Exodus by Darby Shea Williams

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martha hughes cannon's grave stone with both the mormon temple and image of marie blurred in background, almost shadows


And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years, even the selfsame day it came to pass, that all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt.”

-Exodus 12:41




Her headstone reads:

Martha Hughes Cannon

1857—1932 [1]

Three dashes.

The entirety of her life and legacy, encapsulated in three linear blips. A woman abbreviated.

I met Martha like I meet most of my muses, through theatre. Twice a day, six days a week, I donned an itchy lace hat and gloves and delivered a monologue detailing her numerous accomplishments. She doesn’t know it, but Martha helped me pay for a degree from the university she once attended.

Three dashes for a doctor, a politician, and a Mormon.

Martha was a prodigy; she taught school at age 14. She held degrees from the University of Utah, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, and the National School of Oratory. She earned all four of these before she turned 25. [2]

She ran against her husband for state senate. She won. A democratic newspaper heralded her victory:

Mrs. Mattie Hughes Cannon, his wife, is the better man of the two. Send Mrs. Cannon to the State Senate and let Mr. Cannon, as a Republican, remain at home to manage home industry.”

She used her newfound political power to promote education, health, and feminism. She opened a school for the blind and deaf. She worked alongside the likes of Susan B. Anthony to secure voting rights for women in the state of Utah. She practiced obstetrics, often without pay, for polygamist wives otherwise ignored by the medical community.

She attempted to pass a law making the smallpox vaccination mandatory for children who wished to attend school. However, Brigham Young, the leader of the Mormon church at the time, repealed the law, stating that vaccines were the work of “Gentile doctors trying to force Babylon into the people.” [3]


Babylon[ babuh-luh n, -lon ] noun

2. any rich and magnificent city believed to be a place of excessive luxury and wickedness.

Three dashes for the estimated 2,000 people who died of smallpox as a result of Young’s repeal. Because apparently life is an excessive luxury.

Three dashes for her husband’s three other wives. For he was a polygamist.

Three dashes for her invisibility. The invisibility which allowed her to practice medicine and pursue politics while her husband was busy siring his 24 children.

Three dashes for the three children she raised on her own after his imprisonment. Three dashes for the three years she spent in exile to avoid testifying against him. Three dashes that erase a life of excellence and rebellion, controversy and defiance. Three dashes for Martha Hughes Cannon. Three dashes and nothing more.




I sit in a circle with 15 girls my age. Mormon girls. We share a bowl of M&Ms. One candy for one truth.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

The bowl is passed. As it empties, dreams of marriage, motherhood, and the occasional college degree waft through the air.

Carrie is a pretty girl with hair the color of maraschino cherries.

“I just want to be a mom.”

This answer is adorable.

I am gangly with a sharp secondhand jawline. I am not pretty. I dress in baggy T-shirts and sweatpants from the boy’s department. I consider it my personal rebellion against femininity.

A girl with matching socks passes me the bowl. I take a small blue candy in my hand. Despite the hardwood coolness of the Chicago basement, the #3 blue dye oozes into my skin. It leaves an azure web in the canyons of my palm.

“I don’t want to have kids, I’m not even sure I want to get married. I think I want to be a professional soccer player.”

Nervous laughter drips through the air like sickly sweet syrup. This is a ridiculous answer. But by no means the only one. I am 12. Carrie is only 10. Neither of us has a clue who we will grow to be.

Nevertheless, my answer is not adorable. According to my mom on the car ride home, it is deeply offensive.

Go figure.




Church is hell. But I am excellent at it. I speak in front of large crowds about my zeal for the doctrine of Christ. I memorize passages of the Bible and regurgitate them with perfect accuracy. I sing in harmony with the reverent mob, mimicking the tunes I’ve known since childhood.

The notes haunt me still.

I repeat the narratives I am taught: One day I will marry and have many children to teach. This is the noblest pursuit a woman can have. Fucking stupendous.

