12. Emmeline B. Wells: Romantic Rebel

By Carol Cornwall Madsen

Carol Cornwall Madsen, “Emmeline B. Wells: Romantic Rebel,” in Supporting Saints: Life Stories of Nineteenth-Century Mormons, ed. Donald Q. Cannon and David J. Whittaker (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, Religious Studies Center, 1985), 305–41.

Emmeline B. Wells: Romantic Rebel

Carol Cornwall Madsen

Carol Cornwall Madsen was a research historian with the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History at Brigham Young University when this was published. She was educated at the University of Utah, receiving a BA in English literature and an MA and a PhD in American history. Carol Madsen became interested in Emmeline B. Wells while she was writing her master’s thesis, entitled “A Study of the Editorial Content of the Woman’s Exponent, a Mormon Woman’s Journal, 1872–1914.” Emmeline B. Wells edited this periodical for thirty-seven years.

As the steamship neared the bend of the Mississippi River, which bordered the city of Nauvoo, the young Mormon convert eagerly watched the crowd of people gathering on its banks. From her home in Massachusetts to her journey’s end in Nauvoo, Emmeline Woodward Harris, newly married to James Harris, had listened to the missionaries and other Latter-day Saints talk about the Prophet Joseph Smith. Many had known him personally and had described his charismatic power. “As we stepped ashore,” Emmeline recalled years later, “the crowd advanced, and I could see one person who towered away and above all the others around him; in fact I did not see distinctly any others.” She remembered that

his majestic bearing, so entirely different from any one I had ever seen . . . was more than a surprise. It was as if I beheld a vision. . . . Before I was aware of it he came to me, and when he took my hand, I was simply electrified—thrilled through and through to the tips of my fingers, and every part of my body, as if some magic elixir had given me new life and vitality. . . . The one thought that filled my soul was, I have seen the prophet of God, he has taken me by the hand.[1]

The memory of that gripping moment had years to season before she wrote of it. But the experience of meeting Joseph Smith validated Emmeline’s decision made two years earlier to become a Latter-day Saint. It became the cornerstone of her faith. In the years to come she would repeatedly encounter disappointment, disillusionment, and even despair because of that decision; but she would rise to become one of Utah’s and the Church’s strongest defenders and would devote her life to the cause of women, also because of that decision.

Emmeline was born in Petersham, a small village situated in the hill country in central Massachusetts. Her birthdate was auspicious, 29 February 1828, a rare date auguring an exceptional life for the seventh child and fifth daughter of David and Diadama Woodward. At her father’s death six years later, Emmeline’s family moved to New Salem, a few miles north of Petersham. In later years she claimed that she had been born a woman’s rights advocate because her mother had long believed in “the emancipation of women” and when left a widow fully realized the disabilities of a woman’s rearing a family alone.

Her literary precocity was noted early, as she preferred to roam the fields and hillsides of Petersham or sit under the hemlock boughs that swept the banks of the small stream that flowed near her home in New Salem. In these outdoor settings she wrote childish verses and recited stories to her nature friends. Her enduring ambition to write poetry was kindled by the natural beauties that surrounded her in the wooded hills of her New England home.

Her talent was rewarded by an education not offered her brothers and sisters. Studying first at the common schools in the towns where she lived, she was eventually enrolled at the New Salem Academy, a private institution, from which she graduated at age fourteen with a teaching certificate.[2]

In 1841, while Emmeline was away at the Academy where she boarded during the school session, Diadama and the three younger children of the family were baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with several other New Salem families. None of Emmeline’s older brothers and sisters, by then all married, ever joined the Church. Joining the Church was a difficult decision for Emmeline, who looked forward to a teaching and literary career in her beloved New England. Her mother’s entreaties and the persuasive preaching of Elder Eli P. Maginn altered Emmeline’s plans, and she was baptized on 1 March 1842, the day of her birthday celebration.

When she returned to school, she suffered intense ridicule and criticism along with many appeals to abandon her new faith for the promising future that awaited her. In Nauvoo she looked back on the difficulty of those days:

As soon as Mormonism began to flourish were they not harassing me on every side did they not tear me from my beloved home and the arms of a tender parent to keep me from Mormonism and then the Good Spirit interposed and provided a way for me to be released from the hands of a cruel guardian who pretended so much respect for me that he did not wish me to associate with my own mother and sister because they were Saints of the Most High God.[3]

Emmeline resisted the importunings of her well-meaning friends. After receiving her teaching certificate, she taught school until she married James Harvey Harris, son of the presiding elder of the branch in New Salem, where Emmeline’s mother lived. The marriage, which had been arranged by their parents, took place on 29 July 1843, when Emmeline and James were both only fifteen.

In late spring the following year, the young couple, along with James’s parents, left Massachusetts to join the Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois. There Emmeline’s testimony was born and then tested in a dramatic way. Her contact with the Prophet, whose welcome had so affected her, was brief. Only a few weeks after her first meeting with him on the banks of the Mississippi, he and his brother Hyrum were killed by assassins’ bullets. In the following months Emmeline’s parents-in-law apostatized; her newborn son, Eugene Henri, died, and her husband James, hoping to find work, took a steamer up the Mississippi, never to return, as he died a short time later. By November 1844 Emmeline found herself alone in Nauvoo, with only a few former neighbors to rely on.

Her response to these tragic events reflects the dramatic aura she imposed on most of the experiences of her life:

When will sorrow leave my bosom? All my days have I experienced it. Oppression has been my lot. When O when shall I escape the bondage Is not my life a romance? Indeed it is a novel strange and marvellous. Here was I brought to this great city by one to whom I ever expected to look for protection and left dependent on the mercy and friendship of strangers. Merciful Providence, wilt thou long suffer this? Will I forever be unhappy? Will the time never come when happiness and enjoyment will be the lot of this lump of clay, when thralldom and oppression will be cast off?[4]

Her education rescued her from dependency. She resumed teaching school. Among her students were the children of Elizabeth Ann and Newel K. Whitney, whom she had met through Elizabeth’s cousin who had traveled to Nauvoo on the steamer with Emmeline. Elizabeth Ann, many years her senior, became not only a lifelong friend and surrogate mother at the death of Emmeline’s own mother in 1845, but also her sister-wife in the bonds of polygamy. Marrying Newel K. Whitney on 24 February 1845, Emmeline traveled with the Whitneys to Utah in 1848 and there gave birth to two daughters, Isabel and Melvina, before Whitney’s death in 1850.

Emmeline revered the man she had married, thirty-three years her senior. He was “as good a man as ever lived, a father to all within his reach and more than father to me,” she recounted on the twenty-fourth anniversary of his death. “I looked to him almost as if he had been a God; my youth, my inexperience of life and its realities caused me to trust most implicitly in one who had power and integrity always at his command.”[5] An anchor of calm and security following her personal anguish in Nauvoo,

He took her in his arms, as her own father might,

This stranger patriarch, and comforted and blest

Her aching heart, and showed her greater truth and light,

Even where to seek a haven of sweet rest.[6]

Thus in poetic form Emmeline characterized the man to whom she was sealed in marriage in the Nauvoo Temple and who would remain a fixed point of spiritual and emotional reference throughout the turbulent events that patterned her life.

Left once again to her own resources at her husband’s untimely death in 1850, Emmeline began teaching once more to support herself and her daughters. But two years later a brighter prospect suggested itself to her. Remembering her late husband’s close friendship with Daniel H. Wells in Nauvoo, she decided to utilize the advantages of plural marriage, publicly acknowledged that year, and appeal to Wells’s sense of obligation and friendship. In a note, “ A Letter from a True Friend,” Emmeline wrote to the prominent Wells, reminding him of his friendship with Newel K. Whitney and asking him to “consider a lonely state” of his friend’s widow. She wrote that she had often hoped to be “united with a being noble as thyself” and requested him to “return to her a description of his feelings for her.”[7] His feelings must have been favorable, or at least his loyalty to Whitney enduring, for within six months of this correspondence, Emmeline became the seventh wife of Daniel H. Wells,[8] he performing a duty that many Church leaders and others exercised in providing a home, support, and family for faithful widowed Saints. Three daughters were born to this union over a nine-year period—Emma, Elizabeth Ann, and Louisa.

