Utah Women Working for Better Days!, a new exhibition opening Thursday, March 5, at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, celebrates a number of voting rights anniversaries in 2020, including the 150th anniversary of Utah being the first place where women voted in the modern nation. Organized in collaboration with Better Days 2020, a local organization championing Utah women’s history across the state, and J. Willard Marriott Library’s Special Collections, this exhibition is less a history lesson than it is a provocation: What do “better days” look like to you?
A variety of histories inspired this ACME Lab, including the story of Utahn Seraph Young, the first woman in the modern United States to legally vote in 1870, and the Utah Legislature unanimously passing the Woman’s Suffrage Bill. The Utah women who challenged the status quo in the days leading up to 1870 dared to dream of a world in which they had a say in policies that would affect them instead of waiting for enfranchisement to insist upon it.
Utah Women Working for Better Days! proposes that demanding political representation—while immensely important—is but one avenue of creating social change. Civic participation—like art-making—begins, first, with an act of imagination. It ventures to imagine a world not as it is, but as it might be.
From a late nineteenth-century suffrage songbook, to midcentury campaign memorabilia, to contemporary posters from recent demonstrations, nearly three dozen objects, largely drawn from Marriott Library’s Special Collections, reveal the different strategies that Utah’s individuals and groups have used to participate in civic action. Local artist Brooke Smart’s illustrations of eighteen women introduce visitors to past advocates for Utah women, while interactive components invite visitors to insert themselves into the history of the state and recall the women who have shaped their own life stories. While opinions may differ about what “better days” look like, we hope visitors leave this exhibition energized by rethinking their own roles in creating the future in this place we call home.
The exhibition will be on view Thursday, March 5 through Sunday, December 6 with an exhibition preview on Wednesday, March 4, from 5 to 9 pm that offers visitors an opportunity to register to vote. On Wednesday, April 29, the Museum will host “Because of Her: Stories of Women Making a Difference,” in which Utah women of action share personal stories of the women who have made a significant difference in their lives and work. The UMFA will host voter registration drives throughout the year in collaboration with volunteers from the Hinckley Institute of Politics, the Andrew Goodman Foundation, and the Associated Students of the University of Utah (ASUU). Visit umfa.utah.edu/better-days for details.