Eliza R Snow (right) and Emmeline B Wells (centre) with Elizabeth Ann Whitney (left)

Eliza R Snow and Emmeline B Wells both served as General President of Relief Society: Eliza (born 1804) from 1866 to 1887 as the second General President, and Emmeline (born 1828) from 1910 to 1921 as the fifth General President. Both women were prolific poets. However, what intrigued me were the different attitudes they would appear to have had to a woman’s place in relation to men, which appear to be rooted in their interpretations of doctrine.

I was recently asked to give a brief presentation on the role of Utah women in women’s suffrage as a part of a RS lesson. In the course of my research I came across a couple of BYU Studies papers about the women: “Eliza R. Snow and the Woman Question” by Jill C. Mulvay, and “Emmeline B. Wells: “Am I Not a Woman and a Sister”” by Carol Cornwall Madsen.

As General Relief Society President, Eliza’s signature appears with others on a document thanking the then territorial governor of Utah for signing a bill which granted suffrage to women in Utah in 1870, but she was not a supporter of the women’s rights movement. Mulvay writes (quoting Eliza) as follows:

“Eliza never would have led her sisters in an effort to take the right of suffrage by storm. She distrusted “that class known as ‘strong minded,’ who are stenuously [sic as found in Mulvay] and unflinchingly advocating ‘woman’s rights,’ and some of them at least, claiming ‘woman’s sovereignty’ vainly flattering themselves with the idea that with ingress to the ballot box and access to financial offices, they shall accomplish the elevation of woman-kind.” She explained, “Not that we are opposed to woman suffrage. . . . But to think of a war of sexes which the woman’s rights movement would inevitably inaugurate, . . . creates an involuntary shudder!””

Eliza died in 1887, the year of the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which amongst other things disenfranchised the women of Utah.

Emmeline B. Wells was a prominent campaigner for suffrage, having first been sent with Zina Williams to attend the National Suffrage Convention in 1879, and was long-time editor of The Exponent magazine. Madsen writes (quoting Emmeline) as follows:

“Appraising the broadened opportunities for women that had occurred during her lifetime, she linked those achievements with the purposes God had for his children. “The inspiring influences that have been causing this uplifting,” she wrote in a 1902 Relief Society handbook, “are all in the program marked out for the children of our Father in Heaven; let those who dare, deny it! but as sure as the Scriptures are true, and they are true, so sure woman must be instrumental in bringing about the restoration of that equality which existed when the world was created. . . . Perfect equality then and so it must be when all things are restored as they were in the beginning.””

Emmeline died in 1921, after polygamy had ended, and had been instrumental in getting women’s suffrage into the Utah state constitution.

Whilst Eliza was grateful, and indeed happy to take what was offered, in improving the lot of women, whilst defending a male-dominated society, Emmeline believed women had a vital part to play in restoring equality between the sexes.

The Doctrine, of course, goes back to garden of Eden, where Eve is seemingly made subject to Adam, on having first eaten the fruit, and told that:

“I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” (Genesis 3:16)

Eliza apparently believed that order was the first law of heaven, and in that order men came first; that the fall resulted in a curse for all women, requiring their submission to men. Mulvay writes:

“Eliza Snow stressed that women would benefit if they would obey the priesthood in whatever they tried to accomplish. She was advocating not passivity, but righteous submission. “As sure as the sisters arise and take hold of the work,” she exclaimed, “the brethren will wake up, because they must be at the head.”… her consistent instructions to all Relief Society sisters: “We will do as we are directed by the Priesthood.””

According to Mulvay Eliza felt that the actions of feminists were futile, and that:

“Latter-day Saint women did not admit that just any man could guide and direct woman. It was not the mere fact of masculinity; it was the righteous exercise of priesthood which gave a man wisdom and power that was from God and thus qualified him as woman’s leader and protector.”