The prosperous Wells was at various times a counselor to Brigham Young, mayor of Salt Lake City, superintendent of Public Works, chancellor of the University of Deseret, and lieutenant general of the Nauvoo Legion. His other wives shared a large home on South Temple Street known as the “big house,” while Emmeline and her five daughters lived in a smaller home a few blocks away. Enjoying financial security and stability for the first time in her life, Emmeline was distressed when her husband’s investments began to fail. In 1878 Emmeline made several entries in her diary suggesting the need “to practice the most rigid economy” and the possibility of being “thrown upon my own resources.”[9] A few years later, financial worries were still gnawing at her. “I feel if I had my home and means independent,” she wrote, “I would be much more comfortable and it would be better in every way.”[10] When finally in 1888 she was obliged to sell her home, she found the loss overwhelming.[11]

Though family tradition suggests that Emmeline lived apart from the family by choice, visits from her husband seemed to be less frequent than she had expected:

This evening I fully expected my husband here but was again disappointed. . . . He is not in want of me for a companion or in any sense, he does not need me at all, there are plenty ready and willing to administer to every wish caprice or whim of his, indeed they anticipate them, they are near him always, while I am shut out of his life. . . . It is impossible for me to make myself useful to him in any way while I am held at such a distance.[12]

The joy when he came was almost indescribable:

My husband came, my heart gave one great bound towards him; O how enthusiastically I love him; truly and devotedly if he could only feel towards me in any degree as I do towards him how happy it would make me.[13]

Often she lamented the loss of her only son, who could have been the “shelter and protection” needed by his “nervous and delicate Mother.”[14] Time did not ease the loneliness. For more than a decade during the 1870s Emmeline struggled with longings for more companionship. “I felt dreadful,” she wrote at one time; “it seemed as if I wanted some kindness shown to me—I am shut out from all that others enjoy. No wonder I’m forced to be strong-minded.”[15] That last phrase is a key to Emmeline’s ultimate response to a situation she clearly could not change. Her loneliness and forced independence had begun to generate within her a new sense of self-reliance and determination. A resolution confided to her diary regarding her daughters became her own course of action: “I am determined to train my girls to habits of independence so that they never need to trust blindly but understand for themselves and have sufficient energy of purpose to carry out plans for their own welfare and happiness.”[16] The opportunity for Emmeline to develop some of this independence and “energy of purpose” was already beginning to unfold.

In 1872 the Woman’s Exponent, a biweekly periodical edited and written by Mormon women, was established. At almost the same time entries in Emmeline’s diary read, “I sent a manuscript to the office today,” or “I submitted a piece to the Exponent, “or “prepared my piece for the paper.” While the entries were sporadic, they intimated the change that was stirring in Emmeline’s life and would ultimately catapult her from an inexperienced, private “scribbler of verse” to a leader of women in political and religious affairs. Early in her life she had acknowledged a desire to achieve something significant:

Was it under the hemlock boughs . . . that I sat on a summer’s day with proud ambition burning in my soul, ambition to be great and known to fame, when a gentle whisper came, . . . “There is no excellence without labor.”[17]

Emmeline was forty-four when the Exponent was founded. Although she had contributed a few poems to various Church publications and given many to friends and family prior to that time, the avenues she would soon follow were not clear to her then. If the childhood ambition to do something significant remained, it was not evident during the early years of her marriage to Daniel Wells. But by 1878 she seemed to see the direction she was to follow. Her distress at the growing disparagement of Mormon women by eastern papers, along with her sensitivity to the social and legal disabilities of all women and a growing empathy for the woman’s movement, set her course for her. “I desire to do all in my power to help elevate the condition of my people, especially women,”[18] she wrote in January of that year. Woman’s cause became her cause, one to which she would devote all her energies through her long life. In the Exponent, Emmeline had found the vehicle which would help her accomplish this goal. She was a writer, and she would use her pen like a sickle to cut away the thickets of prejudice, custom, and ignorance that defamed Mormon women and undermined the position of all women.

She was well equipped for the labor that would bring “Excellence to her ambition.” Her dominant characteristic, one contemporary wrote of her, was “her supreme will. . . . She might differ in methods or be widely separated from her associates in matters of procedure, for her ambitions were high, her purposes lofty.”[19] Barely five feet tall, with dangling earrings at her ears, rings on her fingers, and pastel scarves and furbelows adorning her neck, she was “exquisitely delicate and dainty, in her writing, her living, and in her life.”[20] The fragile exterior, however, camouflaged an “exceedingly frank” nature.[21] She could be “sarcastic at times, not to say caustic,” but this quality was softened by a show of repentance afterwards.[22] She was credited with a faultless memory and was frequently sought after for forgotten pieces of information about events in the early history of the Church. Her home became a meeting place for young and old who enjoyed the company, conversation, and congeniality of Emmeline and her daughters. A typical Sunday was spent amidst family and friends:

Stormy and dark Louie went down to show Millie’s servant how to arrange breakfast, Annie took Daisie and Onie to Sunday School, it was prize day Lou. came home and went—Ort, Budd Hebe & Heber Grant called, Ort. staid and spent the day, Adeline & Inez were here to dinner, Will. & Mill called on their way up to Lib’s to dinner; Ort. has been playing and singing nearly all day; this evening Charlie Adelie & May called as they were going to church. Mr. Hendrie arrived today at eleven; it seemed lonely without Will & Millie.[23]

As more and more references to her writing for the Exponent appear in her diaries, there are fewer notations about her marital disappointments and loneliness. The Exponent became a natural outlet for her creative and intellectual capacities. Chided by her daughters for working so long at the Exponent office one day, “as if I had to earn my living,” Emmeline explained that she was eager to acquire a “thorough knowledge of an Editor’s duties.”[24] It would be useful information, for two years later, in 1877, she was appointed editor of the Woman’s Exponent, holding that position for thirty-seven years. She was evidently pleased with the new opportunity. When Eliza R. Snow had invited her to join the committee of the Exponent in 1874 and also asked her to write an editorial in the temporary absence of the editor, Lula Greene Richards, Emmeline expressed concern in her diary that her piece might not please the committee. “For my own part,” she concluded, “I would not be at all afraid, I love this kind of work.”[25]

Tracing the writings of Emmeline Wells in the Woman’s Exponent reveals an interesting dichotomy, one which not only characterized her writings but defined her personality as well. Before becoming editor of the Exponent, she wrote under the pseudonym of Blanche Beechwood, most of her articles advocating the advancement of women and discussing other issues of the woman question of her time. Emmeline gave up the pseudonym soon after becoming editor, but in her editorials she continued Blanche’s strong advocacy for woman’s rights. But about the time that Blanche Beechwood disappeared from the pages of the Exponent, another persona took her place—”Aunt Em.” For the next thirty-six years Aunt Em served as Emmeline’s (Blanche’s) alter ego. Each reflected the competing forces that struggled to define women in the nineteenth century.

