Woman’s Exponent—Cooperatives: Learning, Thinking, and Working Together

By Anne Berryhill, Church history specialist, executive services
27 August 2019

In the sixth installment of our series highlighting the Woman’s Exponent, Anne Berryhill discusses how women worked together to cultivate themselves spiritually, intellectually, and financially through their industry.

In 1869 Eliza R. Snow spoke to the Salt Lake Seventeenth Ward Relief Society. She advised the women, “My sisters, let us cultivate ourselves, that we may be capable of doing much good. We are daughters of our Heavenly Father, and our position as Saints of the Most High is at the head of the world. Let us try to realize our responsibilities and honor our position.”1 Snow’s admonition to these women implied self-improvement as well as collective improvement to live up to their role at the “head of the world.” The Woman’s Exponent, which began to be published only a few years later, reflected three main avenues women used to collectively seek betterment. First, these women established a spiritual cooperative, through which they became educated in the restored gospel. Second, they sought after intellectual cooperatives in which an exchange of assistance and education occurred. Lastly, they founded a variety of commercial and industrial cooperatives at the behest of Church leadership and as a means of developing marketable skills.

A Spiritual Cooperative

The pages of the Woman’s Exponent reveal a broad network of readers who were connected through shared spiritual beliefs. These women shared both formal discourses as well as expressions of basic faith, and the Exponent allowed women from seemingly disparate backgrounds a venue—a pre-cursor to a social network—through which to express those beliefs.

Eliza R. Snow’s voice is prominently represented throughout the Woman’s Exponent. Snow was key in establishing Relief Society groups in many towns throughout Utah.2 In 1869 Snow instructed the women of the Seventeenth Ward in Salt Lake City: “The organization of the Female Relief Society places the sisters in positions to bring into exercise and thus develop all of our faculties.”3 Snow’s discourse consists of counsel and instruction regarding both the administration of Relief Society and generally living as female Latter-day Saints. Many of her other discourses are recorded in different issues of the Exponent, where they would have reached a much broader audience than those present for the face-to-face deliveries.

The Exponent published Snow’s words to women gathered in Ogden in 1873: “We my sisters, we have the privilege of being organized according to the pattern which God has given for the females in the Church of Jesus Christ. We are privileged above all other woman-kind on the face of the earth. … We are to perform duties, and to do our part towards establishing God’s Kingdom.”4

One sister wrote: “I will try to express my feelings through our paper—as I think I can give much better expression to them here, than I can when I stand up and attempt to address my sisters in a meeting.” She continues, “I know if we will pray to [God] earnestly for His aid and assistance, He will bless and help us to understand His will concerning us, and preserve us from the many evils incident to mortality. And if we live near to him, we shall be able to discern His hand and kind providences, in all the circumstances of our lives.”5 The Exponent is replete with examples of these straightforward expressions of faith and devotion. For this woman, the Exponent provided the platform through which to testify of repentance, the power of personal prayer, and a powerful faith in God.

An Intellectual Cooperative

As women throughout Utah gathered together to form their own Relief Society groups, not only did they care for one another spiritually, but they also tended to each other’s intellectual development. Some were supported financially to receive formal education. Others offered their expertise in educating others. Several examples of these intellectual exchanges are documented in the pages of the Woman’s Exponent.

Romania Pratt was both a beneficiary and a benefactor of Relief Society educational efforts during the last quarter of the 19th century. In response to counsel given by Brigham Young and others, Relief Society women sought out training in obstetrics and midwifery. A mother of five children, Pratt was financially sponsored by her Relief Society sisters to attend medical school in the eastern United States. The October 1, 1876, issue of the Exponent indicates that the women of the Wellsville, Utah, Relief Society dispersed funds to Romania for her educational pursuits.6

By December 1877, Pratt opened an office on 200 South in Salt Lake City. Not only had she received training in obstetrics and midwifery, but she had also received training in treating ailments of the eyes and ears. In addition to operating a busy medical office, Pratt had also begun teaching by 1878.

