Utah women, some with untold stories, whose lives would make great movies

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(ABC4) – Late last month, ABC4.com shared an article describing 10 folks with strong ties to Utah that would make for interesting biopic movie subjects.

Shortly after publishing, thanks to the help of some Facebook commenters, it was realized that the list was entirely composed of men, an unintentional oversight.

There was some discussion and thought as the story was written about Elizabeth Smart, who was famously abducted from her family’s home in Salt Lake City in 2002 and has since become an advocate for children’s safety, but multiple films have already been made about her story. Gail Miller, chairwoman of the Larry H. Miller Group, was also considered.

However, apart from those two, it was admittedly difficult to think of female figures whose stories are well known enough to immediately ring a bell with most Utahns.

With a bit of embarrassment, ABC4.com reached out to Better Days and UtahWomensHistory.org Executive Director Katherine Kitterman to ask why it seems difficult to recall the stories of significant women in the state’s history.

In Kitterman’s words, that’s a common issue not only in Utah but throughout the entire country.

“I think it’s just reflective of the overall dynamics of society,” Kitterman explains. “In the past, especially, we see people as leaders when they are presidents or CEOs, they are very visible. And fewer women have been presidents or CEOs of companies or governors. So I think there’s that bias, in terms of the type of people that we pay attention to, that we say are important in history.”

Fortunately, Kitterman feels that is changing. Part of Better Day’s mission is to share stories of women, especially women in underrepresented communities, that have made an impact in Utah.

“People are really interested in knowing about the people who have been forgotten or left out. The people that we didn’t learn about in school because we’re interested in a fuller story,” the Ph.D. candidate in American History states. “We want to know, the picture of everything that’s going on.”

To that end, here is a list of some of the most influential women in the state’s history, whose stories would certainly make for a compelling screenplay:

Martha Cannon

Courtesy of Utah State Historical Society

Although she was born in Wales, Cannon grew up in Utah before the area was even a state after immigrating with her family to join the Latter-day Saints in 1861. Not long into her life, she was already extremely accomplished, enrolling at the University of Deseret’s pre-med program at 16. By 19, she had her medical degree. By 21, she also had a degree in pharmaceuticals. By 25, she earned two more degrees in oration. As she continued to earn a name for herself, she became a leading political voice in women’s suffrage and was elected as Utah’s first female state senator, beating out her husband in the election.

Donia Jessop

Currently the mayor of Hilldale, Utah, a former stronghold of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), the group formerly led by polygamist and convicted sex offender Warren Jeffs, Jessop escaped from polygamy circles and came back to transform the area. When she was elected the town’s mayor in 2017, Jessop became not only Hilldale’s first female mayor but also the first not endorsed by the FLDS Church. She has since been nationally recognized as one of the most influential women in the state’s history.

Alice Kasai

Courtesy of Utah State Historical Society

Born in Washington in 1916, Kasai and her family moved to Utah after a stay in Japan to work in the Latuda mines in Carbon County. Eventually, she married and her family became the first Japanese Americans to live in Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood. However, at the outbreak of World War II, her husband was arrested and placed in an internment camp, leaving Kasai to not only provide for her family but to serve as a voice for Asian Americans in the state. Even during a time of war and distrust, her message was simple; unity and equality of all people. Her peaceful approach was instrumental in lasting achievements such as SLC’s International Peace Garden, which is still standing to this day.

Gail Miller

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Since the death of her husband, former Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller, Miller has taken the reigns of their empire, the LHM Group, and continued to build upon her family’s success as arguably the biggest names in the state. While Miller’s accomplishments in business are easy to find in Utah, her commitment to giving back will likely be one of her even greater legacies. She has donated tens of millions of dollars to local hospitals, built a resource center dedicated to providing homeless services, and has made many other charitable gestures.

Barbara Toomer

Courtesy of Better Days, Illustration by Brooke Smart

A former lieutenant in the United States Army Nurse Corps, Toomer’s life was permanently altered when she contracted polio and lost the use of her legs in 1956. For the rest of her life, she worked to improve the rights and reduce discrimination towards the disabled. Her efforts to increase paratransit were intended to create disruption and bring change in an incredibly visible way. She is noted for organizing “crawl-ons” onto UTA buses, chaining herself to buses, and along the way to helping the Americans with Disability Act getting passed in Washington D.C., was arrested at least 35 times in her life.

Elizabeth Smart

(Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Lifetime Television)

While much has been written and produced regarding Smart’s abduction as a 14-year-old, she has continued to make headlines in the years since her nine-month kidnapping ordeal. She spoke to Congress a few years after her return home to advocate for the implementation of the AMBER Alert system, presented a book to be shared with other recovering young adults, and established a foundation to bring hope and assistance to victims of sexual assault.

Claire Ferguson

Courtesy of Better Days, Illustration by Brooke Smart

When Ferguson was appointed as the state’s first deputy sheriff in 1897, it was noted by one local publication that the 20-year-old was skinny, pretty, and had “no suggestion of either strength or endurance.” However, the stenographer turned law enforcement official proved them wrong with the successful completion of a two-year tenure in the position. One story from her work goes that a captured burglar at the jailhouse managed to escape from his handcuffs while Ferguson was working as the guard. As soon as the handcuffs hit the floor, Ferguson drew her weapon, which she had become quite skilled at using, and shouted “If you take another step, I’ll shoot.” Quite the nerve.

Who else did we miss? Let us know in the Facebook post below.

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