Aunt Em, the traditional Victorian woman, wrote stories, poems, and articles on topics popularized by Godey’s Lady’s Book, a famous ladies’ magazine of the day. Sentimental, nostalgic, and romantic, they were typical Victorian pieces extolling nature’s beauties, eulogizing friends, romanticizing the past, and idealizing love. One typical essay by Aunt Em evoked memories of a happy childhood:

O, yes, we went gipsying in our young days, or nutting and berrying, gathering autumn leaves. . . . A merry crowd we were with full lunch baskets and light hearts, tripping gaily over the rough pastures or hillsides, climbing on our way the quaint old rail fences, bedecking ourselves with floral treasures, singing in the merriest strains snatches of songs and rhymes, and querying if gipsies themselves, of whom we had read but never seen, enjoyed with as keen a relish the open air and bright sunshine. [26]

Had the circumstances of her life been different, Emmeline Wells may have remained one of these Victorian “scribbling women.” In spite of her professed ambitions for fame and recognition, and a desire to work in behalf of women, her nature initially seemed inclined toward the quieter pursuits of family rather than public life. She was subject to moods of depression and, if not quite succumbing to the fashionable “vapors,” she often took to her bed with a “nervous disorder” or spells of despondency and uncontrollable crying:

I never remember to have had so many disagreeable feelings in one evening in all my life. . . . I was alone feeling to[o] gloomy even to write crying most of the time, and my heart nearly bursting, I shall never forget it if I live to be a thousand years old; I never remember of suffering like that before, with the same feelings, O how hard it is to endure unto the end, I am not sure if it be possible for me or not sometimes I think I have to[o] much to bear.[27]

Her somber moods, more frequent than others, grew out of an enduring sorrow that began with the loss of James and Eugene and with Whitney’s death a few years later and intensified with the unexpected death of Emma at age twenty-five and the long suffering and death of Louisa in childbirth.

She distinguished between chosen, reflective moments alone in her garden, which she loved, and the frequent times she was compelled to be alone, which brought only gloom. “I do not like sitting alone,” she wrote, as “it makes one conjure up all sorts of weird fancies,” but enjoy being “alone in the out-door air with plenty folks within call.”[28] She often evoked the memory of dead loved ones—James, her youthful husband; Eugene Henri, her son; her mother; her daughters; and Newel K. Whitney, her second husband—who, she felt, had they lived, would have helped assuage her suffering from the constant trials and disappointments that confronted her.[29]

Emmeline adored her daughters and worried about what she would do without them. When Emmie was sick Emmeline was fearful: “I felt very uneasy about her, she is so precious to me in many ways, so perfectly congenial in temperament the thought of ever being seperated from her is very painful to me, how can I ever bear it, we have been so much to each other, in our dull lonely common-place life.”[30] But she was to be separated not only from Emmie but also from Louisa, her youngest daughter, both of whom died as young women. Their deaths were devastating to her shadowing even the bright moments of her life.

Though Emmeline undoubtedly had confidantes to share her griefs and problems with, it is unlikely that many were privy to her emotional vulnerability. “Some lives go on in tragedies” was the first line of an autobiographical poem, which continued:

. . . each part

To be sustained by human effort grand;

Though ‘neath the outward seeming lies the broken heart,

That only One above can understand.[31]

Emmeline seldom blurred the boundaries of the dual role she made for herself. Her public responsibilities continued unabated almost to her death, literally sustained by an enormous force of determination that belied her fragile emotional status.

In many aspects the dainty, diminutive Emmeline was a typical Victorian woman. She was pious and pure, two dominant Victorian female qualities, and also deeply sensitive. She was not, however, domestic and was only selectively submissive, in opposition to two other expected Victorian female traits.[32] Her Victorianism partook more of the traces of an earlier romanticism, which lingered throughout the century. She gave expression to it in the romantic fantasies of her poetry and stories, in her quaint dress, in her effusive correspondence, in the self-examination of her diary entries, and in her attention to ambiance—in a room, a garden, a home, or natural setting.

Against the harmonic euphony of Aunt Em’s world, Emmeline’s feminism imposed a dissonant counterpoint. This dyadic nature is nowhere more startlingly exposed than in two pieces of her writing, one an Exponent article and the other a diary entry, written within days of each other. On 1 October 1874, the Exponent ran an article by Blanche Beechwood which asked,

Is there then nothing worth living for, but to be petted, humored and caressed, by a man? That is all very well as far as it goes, but that man is the only thing in existence worth living for I fail to see. All honor and reverence to good men; but they and their attentions are not the only sources of happiness on the earth, and need not fill up every thought of woman. And when men see that women can exist without their being constantly at hand, that they can learn to be self-reliant or depend upon each other for more or less happiness, it will perhaps take a little of the conceit out of some of them.[33]

On the day this article appeared in the Exponent, Emmeline wrote in her diary:

O if my husband could only love me even a little and not seem so perfectly indifferent to an sensation of that kind, he cannot know the craving of my nature, he is surrounded with love on every side, and I am cast out O My poor aching heart where shall it rest its burden, only on the Lord, only to Him can I look every other avenue seems closed against me. . . . I have no one to go to for comfort or shelter no strong arm to lean upon no bosom bared for me, no protection or comfort in my husband.[34]

Always lying just below the bright and visible surface of Emmeline’s strong self-possession were the dark depths of the brooding romantic, longing for a life and love perpetually beyond her grasp.

The roots of Emmeline’s feminism lay not only in the circumstances of her personal life but also in the Relief Society, organized in Nauvoo in 1842 by Joseph Smith. Though not a member herself in Nauvoo, Emmeline shared its Nauvoo birth and demise vicariously through Elizabeth Ann Whitney, her sister-wife, who was not only a charter member but a counselor to Emma Smith, the first president. From Elizabeth, Emmeline learned of Joseph’s instructions to the sisters, of the growth of the organization, and of its suspension just before his death. She learned that it was not intended to be just another of the benevolent societies that proliferated New England, but was organized “under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood” and “according to the law of heaven,” as John Taylor, who was present at its inception, observed. When Joseph spoke the significant words, “I now turn the key to you in the name of God and this Society shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time—this is the beginning of better day to this Society,”[35] he opened new vistas of promise and opportunity to women. To Emmeline this event heralded the dawn of a new age and literally opened the dispensation in which women would regain their lost status as man’s equal. Knowledge and intelligence would be the birthright of women from that time forward. Women would be absolved from the supposed effects of Eve’s transgression, long used to justify their subordinate position in the home and in society, for women now had the key to effectuate their own redemption.

Thus, Joseph Smith’s turning of the key for women in 1842 and the organizing of the woman’s rights movement in Seneca Falls, New York, just six years later were no coincidence. The “Declaration of Sentiments” drawn up at Seneca Falls, enumerating woman’s disabilities in society and proposing appropriate redress,[36] was construed by many Mormons as part of a grand design whose impetus was the prophetic uttering of Joseph Smith. “Men no longer [had] the same absolute sway” after that time, Emmeline observed, rejoicing that “a new era [had] been ushered in, mainly through the exertions of self-made women, acted upon by an influence many comprehend[ed] not, which [was] working for their redemption from under the curse [of Eve].”[37] Through the years Emmeline took pride in the fact that the Relief Society had opened “one of the most important eras in the history of woman. It presented the great woman-question to the Latter-day Saints, previous to the woman’s rights organizations . . . not in any aggressive form as woman opposed to man, but as a co-worker and help-meet in all that relates to the well-being and advancement of both, and mutual promoting of the best interests of the community at large.”[38]

Among those who, like Emmeline, perceived a connection between the organization of Mormon women and the beginning of the woman’s rights movement was Sarah M. Kimball. An active suffragist, she declared in 1870, when Utah women were enfranchised for the first time, that she had always been a “woman’s rights woman” and later stated that “the sure foundations of the suffrage cause were deeply and permanently laid on the 17th of March, 1842.”[39] Lula Greene Richards, first editor of the Woman’s Exponent, wrote in 1901: “[Joseph] declared when he organized the Sisterhood of the Church into the Relief Society, that he “turned the key in favor of woman.” Since that time what a noble work has been accomplished in woman’s favor by hundreds of heroic women in this and other nations, including many of the Society which the Prophet organized.”[40]

Susa Young Gates, writer, editor, suffragist, and daughter of Brigham Young, remarked, “From the hour the key was given, great and restless activity has marked every phase of womanly life.”[41]

