Susa Young Gates was born in Salt Lake City, Utah Territory, a daughter of Lucy Bigelow, the 22nd wife of Brigham Young. She enrolled at the University of Deseret at age 13 and became editor of the student newspaper. In 1872, she married Alma B. Dunford, with whom she had children; the couple divorced five years later. In 1878, she went to the Brigham Young Academy in Provo, Utah, where she founded the music department. In 1880, she married Jacob F. Gates, with whom she had 13 children. She and her husband served as Mormon church missionaries in Hawaii in the late 1880s. She would later recount her experiences in a semi-autobiographical novel, The Little Missionary, one of several fiction works. She wrote for Mormon publications, and produced nine books, including a biography of her father, two novels, and a history of women in the church.
She promoted women's rights and women's suffrage and was the primary organizer of the Utah chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, and the National Woman's Press Club.