I am old enough to know that some of this makes little sense. But I am still young enough to believe my parents can be proud of me if I do what they expect. I crave the smiles, the compliments, the validation. I crave them like the Israelites craved bread in the desert. So I sit. I sing. I repeat the scriptures. I repeat the sayings. I do everything God requires. I am buoyed up by vacant praise. I mistake it for love.




I am not gay, but my friend is. Which would be fine. Except.

“If you find yourself struggling with feelings of same-gender attraction, do not give in to those temptations. Be assured that you can choose to avoid such behavior. You can receive the Lord’s help as you pray for strength and work to overcome the problem.” [4]

You are allowed to be gay. But it is a Problem to overcome. My father says that “everyone has a dragon to slay, and being gay is one of them.”

I’ve never had a problem with dragons.




Martha was a diminutive woman. At merely five feet she struck a statuesque feminine figure that belied her strength.

I look nothing like her.

I weigh 87 pounds with socks on. I will be sent away soon because my parents cannot make me eat. I evoke neither strength nor femininity. I cannot go to the beach anymore because my bones stick out. And people talk.

God says women shouldn’t wear revealing things. Our bodies are not meant to be shown. A body is a shameful thing. So I hide mine away. I try to rid myself of it. But even that is wrong. My mom tells me to talk to God. I tell her He is not listening. Her god would not make me this way. Maybe I’m not trying hard enough.

So I pray.

And I scream.

I scream so that heaven’s vault might crack.

I am given silence in return.




A cream-colored gown envelops my frame. My mother weaves gold leaves into my hair and brushes pale peach powder on my cheeks. “It’s a bit big but I think a few stitches on the side should do the trick!” My face is no longer gaunt, and my hair is thick and soft. A nice boy will arrive in 10 minutes to take me to prom. I feel pretty for the first time in years. Maybe the first time ever.


A pleasant cacophony envelops the residents of the church chapel. Last night’s outfit is immortalized on my mother’s phone, she shows it to anyone and everyone.

“She looks lovely.”

“Her hair!”

“I hope she had a good time.”

And so on.

The chatter dies down and the service begins. I take a quick detour to the bathroom. Before entering I’m greeted by two voices, about my age.

“Can you believe that dress?”

“My mother would never let me wear something like that.”

“She could have at least tried to find something with straps.”

“She dresses like that for attention.”

“What a slut.”

Three syllables. Each more smarting than the next.

I stand just adjacent to the doorway, a caryatid. A pretty dress that went down to my ankles, one strap off of the shoulder. Elegant. Simple. An untarnished glimpse of a girl finally able to look in the mirror without disgust. Ruined in an instant.

“Revealing and sexually suggestive clothing, which includes short shorts and skirts, tight clothing, and shirts that do not cover the stomach, can stimulate desires and actions that violate the Lord’s law of chastity.” [5]

I am a violation.

A slut.

Next year my mom keeps my prom pictures to herself.




A mission is a rite of passage for Mormon boys. It is optional for girls. Boys go away for two years, girls for 18 months. Which makes sense. Girls have a faster expiration date. Women in their twenties should be getting married and having children while they remain fertile.

In my family a mission is non-negotiable. But my father, being the clever patriarch that he is, makes it seem like a choice. Everything is presented as a choice initially. But most choices are ultimatums in disguise.

“I don’t want to go. I cannot in good conscience try to convert people to a religion I don’t believe in.”

“Of course you believe in it.”

“I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in any of it. Sending me away for two years won’t change that.”

He tries anyway. He reminds me that I deferred my university admission offer for a year, and changing my mind is breaking my word. Michigan will rescind its offer and nowhere else will accept me. I will have no prospects.

He lies.

His meaning, however, is explicitly clear.

Leave the church and our support is gone.

At 19 years old, bereft of plans, the thought strikes terror in every fiber of my being. Ideological autonomy becomes virtually worthless when weighed against the fearsome prospect of a life on my own. I do as they say. I complete an abbreviated mission. A six-month sentence to keep me in the good graces of my community. Twenty hours a week I feign perfection. I save my parents’ reputation. It’s a small price to pay for a college education. A small price to pay for my eventual escape.