Some of the Brethren concurred. Elder Orson F. Whitney declared, “The lifting of the women of Zion to that plane, was the beginning of a work for the elevation of womankind throughout the world. ‘I have turned the key,’ said the Prophet on that historic occasion,” Elder Whitney continued,

and from what has since taken place we are justified in believing that the words were big with fate . . . the spirit of woman’s work has spread, until other nations are interested in the growing movement, . . . But who ever heard of such things until after the establishment of “Mormonism,” until the turning of the key by the Prophet of God, and the setting up in this Church, of women’s organizations, as one of the signs of a new era, one of those sunbursts of light that proclaim the dawning of a new dispensation?[42]

As late as 1945, George Albert Smith told the sisters in a Relief Society conference that “when the Prophet Joseph Smith turned the key for the emancipation of womankind, it was turned for all the world.”[43]

Woman’s cause, for Emmeline, thus encompassed a theological dimension and, though her rhetoric was often indistinguishable from that of national proponents of women’s rights, her motivations derived from a different source. Woman’s roles as wife, mother, homemaker, worker, citizen, and individual were inextricably bound together within an eternal framework. Progress toward perfection, an eternal quest, gave significance to the most common experience. With this enlarged view of human purpose and the promise of eternal reward, Emmeline embraced the woman’s movement as a means to break the bonds of repression which had for so long kept women from reaching their highest potential. “Let [woman] have the same opportunities for an education, observation and experience in public and private for succession of years,” she challenged, “and then see if she is not equally endowed with man and prepared to bear her part on all general questions socially, politically, industrially and educationally as well as spiritually.”[44]

Sensing what seemed to her to be an unprecedented opportunity in her religion for female participation, initiative, and leadership, especially through the programs Brigham Young outlined for the newly revitalized Relief Society, Emmeline found a natural coalescence of Mormon and feminist goals for women. An appraisal she made of the Relief Society in 1889, when she was serving as general secretary, indicates the impact she felt it had on the lives of Mormon women:

It has given to woman, in its rise and progress, influence on almost all subjects that pertain to her welfare and happiness, and opportunities for expressing her own thoughts, views and opinions; all of which has had a tendency to make her intelligent in regard to matters which before were considered incompatible with “woman’s sphere” and unintelligible to her “weaker” mind.[45]

Observing women all about her responding to Brigham Young’s call to study skills beyond housekeeping—accounting, telegraphy, typesetting, even medicine—and to obtain an education at the highest level possible, reinforced Emmeline’s assessment of the progressive attitudes of Mormonism toward women.[46] Elder Joseph F. Smith in a Relief Society conference endorsed this broad view of women’s potential and usefulness. “Why,” he asked,

shall one [sex] be admitted to all the avenues of mental and physical progress and prosperity and the other be prohibited, and prescribed within certain narrow limits? . . . It is all right for them to be qualified for any and all positions, and possess the right or privilege to fill them, but that they must do so does not follow.

Then, chastising those who would restrain women from exercising their option to be what they had capacity to be, he concluded:

Women may be found who seem to glory in their enthralled condition, and who caress and fondle the very chains and manacles which fetter an enslave them! Let those who love this helpless dependent condition and prefer to remain in it and enjoy it; but for conscience and for mercy’s sake let them not stand in the way of those of their sisters who would be, and of right ought to be free.[47]

By interpreting from her Mormon perspective the theories enunciated by Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and other feminists, Emmeline developed her own canon of beliefs. “Woman must be instrumental in bringing about the restoration of that equality which existed when the world was created,” she wrote in a Relief Society handbook in 1902. “Perfectly equality then and so it must be when all things are restored as they were in the beginning.”[48] Moreover, equality began in the home. Though thrice married, Emmeline only briefly experienced the typical monogamous marriage of her time in which husband ruled and wife served, so much extolled by pulpit and press. Yet it was to this kind of relationship that she directed her criticism. A man too often saw his wife as “simply a necessity in his establishment,” she observed,

to manage his house, to cook his dinner, to attend to his wardrobe, always on hand if she is wanted and always out of sight when not needed. He doesn’t mind kissing her occasionally, when it suits him; but he never thinks she has any thoughts of her own, any ideas which might be developed; she must not have even an opinion, or if she has she mustn’t express it, it is entirely out of place; she is a subject, not a joint-partner in the domestic firm.[49]

Her concept of a satisfying marriage was one in which both partners supported and uplifted the other. This view digressed sharply with the formulas proposed for proper wifely behavior by the women’s magazines of her day, which encouraged women to be submissive, self-sacrificing, and silent. Emmeline felt that honest love promoted a different kind of relationship. “Why,” she asked, “is it not possible for man and woman to love each other truly, and dwell together in harmony, each according to the other all the freedom of thought, feeling, and expression they would grant to one who was not bound to them by indissoluble ties?”[50] She regretted the existence of those marriages in which the wife gave all, merging her life into her husband’s to the “extinguishing and crushing out of all desires, ambitions, tastes, or capabilities.” Her challenge to husbands was to prove themselves “noble enough to share with [their wives] such laurels as either may be able to win in the battle field of life, instead of arrogating to [themselves] the right to dictate . . . in all things, saying, ‘thus far shalt thou go and no farther.”[51]

Emmeline admonished women to become “enlightened on all points pertaining to life and its purposes,” and she decried the influences that made women reluctant to break the “silken cord” which bound them to the “proprieties and delicacies of . . . life” beyond which they dared not step.[52] She argued that

in the name of justice, reason, and common sense, let woman be fortified and strengthened by every possible advantage, that she may be adequately and thoroughly fitted not only to grace the drawing room, and manage every department of her household, but to perform with skill and wisdom the arduous and elaborate work of molding and fashioning the fabrics of which society is to be woven.[53]

Education was a duty as well as a privilege for women and the only means to truly develop their latent capabilities, Emmeline declared. Education was essential in order for a mother to act with intelligence within the confines of her home and for a woman to exercise her greatest influence for the betterment of society. It was through the advanced education of women, she believed, that these goals could be attained and the entire world could realize a higher civilization.[54]

Thus she extended her views of equal partnership in the home to the community. Women were not asking for their rights simply because of “place or power,” she wrote,

or to crowd men out of the ranks of the wage earners or professions but that they may be acknowledged as being an equal in the work and business of the great world in which all must live and take part. . . . This great work can never be done well by one half of the human family; it is the opinion of all who think deeply that men and women must do the work together, and unitedly.[55]

For Emmeline, as for most of her feminist contemporaries, the fight for equal rights came to center on suffrage as the means of achieving their goals. Though she had been expressing her views on the woman question for nearly a decade in articles for the Woman’s Exponent and the Boston Woman’s Journal, a national suffrage paper, she did not take an active role in the national suffrage movement until 1879 when John Taylor appointed her and Zina Young Williams as delegates to represent Mormon women at the national suffrage convention in Washington.

Utah women had been given the vote in 1870 without petition or demonstration. For the previous three years members of Congress had suggested granting suffrage to women in the territories not only as an experiment in woman suffrage but also as a ploy to enable Mormon women in Utah territory to unshackle themselves from the bonds of polygamy. While Congress vacillated over the proposal, the Utah territorial legislature acted upon the idea and passed the measure unanimously. It became law on 12 February 1870.

The motives for adopting such progressive legislation may have been varied, but it was obvious that such a gesture measurably countered the “enslaved” image of Mormon women. A hidden bonus came in the form of unintended support for the Mormon cause when suffrage became the scapegoat of polygamy. For, unlike the prognosis of anti-polygamists, who encouraged suffrage for polygamous Mormon women to free themselves, Mormon women did not rise up en masse and vote against plural marriage. Now the agitation in Congress was to strengthen anti-polygamy legislation by increasing its penalties. Disfranchising Mormon women became one of these. Declaring they were ready to “render all the aid in their power to fight this proposition,”[56] national suffragists stepped up their lobbying efforts each time Congress considered a measure to disfranchise Utah women.

