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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Suffragette (Salt Lake) City

Better Days 2020 underlines the key role of Utah in voting rights for women.

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BROOKE SMART
  • Brooke Smart

For 2½ years, Neylan McBaine has been looking toward 2020. That's how long it takes to tell the story that's as rich and significant as the one she wanted to recite.

Better Days 2020 was launched in 2017 at a time when McBaine—an author, marketing professional and founder of the Mormon Women Project—was between jobs. She says that a friend mentioned to her that a significant anniversary was on the horizon in 2020: Not just the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave American women the right to vote, but the 150th anniversary of Utah being the first place American women voted, the first place in the United States where women did so under an equal suffrage law.". "I asked around [in 2017] to see if anyone was aware of it, or had plans for it," McBaine recalls. "It seemed very remote to people: Why are we already thinking about this?"

For McBaine, it was important to emphasize the state's unique role in the history of America's women's suffrage movement—including Utah's Seraph Young being the first woman in the country to cast a vote, on Feb. 14, 1870—because it was clear that this history wasn't widely known or understood. "Right now, there are about a dozen exhibits in Washington, D.C., commemorating the 19th Amendment, and only one mentions the Western states pioneering the vote 50 years earlier," McBaine says. "Those are considered weird anomalies, but we believe something significant happened here. National [women's suffrage] leaders came here to study what was going on. Utah women traveled to Washington to testify that women voting was not the end of the world, that they weren't abandoning their children. They were really important in those first 50 years as examples."

Over the course of Better Days 2020's 2-plus years, the organization has been busy spreading the word through a variety of ways. In addition to previous events, it has developed a first-in-the-nation women's history school curriculum, helped design a commemorative state license plate, and commissioned illustrations by artist Brooke Smith of 50 Utah women's advocates. Smith's works are currently on display at the state Capitol's fourth floor as part of the Utah Women Making History exhibit.

While McBaine's own background includes a focus on advancing the position of women within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she emphasizes that Better Days 2020 itself is non-denominational. The women's history curricula represent a broad spectrum of Utah women, including the state's First Nation tribes, Jewish settlers, Greek immigrants and more. Yet she believes that it's important to note that, where the issue of women's suffrage is specifically concerned, "the Mormons were the suffragists, and the non-Mormons were the anti-suffragists. ... We're not shying away from that narrative. It confuses people, and that's what good history does."

Better Days 2020's first event this year is She Talks Utah, scheduled for Jan. 30 at Utah Valley University. Offered in conjunction with the Utah Women & Leadership Project, it's an evening of TED talk-type presentations by successful local women telling stories—either personal about their own family history, or about prominent women in Utah history—and how learning those stories helped develop their own leadership. Presenters include McBaine, Salt Lake Tribune editor Jennifer Napier-Pierce, and social worker and performing artist Lita Little Giddens. According to project assistant director Robbyn Scribner, "We wanted our first event of 2020 to be looking back, because this really is a year of celebrating the history of women throughout the state."

Lecture-style presentation is not the only format Better Days 2020 has embraced, attempting to tell the story of Utah's women's rights history through a wide range of media. Still on the horizon is a commission of two short works by Utah Opera. While McBaine has arts in her blood from her family history—her mother was an opera singer—she believes that bringing the arts into this project has a more pragmatic component. "The thing I brought to it, that it might not have had if it [had] been run, for example, by a university, is I wanted to bring a different audience, in a popular way," she says. "This didn't have to be confined to an ivory tower. That's where it had been, and people weren't aware of it."

A flurry of Better Days 2020 events are still to come, set to commemorate Seraph Young's landmark vote. On Feb. 12, the Capitol will host a public event—and with more than 1,000 school kids attending—featuring a ceremony led by Gov. Gary Herbert. The Feb. 14 anniversary itself includes the aforementioned Utah Opera performance, in addition to a "walk of remembrance" retracing Young's path to casting her vote at the old Council Hall. The fact that there are so many ways for people to be part of this historic commemoration provides validation for McBaine getting her early start.

"Someone told me, 'I'm glad you started 2½ years ago," McBaine says, "because here it is, and you have all of these amazing materials."