After receiving financial (and other) assistance from her fellow female saints, Pratt then endeavored to educate others. She was also instrumental in the founding of Deseret Hospital, which offered practical training in medicine and nursing.7

Medicine was not the only discipline in which women of the Church sought to educate their Relief Society peers. The Exponent itself offered training to those seeking to learn business aspects of printing (typesetting, etc.) and also to those seeking to hone their skills in writing. These women used the Exponent as a forum through which to publish and receive feedback. One such sister, known only as J. E. M., wrote to the editor in 1875: “I know my inability to write anything that would be particularly interesting to your readers. Yet it is well for us as sisters, to exchange ideas and sentiments, and thus cultivate our minds and enlarge our abilities.” Clearly, women saw the Exponent as a venue through which they could practice their literary skills, albeit with some trepidation at times. “With this view,” the writer continues, “I venture, for the first time, to risk a sentence from my pen to be presented for public criticism. … Truly, nothing could serve to make us more charitable in our criticisms of other writers, than to endeavor, ourselves, to write.”8 Despite any feelings of inadequacy, women felt empowered to tap into the readership of the Woman’s Exponent to refine their skills in writing.

Commercial and Industrial Cooperatives

Throughout the late 19th century, Brigham Young and other Church leaders encouraged women to live within their means and to produce the articles they needed at home, rather than purchasing items from outside of Utah. Brigham Young explained that “if ladies would get up societies by which they could promote the home labor of their sex, they would do what was well-pleasing in the sight of heaven.”9 Perhaps the most well-known cooperatives administered by the Relief Society were either commercial or industrial in nature. These included, but were not limited to, sericulture, straw braiding and hat making, Relief Society cooperative stores, and grain storage.

Sericulture, or the cultivation of silkworms and production of silk, was a very visible and well-documented cooperative venture among Relief Society women in the Woman’s Exponent. The process of cultivating silkworms was intensive and cumbersome. Many women ended up devoting rooms in their houses to the venture, given the worms sensitivity to extreme temperatures. Professional organizations were established to coordinate the work. Although the venture was largely unprofitable and more experimental in nature, many women took the assignment to heart.10

Many issues of the Exponent document a variety of content regarding sericulture in Utah. Some published correspondence regarding the attempts of different Relief Societies to embrace silkworm cultivation. Other issues contain words of advice and encouragement from Relief Society leaders regarding the undertaking.

Bertha Olsen, superintendent of the Rockville Silk Society, wrote a letter to the editor of the Woman’s Exponent in April 1878. In the letter, Bertha talks about the challenges of building a cocoonery, or shelter for silkworms, based on donations. She also talks about the challenges of raising worms in unfavorable weather conditions. The women of Rockville responded to the assignment with determination, despite the challenges expressed.11

The Woman’s Exponent reported on the Utah County Silk Meeting of April 1878. During the meeting, Zina D. H. Young, who was president of the Deseret Silk Association, “told the sisters not to get discouraged by failures” as they sought to raise silkworms, “but to ‘try again’ … and encouraged the sisters to keep on persevering until they [made] it a success.” She further urged the sisters to keep planting the mulberry that fed the worms and “persevere in the work obtaining a little knowledge here and a little there.”12  Sisters were encouraged in sericulture by their female leaders. These words from Zina D. H. Young were published in the Exponent to not only motivate those in attendance at the meeting but also to encourage all readership engaged in the work of sericulture.

Through the spiritual, intellectual, and commercial/industrial cooperatives established by the women of the Church, they cultivated themselves both individually and collectively. Church leaders who counseled these women to expand in these areas were astounded by their faithful and resolved response. Not only are these women examples of determination and dedication, but they also laid the foundation for Relief Society work in the 21st century. Welfare, humanitarian aid, and ministering as we currently understand them all have their foundations in the cooperative efforts of early Utah Relief Societies. “We have no time to spare in nonsense or frivolity, but let us be of one heart and one mind, and seek do to all the good we can while we live upon the earth, that when our time comes to go, we shall have nothing to fear, but all will be peace. … We take with us throughout eternity the improvement we make in our minds.”13