When the United States Supreme Court decided to hear the Reynolds case in 1878 challenging the constitutionality of the anti-polygamy act of 1862, the time seemed propitious for Mormons to strengthen their Washington representation. Heretofore the only Utah women involved in national suffrage activities were Charlotte Godbe and her estranged sister-wives Annie and Mary, all married to William Godbe, founder of the liberal splinter group, the Godbeites. These women made the initial contact with national suffragists as early as 1869, when the first annual suffrage convention was held in Washington, D.C. Their independent efforts during the decade before Emmeline and Zina Williams were appointed delegates to the national convention, however, were not considered respresentative of the Mormon-dominated territory.

Emmeline and Zina had another mission to perform in Washington besides attending the suffrage convention, however. They were charged with an assignment to carry a memorial to Congress and the President against proposed anti-polygamy legislation that would invalidate existing marriages and illegitimatize the children of these marriages. Undoubtedly it was hoped that their efforts would influence in some way the decision of the Supreme Court on the Reynolds case. However, the Supreme Court rendered its decision while the two women were on their way to Washington. Thus, their mission became even more imperative.

It was no easy task for these two representatives of the much maligned women of Utah to brave the ridicule and derogation of Easterners. The cordiality with which they were met by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, however, assuaged their fears. Recognition of their capabilities even before they visited Washington perhaps helped pave the way for them. Suffragist Sarah Spencer had drawn attention to Mormon women in an article in Woman’s Words in 1878 praising their abilities:

At our next Convention in Washington, let us by all means have one or more of the enterprising, public-spirited women of Utah present. If we mistake not our Gentile sisters have much to learn from these heroic women. What we read of their business ability, courage and patriotism is an inspiration to us.[57]

But not everyone was pleased to have the controversial Mormons join the suffrage cause. An article in the Boston Woman’s Journal criticized the presence of Mormon women at the convention, noticeably disturbing Elizabeth Stanton, especially since editor Lucy Stone’s silence appeared to condone the criticism. Elizabeth Stanton answered, “If George Q. Cannon can sit in the Congress of the United States without compromising that body on the question of Polygamy, I should think Mormon women might sit on our platform without making us responsible for their religious faith.”[58] Suffragists always made clear, however, that their sympathies were not with the Mormon cause per se, only against the move to use woman’s suffrage as a weapon to strike at polygamy.[59]

Both Emmeline and Zina Williams spoke at the convention, and Emmeline was appointed one of a committee of three to call upon President Hayes to present the resolutions of the conference. “But the beauty of the interview,” one non-Mormon delegate observed, “was when the two Mormon ladies laid their case before the President and he showed such kindly sympathy with them when they proved what misery would follow in Utah the enforcement of the act of 1862 against polygamy.” When they finished their appeal, the President seemed “pained,” the reporter observed, “reflecting how little he could do to help them since the United States Supreme Court has rendered a decision within a month against polygamy in Utah.”[60] This would be the first of many interviews Emmeline B. Wells would conduct on behalf of Mormon women, appealing the case of the Mormons to Congress, to judiciary committees, and to Presidents themselves and often their wives. While she was always greeted with respect and even sympathy, neither she nor all the other delegates sent on the same mission were able to stem the tide of events that was building force against the Mormons and would culminate in the devastating Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, which, among other stringent penalties, abrogated women’s suffrage in Utah.

From 1879 on, Emmeline was a frequent delegate to both the National and American Women’s Suffrage conventions, becoming vice-president for Utah shortly after her return from her first convention and serving in various capacities during the next thirty years.

Emmeline also regularly represented the Relief Society, with other Utah delegates, at the meetings of the International Council of Women, organized in 1888, and the National Council of Women, which she joined in 1891. She also served in various offices in these organizations, and with her fellow Mormon delegates she presented papers on the Relief Society and life in Utah. During the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, a special congress of representative women was held under the direction of May Wright Sewall, president of the National Council of Women. Both the Relief Society and the Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Association were represented. At one of the sessions Emmeline spoke on “Western Women in Journalism” and was given the honor of presiding at another of the sessions. She reflected on this opportunity:

This morning I presided over the General Congress in the Hall of Columbus—an honor never before accorded to a Mormon woman—if one of our brethren had such a distinguished honor conferred upon them, it would have been heralded the country over and thought a great achievement.[61]

A highlight of her national work for women was the invitation to speak at the International Council of Women convention held in London in 1899 as one of the official delegates from the United States.

One of the most memorable of the suffrage conventions Emmeline attended was in Atlanta in January 1895. There she was to speak on the progress of Utah women in claiming their place in the new Utah State Constitution which was to be decided upon at the constitutional convention in March. With the suspension of polygamy in 1890, the way had been opened for statehood. Since Utah women had lost their franchise under the Edmunds-Tucker Law in 1887, it was imperative it be regained in the new organic law of the state. Arguing in the Woman’s Exponent that “the women of Utah had the ballot wrested from them without adjudication, and no redress has ever been offered for that wrong,” Emmeline reasoned that “it would be but a simple act of justice for that wrong done in the past, to restore the right of franchise now.”[62]

Before leaving for the convention, once again with the blessings and financial support of the Church, Emmeline, as president of the Utah Woman’s Suffrage Association, outlined her plans for putting woman’s suffrage in the new constitution. Essentially, the strategy was to work quietly among individual delegates to the convention to gain their support. She also used the Exponent to warm converts to the cause. “Now that a new political era has come in the history of the Territory,” she wrote in one editorial, “what is to be the outlook for the recognition of women as citizens? They pay their taxes as well as men and we have never heard that women were ignorant in regard to paying taxes; that is one of the privileges they are permitted.”[63]

She urged women to qualify themselves to be useful and active on the political scene and to be ready when the rights of citizenship would be given to them. When the delegates were being chosen for the constitutional convention, using for her an uncharacteristic feminine ploy, she posed the question:

How will [the delegates] consider the interests of the sex who have no representation save through them? Will their [women’s] claims to citizenship be guaranteed to them through these great, grand, noblehearted sons of the soil? They must be trusted with this live question, it cannot be ignored for this is the woman’s age of the world, and now the imperative need of the hour, is pending.[64]

At that time, Emmeline was anticipating opposition primarily from the gentile population of Utah, who feared a swelling of the majority voice in Utah politics, but she would later be surprised to find that the most vehement opponent would be a Church leader.

In the meantime, with the situation looking favorable for woman’s suffrage, Emmeline began her six-week journey to Atlanta and then to Washington for the meeting of the National Council of Women. At the conclusion of her report to the Atlanta convention, she was gratified to feel the strong support of her fellow suffrage workers. “Miss Anthony came forward, put her arms around me, and made such an eloquent appeal,” she wrote in her diary, “that some of the ladies were moved to tears; it was a tribute of personal affection as well as a flattering compliment to the Territory.”[65]

Upon her return to Utah she was plunged immediately into a battle over suffrage she could not possibly have foreseen. Beginning with a vocal few in the convention, the argument against the vote for women moved from one of expediency to one of principle, led by the delegate from Davis County, Brigham H. Roberts, a member of the First Council of Seventy. His eloquence threatened to sweep confirmed suffragists to his point of view, which enunciated first the danger to passage of the constitution if it contained a woman suffrage clause and second the impropriety of women at the polls or embroiled in politics. Emmeline’s response was swift and pointed:

It is pitiful to see how men opposed to woman suffrage try to make the women believe it is because they worship them so, and think them far too good, and one would really think to hear those eloquent orators talk, that laws were all framed purposely to protect women in their rights, and men stood ready to defend them with their lives. . . . We can only say they have been bold and must answer to their own consciences; . . . let us hope the practical experience that will come with the ballot may convince even them that good may follow and they are their children receive the benefit of what they could not discern in the future progress of the world.[66]

While prolonging the debate over what some had considered a rubber-stamp endorsement of woman suffrage, Roberts’s oratory did not succeed in defeating the proposition. Emmeline happily reported in an editorial on 1 May 1895 that the section on equal suffrage had passed.[67] That fall, while the ratifying votes were still being counted, she proudly proclaimed Utah as “the third free state for which another star will be placed in the woman’s flag, and the forty-fifth star in the flag dear to every patriot.”[68] But problems still remained.

