being called as a witness in federal hearings against
other polygamous Mormon men, Mattie lived in England for two years with her baby
girl, Elizabeth. During this time, Elizabeth became ill with Chicken Pox, Scarlet Fever,
and Pneumonia. Mattie’s medical training preserved her daughter’s life in all three of
When Mattie came back to Utah in 1888, she returned to find that her husband, Angus,
had taken two more wives. This hurt Mattie deeply. Polygamy was always a source of great pain for Mattie. Initially this pain was of the emotional and spiritual variety, but soon enough it bled into her financial life as well. Angus, as husband to six women, was unable to financially support all of his wives. This left Mattie to fend for what would eventually be three children by herself.
Despite all of this, Mattie continued to work as a doctor. In 1896, she added to her long list of obligations when she won the race for Utah State Senate. She ran against her husband, Angus, who was a Republican. Mattie was a Democrat. This accomplishment marked an important moment in U.S. history, because Mattie was the first ever United States female Senator. As senator, she passed several bills that revolutionized public health and women’s health in the state of Utah.
After her husband passed away in 1915, Mattie moved with her children to Los Angeles, where she finished out her life as a private health practitioner. She passed away in 1932.
Mattie was a complex woman, far ahead of her time. In her life she filled the roles of Mormon, doctor, mother, polygamous wife, teacher, suffragette, and senator. Through it
all, she let her desires to “do some little good” guide her. As she put it:
“Even if we have to be poor, let us not waste our talents in the cauldron of modern nothingness—but strive to become women of intellect and endeavor to do some little good while we live in this protracted gleam called life.” (2)
Poetic Licenses Taken in the Film
The store clerk, Liza, is completely a work of fiction.
Bits of Mattie’s final conversation with Julianne are built around things Mattie really said in her lifetime, but the “a daughter of God is responsible to build the Kingdom of God within her own sphere” concept was actually taken from an address given by Eliza R. Snow in the Ogden Tabernacle on August 14th, 1873. As Eliza R. Snow was one of Mattie’s mentors, we thought it was appropriate for Mattie to be the mouthpiece for this inspired idea.
Questions Martha Inspired Us to Ask
What does being a daughter of God mean?
How should a daughter of God use her talents to build the kingdom?
What attributes are inherent in God’s daughters?
Are there differences in the ways daughters of God can show their faith? What are some of those differences?
Quotations used in the Biography
1. Leiber, Constance and John Sillito. Letters From Exile: The Correspondence of Martha Hughes Cannon
and Angus M. Cannon, 1886-1888. Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1989. pg. 274
2. Ibid, pg. xx
Photograph of Martha Hughes Cannon used by permission, Utah State Historical Society,
all rights reserved.
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