By contrast, Emmeline, though not present when Relief Society had first been organised in Nauvoo, viewed the turning of the key by Joseph Smith, as a turning for all women everywhere, and the start of female emancipation. Madsen writes:

“The organization of the Relief Society, Emmeline noted years later, 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. The question did not present itself in any aggressive form as woman opposed to man, but as a co-worker and helpmeet in all that relates to the well-being and advancement of both, and mutual promoting of the best interests of the community at large. For Emmeline and other LDS feminists, the nascent woman’s movement was but a secular manifestation of the organization of Mormon women, both heralding a new age for women. Looking back at the two events, she was persuaded that “the key of knowledge was turned for her [woman], and men no longer had the same absolute sway.”… Emmeline Wells could conclude that the women of the world were “acted upon by an influence many comprehend[ed] not which [was] working for their redemption from under the curse.””

Though, Madsen writes of Emmeline:

“It was not the partiality of God, she affirmed, that created inequality of the sexes but the denial of opportunity to women to develop and utilize the rational powers with which they had been endowed. Any artificial barriers to individual growth and development were deplorable. No limits are set for what men can do, she observed. Women should enjoy similar freedom. “It is this longing for freedom,” she explained, “that is inspiring . . . women . . . to make war against the bondage with which they have been enslaved, and seek, by every available means, to inspire a universal feeling among men and women for equal rights and privileges in the sphere God has assigned them.””

Both women had to deal with the then doctrine that redemption from the curse necessitated marriage, and in particular plural marriage. Whilst Eliza appears to have wholly subscribed to this, Emmeline looked forward to the day it would no longer be necessary. Mulvay writes that Eliza believed that:

“The right to “holy, honorable wedlock” was the right of all women, not just a few. By this means alone could women be redeemed and since plural marriage was the only system in which all women could have the opportunity to marry righteous men, “those who stepped forward as volunteers” were laboring “in the cause of woman’s redemption.””

… “The Lord has placed the means in our hands, in the Gospel, where by we can regain our lost position. But how? Can it be done by rising, as women are doing in the world, to clamor for our rights? No. It was through disobedience that woman came into her present position, and it is only by obedience, honoring God in all the institutions he has revealed to us, that we can come out from under that curse, regain the position originally occupied by Eve, and attain to a fulness of exaltation in the presence of God.””

Madsen quotes George Q Cannon:

“In a sermon on celestial marriage given in 1869, George Q. Cannon confirmed the principle as the route to redemption. Plural marriage, he said, “will exalt woman until she is redeemed from the effects of the Fall, and from that curse pronounced upon her in the beginning.” On another occasion he prophesied that “as the generations roll by nobler types of womanhood will be developed, until the penalty that was laid upon woman in the beginning, that ‘thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee,’ will be repealed, and she will stand side by side with man, full of that queenly dignity and self control which will make her his suitable companion rather than his inferior.”… Subscribing to at least part of his argument, Emmeline Wells urged women to educate themselves for that day. “The very genius and spirit of the age is in keeping with the cry of woman, for recognition of her position by the side of man,” she wrote. “It is the consciousness in woman everywhere, if even a latent spark of her inherent divinity lingers, that the hour is hastening when the curse will be removed.”

Madsen further quotes Emmeline:

“Do you not see the morning star of woman’s destiny in the ascendant? Why the whole civilized world is becoming enlightened with its beams. . . . There are some wise men who recognize the star, and who even say “peace and good will” to woman, and take her by the hand and welcome her to their circle, and would fain assign to her all that nature gave her intelligence and capacity to do, would lift her up to their level . . . and say there is room for us both, let us walk side by side.”

The contrast between the two women reminds me of the polarisation we have seen in events over the last year, as we come up to the Wear Pants anniversary. So a couple of quotes in closing:

Mulvay on Eliza:

“Women should be helpmeets to the priesthood, and they should assist their brothers in Eliza’s imagery, “like the devout and steadfast Miriam in upholding the hands of Moses.” Unlike her national contemporaries, Eliza was not even anxious to give woman the last word. Happy to see brethren at Relief Society meetings and conferences, she invited them to speak last. Relief Society president Margaret T. Smoot from Provo explained, “Sister Snow says it is proper for us to speak first, and let the stronger follow the weak, that if we say anything that needs correcting it can be corrected.””

Madsen quoting Emmeline:

“Women may be found who seem to glory in their enthralled condition, and who caress and fondle the very chains and manacles which fetter and 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.”

Discuss.