The breaking up of the unified Mormon People’s Party in 1891 so that Mormons could align themselves with national parties caused strain and hard feelings. For the women of the Church it created the first real schism in the sisterhood. Emmeline observed the problems that developed:

The division into two political parties of the Peoples’ Party is the principal subject under discussion at present and considerable feeling is manifested and some ill will, or dissension is being developed already. It seems too bad that it should be so.[69]

In 1895, while most of her associates in the Relief Society general presidency (she was the secretary) and her suffrage associates became Democrats, Emmeline chose to become a Republican. This decision, on the surface, seems strange since it set her apart from virtually all of the women with whom she had been so closely allied. But there were compelling reasons for her to become a Republican. Her motive certainly had an ideological basis. According to a Republican Party document to which her name was affixed, the party declared its support of protective tariffs, bounties, and bimetalism and invoked past Republican achievements such as the Homestead Act and the abolition of slavery, urging the women of Utah who believed in these political principles to join the Republican Party. She was consistently vocal in support of this platform.

Since the political allegiances of her family were divided, Emmeline did not fall naturally into a political identity. One son-in-law was a Democrat; another was a Republican. Orson F. Whitney, a close Whitney relative, was an active Democrat, but Emmeline’s husband Daniel, who died in 1891, was considered the father of Republicanism in Utah.

The most compelling reason for the choice was, undoubtedly, to satisfy her own self-interests. She was fervently courted by prominent Republicans to declare publicly for their party. Though she had evidently aligned herself with the Democratic Party earlier,[70] there is no indication that she was recruited with such fervor by the Democrats. Moreover, without the competition of her suffrage colleagues who also had political ambitions, Emmeline may have felt herself in a better position to become a candidate herself for some political office. She had always looked forward to women holding office, and who was better qualified than herself?

Thus it was that she became instrumental in organizing the Woman’s Republican League, and she worked in behalf of Republicanism throughout the soon-to-be state. She was, as she had hoped, chosen by her party to be a candidate for the legislature along with Lillie Pardee for the senate and Emma McVicker for state superintendent of education. When a court ruling prohibited women from voting in the ratifying election scheduled for November 1895, and by implication prohibited women from running from office, since the constitution permitting their candidacy had yet to be ratified, public pressure forced them to withdraw their names. It was with great reluctance that Emmeline bowed to this pressure. “I am thoroughly worried about my resignation,” she wrote in her journal on 17 October 1895. “I believe it is wrong. . . . I think moreover I have a right to be elected to the Legislature—as also other women—I yield unwillingly to the pressure brought to bear against the name of women on the Ticket.”[71] She had hoped to make her nomination a test case of “the principle of women’s equality,” but that issue would be left to another election.

An aftermath of the prolonged and heated debate over inclusion of woman’s suffrage in the constitution centered on the election of B.H. Roberts to Congress in the 1898 election. Emmeline and B.H. Roberts, though not personally confronting each other in the constitutional debate, were political adversaries over the issue of woman’s suffrage. Though Roberts lost the cause, his nomination and subsequent election to Congress occurred with the deep regret and embarrassment of Utah’s newly enfranchised women. Emmeline looked on his nomination as an insult to the women of the state, and her office entertained an army of indignant women with similar sentiments. “It is an outrageous thing for him to expect women’s votes,”[72] she told her diary shortly after his nomination. Because of the number of women seeking advice on how to proceed in the campaign, she took the problem to the First Presidency of the Church. She found them opposed to Roberts’s candidacy and willing that women should work, either privately or publicly, to defeat him.[73] Despite their efforts, however, B.H. Roberts won the election. Emmeline’s response reflected her disappointment. “I cannot understand,” she wrote, “how the women of the State can be so unscrupulous as to vote for such a man.”[74]

Ironically, nearly twelve years later, at a public celebration in honor of Emmeline’s eighty-second birthday, B.H. Roberts presented her a bouquet of white roses with a brief speech of tribute. A few days later, Emmeline penned him a letter of appreciation. She thanked him for the “delicate gift of roses . . . the most beautiful [gift] by far” and then explained that “coming from one who knew me so distantly (in a way) it was such a surprise that it was really like discovering a treasure—finding a beauty disguised in one, where we had only anticipated a quantum of reserve. I feel that I know you better, if only because of the selection of flowers, that I love most of all—white roses.” She expressed a desire that some day she would be able to converse with him, to exchange thoughts “with one of superior intelligence,” a “luxury in this barren world of cold communication.”[75] Both had evidently laid their differences to rest.

In October of that same year Emmeline Wells, nearing her eighty-third birthday, reached another milestone in her eventful life. She was appointed general president of the Relief Society. Two years earlier, during a serious illness of then president Bathsheba W. Smith, Emmeline had discussed possible successors in a letter to Romania Pratt Penrose, a Relief Society general board member who was in England. Both Emmeline’s daughter, Annie Wells Cannon, and Romania herself had been mentioned as possibilities by Bathsheba Smith, along with Clarissa Williams and Julina Smith. Emmeline did not consider herself a candidate.[76] But when the time came, she was selected. Her appointment came on Sunday, 2 October 1910, at the conclusion of the monthly fast meeting in the temple, when President Lund, counselor to President Joseph F. Smith, told her she had been chosen by President Smith to preside over the Relief Society.[77] She found the moment both “embarrassing” and surprising, fully expecting a younger woman to be appointed. Yet despite her age, or maybe because of it, no one was better qualified than Emmeline Wells to lead the Relief Society, nor more deserving, since to a large extent the office was also honorific.

For nearly forty years she had been active in that organization, holding the position of general secretary for more than twenty of those years. In 1876 Brigham Young had given her charge of a grain-saving program which she implemented through the Relief Society and encouraged in articles in the Woman’s Exponent. Speaking of this assignment some years later, she recalled that during an illness in Nauvoo, she was given a blessing, part of which said, “You will live to do a work that has never been done by any woman, since the Creation.’”[78] She believed that heading the grain-saving mission was the work envisioned for her. Her timid efforts in organizing the grain-saving mission developed into a significant program, ultimately administered by the Relief Society. The stored grain was used for the poor at home and for relief abroad and soon became associated with the Relief Society as its major relief effort. During World War I, while Emmeline presided over the Relief Society, more than 200,000 bushels of wheat were sold to the United States government. After the war, when President Woodrow Wilson and his wife visited Salt Lake City, then called on Emmeline in her apartment at the Hotel Utah, where she was recuperating from an illness. Going directly to her bedside, President Wilson shook hands with her and expressed his personal appreciation for turning over the stored grain to the nation during its hour of need.[79] Five times Emmeline Wells had visited presidents in the White House, asking for their help in behalf of Mormon women. Now a president had come to her to thank her for the help of Mormon women in behalf of the nation.

Even in this last calling in the service of women, Emmeline would not be free from the disappointments that accompanied her through life. Continuing as editor of the Woman’s Exponent after becoming president of the Relief Society, she proposed at the April conference in 1913 transferring the Exponent to the Relief Society as its official organ. She would continue as editor with her daughter Annie Wells Cannon as assistant. Her proposal was not acted upon at that time, but a year later a decision was made. The minutes of the Relief Society general board meeting, 12 January 1914, convey the disappointment Emmeline felt at the decision:

President Wells announced that it was her present intention to discontinue the Woman’s Exponent with the February Number. She had desired the privilege of giving the good will of her paper and the name to the Society, she had also desired that her name be used as editor of the Relief Society organ. These privileges had been denied her, and she had given up the paper, the name of the paper, and the idea of having her name used as editor.[80]

Susa Young Gates, a member of the board and founder of the Young Woman’s Journal, was chosen to edit an interim bulletin in 1915 and the newly launched Relief Society Magazine in 1916.

