George Q. Cannon’s Equal Rights Amendment

I have been doing a bit of research on the drafting of the Utah State Constitution, reading the proceedings of the constitutional convention held in 1894. The delegates seem to have spent most of their time discussing furniture, stationary, and who got to be appointed official stenographer for the convention. Every so often, however, they would pause to actually consider possible constitutional issues. Among the various proposals is this one, put forward by delegate and then first counselor in the First Presidency, George Q. Cannon:

It shall be unlawful for any person, firm, or corporation in this State, to discriminate either directly or indirectly in the wages paid to employes [sic] performing the same labor on account of the sex of such employes [sic].

The proposal came as part of the contentious debate over women’s suffrage. As it happened, there was never any real doubt on the issue. Women got the right to vote in Utah territory in 1870, although it was revoked by Congress as part of the Edmunds-Tucker Act. By the time of the constitutional convention in 1894, both the state Democratic and GOP parties had pledged their support for women’s suffrage. Still there were some vociferous and eloquent holdouts, most spectacularly B.H. Roberts, who repeatedly attacked the idea of women’s suffrage, most dramatically in a two hour speech to a packed gallery. (People were standing on chairs in the lobby, straining to here.) Roberts’s chief antagonist was none other than future Apostle Orson F. Whitney.

Cannon’s proposed amendment, however, is interesting because it goes well beyond suffrage. Indeed, it was decades ahead of its time. Employment discrimination against women was not prohibited by federal law until 1964. It is also interesting because the amendment would have applied to private rather than public activity. This was actually a fairly common feature of state constitutions in the last half of the 19th century, but the federal constitution has only one provision that applies directly to private conduct, the thirteenth amendment’s prohibition on slavery. (If you personally own a slave, you, by your private conduct, have violated the thirteenth amendment.) Equally interesting, it did not apply to gender discrimination by the state. Hence, under Cannon’s proposal the government could have created special laws for women. Finally, it would have only reached discrimination in wages. Presumably it would not have applied to hiring, firing, or other conditions of employment.

In the end the proposal did not make it into the final constitution. I don’t know what killed it off, but it’s interesting nevertheless, especially given the Church’s spectacular opposition to another constitutional proposal dealing with gender less than a century later.

6 comments for “George Q. Cannon’s Equal Rights Amendment

  1. The effect of the amendment may have been anything but “liberal” or “progressive”. Outlawing wage competition by women would have kept them out of many jobs. (Imagine the effect of a law prohibiting anyone from buying and automobile at a lower price than a Lexus.) Does the record show the nature of the debate about this?

  2. Cannon’s amendment is quite different from the ERA that the Church opposed. Cannon’s deals specifically with employment and wages — the big ERA deals with all things. It is very sensical to disapprove the big ERA and approve Cannon’s.

    I’m too stupid for this website.

  3. Clair: these does not seem to have been much debate at all. The proposal was referred to committee, and I don’t think that it ever mades its way out again.

  4. It was my understanding that George M. Cannon introduced this measure. It was apparently opposed on several grounds, including that it would interfere with the rights of citizens to enter into contracts and that it wouldn’t be possible because wages are subject to supply and demand.

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