Mom and Dad get to say that I served the Lord. They ignore their greatest disappointment with a vengeance because as long as they don’t look at her, they can conveniently shove her into nonexistence.




A hypothetical:

“If you have an abortion you are dead to me.”

Love is a tricky thing when it becomes conditional.




I find comfort in the words of militant atheists. Nietzche specifically.

I finally have a word for it all. True world theory. Take your pick. Judaism, Christianity, the Platonic world of forms, Plotinus’ The One. Mormonism. The world we live in is temporary. We persist to transcend it and reach the better version of it. We live for the day our lives end and something else begins.

In a religious household, meaning is a given. Mortality is a means to an end. A stepping stone to higher existence.

True world theories serve to dull the pain of existence. Alcohol has a similar effect. Pain, however, is the chisel that unearths art from stone. It is meant to be felt. Theistic morphine denies us strength. [6]

I take Nietzche’s ideas with a grain of salt. The man was a misogynistic megalomaniac after all.

My fear of damnation persists.




        “I often wonder why I have been subjected to the life I have led for the past three and a half years. It is certainly one of three things. Earning a `big’ reward, atoning for past delinquencies, or else because I am a damned fool.”

-Martha Hughes Cannon, Letters from Exile [7]

Mormon history books portray Martha as a woman marked by success and diligence. They are correct. But they omit any mention of her happiness; or rather, they choose to ignore its apparent absence. For when she returned from three years in exile, her husband had acquired two new wives. Illegally, I might add. Polygamy had been outlawed in 1890. He had no money to support her; she spent the remainder of her days as a single mother, practicing medicine in California. Her public persona was one of dignity and obedience to custom. Her letters to her husband, however, suggest something quite different.

“How do you think I feel when I meet you driving another plural wife about in a glittering carriage in broad daylight? I am entirely out of money, borrowing to pay some old standing debts. I want our affairs speedily and absolutely adjusted… after all my sacrifice and loss you treat me like a dog and parade others before my eyes… I will not stand it.” [8]

I wonder how Martha justified the behavior of her husband. I wonder how she remained faithful to an organization that not only condoned his behavior, but encouraged it. I wonder if she felt invisible in a mob of glassy-eyed women with full bellies and empty minds. I wonder if it made her want to scream. I wonder why she didn’t.

But I wonder no longer. She did not scream because she couldn’t.

Perhaps that’s why I scream. I scream because I’ve finally learned how to. I scream for the generations of women who never could, and never did.

Their graves read “Loving Wife and Mother” if they are lucky. Their lives are reduced to three unassuming dashes on a cold marble facade.


Works Cited/End Notes


  1. “Dr Martha Maria ‘Mattie’ Hughes Cannon (1857-1932)…” Find a Grave, www.findagrave.com/memorial/20911110/martha-maria-cannon.
  2. Nelson, Geoffrey S. “Martha Hughes Cannon.” MormonPress, www.mormonpress.com/martha_hughes_cannon.
  3. Nelson, Geoffrey S. “Mormons and Compulsory Vaccination.” MormonPress, www.mormonpress.com/mormon_vaccination.
  4. True to the Faith: a Gospel Reference. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 2004.
  5. Holland, Jeffrey R., et al. “Modesty.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/modesty?lang=eng.
  6. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Antichrist. Oregan France, 2020.
  7. Full Text of “Letters From Exile: The Correspondence of Martha Hughes Cannon and Angus M. Cannon, 1886–1888”, archive.org/stream/LettersFromExileMarthaAndAngusCannon/Letters from Exile-Martha and Angus Cannon_djvu.txt.
  8. Nelson, Geoffrey S. “Martha Hughes Cannon.” MormonPress, www.mormonpress.com/martha_hughes_cannon.


Complete Works Cited

Meet the Contributor

darby shea williamsDarby Shea Williams is a creative nonfiction writer pursuing a bachelor’s degree in drama at the University of Michigan Residential College. She works as a part-time Spanish tutor and adores the works of Shakespeare above all else. In her free time, she enjoys acting, singing, collecting dinosaur memorabilia, and running with her border collie Charlie.

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