It might have seemed an overextension of responsibility for one woman to preside over a large organization and edit its official organ at the same time, especially at age eighty-six. But age did not diminish Emmeline’s expectations of herself, and the Exponent was more than just a publication to her. It had been her voice, her companion, even her child, whose life she had struggled to preserve for thirty-seven years. From the beginning, it had reported news and business of the Relief Society, and in later years had increasingly become the unofficial publication of that organization. It had even carried on its masthead, during its final years, the words, “The Organ of the Latter-day Saints Woman’s Relief Society.” But the Exponent had completed its work. A new magazine with a new format and a new editor was to take its place.

On 12 January 1914, Emmeline wrote a single sentence in her diary: “I had to get my editorial ready for the paper.” That editorial would be the last she would ever write for her beloved paper. It was her valedictory. She called it “Heartfelt Farewell”:

The aim of the paper has always been to assist those who needed assistance in any or every line. . . . For women, it has been a standard bearer, proclaiming their worth and just claims throughout the long years of its existence. . . . We love the readers of this paper as a part of ourselves; we love women and would ever strive to uplift and help them to attain their ideals; . . . [The Exponent] has surely performed a mission in the midst of Zion for the women of Zion, holding as it does within its leaves the history of their work. To lay aside the editorial pen, even after so many long years, seems a hard task, but though the pen may be idle, the mind will ever gratefully remember all the associations which this little paper has been instrumental in creating.[81]

Emmeline Wells’s life bridged two centuries. Outliving most of her contemporaries, she was revered as one who knew the Prophet Joseph by a generation one step removed from that personal knowledge. Every birthday in her later years was publicly noted, particularly during leap years, when the actual day, 29 February, occurred. Her book of poetry, Musings and Memories, was published in 1896; its popularity demanded a second edition in 1915. For her, the most signal honor came in 1912 when she was eighty-four. She was selected to receive an honorary doctor of literature from Brigham Young University, an event “unique in Mormon history,” she noted. The Blanche Beechwood in her rose to the fore as she responded to the large crowd assembled in the auditorium of the Bishop’s Building in Salt Lake City. Such an honor meant much to her, she said, “not only as a personal tribute, but as an honor to the sex.” She had always regretted, she continued, that “great educational institutions had withheld this distinction from women,” and she hoped that this event would show the world that “Utah withheld nothing from the women of the State.”[82] Forty-four years would pass before another woman would be so honored by that institution.

One final tribute was presented posthumously. On 29 February 1928, the one hundredth anniversary of her birth, a number of religious and community organizations representing the women of Utah commissioned a marble bust of her to be sculpted and placed in the rotunda of the State Capitol. It was inscribed simply, “A Fine Soul Who Served Us.”

Armed with the satisfaction that successful achievement brought to her public efforts, Emmeline met the bittersweet ending of her private life with equanimity. Separated from her husband for most of the thirty-seven years of their marriage, Emmeline was joyous, though undoubtedly confused, by his inexplicable reemergence in her later life. In 1888, a year after returning from presiding over the European Mission, Daniel H. Wells was appointed president of the newly constructed Manti Temple. One his frequent visits to Salt Lake City, he sought Emmeline’s company and often stayed at her home. “Strange indeed . . . ,” she wrote after one of his visits “that after all my younger years have been past in comparative seclusion that when I am past three score even he should seem so devoted.”[83] Letters followed these visits, urging her to come to Manti, In March 1890, she decided to combine a Relief Society assignment to Ephraim with a visit to Manti. Her words glow with the warmth of the rekindled attraction:

O the joy of being once more in his dear presence—his room is so nice and we are so cosy by the large grate and such a comfortable fire in it. We are more like lovers than husband and wife for we are so far removed from each other there is always the embarrassment of lovers and yet we have been married more than 37 years—how odd it seems I do not feel old neither does he—we are young to each other and that is well.[84]

Emmeline was sixty-two; Daniel, seventy-six. More visits followed throughout the summer and fall of 1890. Then, early in March 1891, when Emmeline returned from a meeting in Washington, she was shocked to learn that Daniel Wells was in Salt Lake City, seriously ill. She spent the next few days with his other wives at his bedside and saw him die on 24 March 1891. Alone in her own house afterwards, she reflected on her life with him, now

only memories, only the coming and going and parting at the door, the joy when he came the sorrow when he went as though all the light died out of my life. Such intense love he has manifested towards me of late years. Such a remarkable change from the long ago, when I needed him so much more, how peculiarly these things come about.[85]

The last few years of her life were shadow without substance. Her enormous energy had finally begun to wane. When Heber J. Grant became President of the Church in 1918, Emmeline Wells had served eight years as general president of the Relief Society. She was ninety. A long-time friend, President Grant approached her about the possibility of a release. Her only response was that such a move would be fatal to her, and so he took no action. Then, three years later, when she suffered a serious illness and moved to her daughter Annie’s home, President Grant decided to approach her again about a release. Their meeting at the Cannon farm was a painful experience for them both. After learning his purpose in coming, Emmeline felt compelled to recite the history of the Relief Society from its beginnings, as if to prove that the legendary keenness of her memory was still sharp. But this time President Grant was firm. He had hoped to convince her of “the wisdom” of his decision, made for “the good of the work of the Lord.”[86] But the release stood in her mind only as a public humiliation. All of her predecessors, except Emma Smith, had died in office. It was customary for Church authorities to serve until death. She could not be reconciled, but the release stood. When President Grant left, she started up the staircase to her room. Before reaching the top, she suffered a stroke and fell to the stairs unconscious. She lay nearly comatose for the next three weeks and died on 25 April 1921.

Emmeline B. Wells was the second woman to be honored with a funeral in Tabernacle, the first on a weekday, making the occasion a unique “tribute to a woman.”[87] Remembered as “one of the finest products of Mormonism,” a woman who “had the mental force to be a pillar of strength, perhaps more than has been given to any other woman of her day,” she was honored for being as “unyielding as the granite of her native New England in her devotion to that which she considered duty.”[88] A complex and dynamic force veiled in lavender and lace, Emmeline Wells accomplished the task she had set about nearly fifty years before. She once wrote that she hoped historians would “remember the women of Zion when compiling the history of this Western land.”[89] Emmeline B. Wells is one who will be remembered.

Notes



[1] Young Woman’s Journal 16 (December 1905): 554–56. See also 23 (August 1912): 435–38.

[2] Augusta Joyce Crocheron, Representative Women of Deseret: A Book of Biographical Sketches (Salt Lake City: J. C. Graham & Co., 1884), 67.

[3] Emmeline B. Wells, Diary, 20 February 1845, Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[4] Wells, Diary, 20 February 1845.

[5] Wells, Diary, 23 September 1874.

[6] Emmeline B. Wells, “Faith and Fidelity,” Musings and Memories, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1915), 210.

[7] Daniel H. Wells Papers, Library-Archives, Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City (hereafter cited as LDS Church Archives), as quoted in Patricia Rasmussen Eaton-Gadsby and Judith Rasmussen Dushku, “Emmeline B. Wells,” in Vicky Burgess-Olson, Sister Saints (Provo: BYU Press, 1978), 459.

[8] His first wife, Eliza Rebecca Robison, chose not to become a Mormon and remained in Nauvoo with their son when Daniel joined the Church and moved west.

[9] Wells, Diary, 7 January 1878 and 3 February 1878.

[10] Wells, Diary, 9 December 1881.

[11] Bryant S. Hinckley, Daniel H. Wells and Events of His Time (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1942), 395. See also Orson F. Whitney, History of Utah, 4 volumes (Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon & Sons, 1904), 4:179. Daniel H. Wells had invested heavily in a gas works company which evidently failed, and by selling most of his valuable property holdings he was able to pay off debts amounting to several thousand dollars, leaving enough to provide modest homes for his wives.

[12] Wells, Diary, 13 September 1874.

[13] Wells, Diary, 11 October 1874.

[14] Wells, Diary, 1 September 1874.

[15] Wells, Diary, 6 January 1878.

[16] Wells, Diary, 7 January 1878.

[17] “Midnight Soliloquy,” Woman’s Exponent 8 (15 April 1880): 175–76.

[18] Wells, Diary, 4 January 1878.

[19] Susa Young Gates, “President Emmeline B. Wells,” Improvement Era 24 (May 1921): 719.

[20] Susa Young Gates, “Emmeline B. Wells,” History of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1911), 53.

[21] Crocheron, Representative Women of Desert, 67.

[22] Gates, History of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association, 53.

[23] Wells, Diary, 8 November 1874.

[24] Wells, Diary, 24 March 1875.

[25] Wells, Diary, 24 August 1874.

[26] “When We Went Gipsying,” Woman’s Exponent 9 (1 June 1880): 7.

[27] Wells, Diary, 7 January 1875.

[28] Wells, Diary, 18 September 1874.

[29] Wells, Diary, various entries scattered throughout the diaries.

[30] Wells, Diary, 6 September 1874.

[31] Wells, “Faith and Fidelity,” Musings and Memories, 221.

[32] Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood,” Dimity Convictions, The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976), 21–41. Welter has explored the prescriptive writings of this period and determined that piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness were the primary qualities of true womanhood during the Victorian period.

[33] “Why, Ah! Why,” Woman’s Exponent 3 (1 October 1874): 67.

[34] Wells, Diary, 30 September 1874.

[35] Minutes of the Nauvoo Female Relief Society, 28 April 1842, transcript copy, LDS Church Archives, 32.

[36] The “Declaration of Sentiment,” drawn up by Elizabeth Cady Stanton for the Seneca Falls convention held in Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848, was patterned after the Declaration of Independence. It cited man as having usurped woman’s autonomy by denying her “her inalienable right to the elective franchise”; by declaring her civilly dead upon marriage, this denying her any claim to her own or her husband’s property, wages, or children; by limiting her access to education and employment; by subordinating her position and participation in the churches; and by assigning her to a sphere of action independent of her own choice, thereby “destroying her confidence in her own power, lessening her self-respect, and making her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.” Susan B. Anthony, et al., History of Woman Suffrage, 6 vols. (Rochester, N.Y.: Susan B. Anthony, 1887), 1:70–71.

[37] “A Wonderful Age,” Woman’s Exponent 27 (1 February 1899): 100; and “Self Made Women,” Woman’s Exponent 9 (1 March 1881): 148.

[38] “Women’s Organizations,” Woman’s Exponent 8 (15 Jan. 1880): 122. See also “Stray Notes,” Woman’s Exponent 8 (15 July 1879): 28, for her ideas on how the Relief Society qualified women for the responsibility of suffrage and other rights. See also John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations: Aid to Faith in a Modern Day (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1943), 245, for a further interpretation of the broad purposes of the Relief Society.

[39] Woman Suffrage Leaflet (Salt Lake City, January 1892), 3.

[40] Woman’s Exponent 29 (1 Jan. 1901): 69.

[41] Woman’s Exponent 29 (1 Jan. 1901): 71.

[42] “Woman’s Work and Mormonism,” Young Woman’s Journal 17 (July 1906): 295–96.

[43] Relief Society Magazine 32 (December 1945): 717.

[44] “Action or Indifference,” Woman’s Exponent 5 (1 September 1876): 54.

[45] “Women’s Organizations,” Woman’s Exponent 8 (15 January 1880): 122.

[46] See, for example, Brigham Young’s statements in Journal of Discourses (Liverpool, England, 1856–86), 12:31–32; 13:61; 16:16; Millennial Star 31 (24 April 1869): 269; Woman’s Exponent 2 (15 July 1873): 37.

[47] “Relief Society Conference,” Woman’s Exponent 24 (15 August 1895): 45; italics in original.

[48] The General Relief Society, Officers, Objects and Status (Salt Lake City: General Officers, 1902), 74–75.

[49] “Real Women,” Woman’s Exponent 2 (1 January 1874): 118.

[50] “Woman’s Progression,” Woman’s Exponent 6 (15 February 1878): 140.

[51] “Woman’s Progression,” Woman’s Exponent 6 (15 February 1878):140, emphasis added.

[52] “Woman, A Subject,” Woman’s Exponent 3 (1 November 1847): 82; and “Noble Work for Women,” Woman’s Exponent 7 (1 April 1879): 218.

[53] “Impromptu Ideas of Home,” Woman’s Exponent 4 (15 May 1876): 191.

[54] “Progress of Women in the Last Seventy Years,” Woman’s Exponent 40 (February 1912): 44.

[55] “Responsibility of Woman Voters,” Woman’s Exponent 26 (15 September and 1 October 1897): 196.

[56] George Q. Cannon to John Taylor, 14 January 1882, Cannon Papers, LDS Church Archives, as quoted in Beverly Beeton, “Woman Suffrage in the American West, 1869–1896” (PhD diss., University of Utah, 1976), 101.

[57] Quoted in “Our Relief Societies,” Woman’s Exponent 7 (15 October 1878): 76.

[58] “Mrs. Stanton and Mormon Women,” Woman’s Exponent 7 (15 May 1879): 240.

[59] “Mormon Ladies Calling at the White House,” Philadelphia Times, 19 January 1879, reprinted in the Woman’s Exponent 7 (15 March 1879): 212.

[60] “Mormon Ladies Calling,” 212.

[61] Wells, Diary, 20 May 1893.

[62] “An Appeal to Women,” Woman’s Exponent 23 (1 and 15 November 1894): 204.

[63] “Which Party Will Recognize Women?” Woman’s Exponent 19 (15 June 1891): 188.

[64] “The Need of the Hour,” Woman’s Exponent 23 (1 September 1894): 180.

[65] Wells, Diary, 2 February 1895.

[66] “Woman Suffrage,” Woman’s Exponent 23 (March 1895): 244.

[67] “Equal Suffrage in the Constitution,” Woman’s Exponent 23 (1 May 1895): 260.

[68] “The New State,” Woman’s Exponent 24 (1 and 15 November 1895): 76.

[69] Wells, Diary, 2 June 1891.

[70] Salt Lake Herald, 28 July 1895.

[71] Wells, Diary, 17 October 1895.

[72] Wells, Diary, 20 September 1898.

[73] Wells, Diary, 20 September 1898.

[74] Wells, Diary, 10 November 1898.

[75] Emmeline B. Wells to B. H. Roberts, 20 March 1910, Roberts Collection, Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah. Roberts’s explanation of his position concerning woman suffrage at the time of his nomination can be found in Young Woman’s Journal 10 (March 1899): 104–5.

[76] Emmeline B. Wells to Romania Pratt Penrose, 15 March 1908, Emmeline B. Wells Papers, LDS Church Archives.

[77] Wells, Diary, 2 October 1910.

[78] Relief Society Magazine 2 (February 1915): 47.

[79] Deseret Evening News, 24 September 1919.

[80] Minutes of the Relief Society General Board Meeting, 12 January 1914, LDS Church Archives.

[81] Woman’s Exponent 41 (February 1914): 100.

[82] Woman’s Exponent 40 (March 1913): 51.

[83] Wells, Diary, 9 April 1890.

[84] Wells, Diary, 13 March 1890.

[85] Wells, Diary, 26 March 1891.

[86] Heber J. Grant to Annie Wells Cannon, 25 April 1921, Heber J. Grant Collection, LDS Church Archives.

[87] Deseret News, 27 April 1921.

[88] Charles W. Nibley, Deseret News, 30 April 1912; editorial, Deseret News, 25 April 1921.

[89] Woman’s Exponent 40 (July 1911): 4.