Woman’s Exponent—Daughters of Zion: Female Biographical Narratives

Anne R. Berryhill, Church history specialist, executive services
27 June 2019

In the fourth installment of the Woman’s Exponent series, Anne Berryhill highlights the personal stories women shared through biographies, tributes, and reminiscences.

“We shall feel that we are called to perform important duties. No one is exempt from them. There is no sister so isolated, and her sphere so narrow but what she can do a great deal towards establishing the Kingdom of God upon the earth.”1

With the establishment of the Woman’s Exponent in June 1872, female membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a venue in which to tell their stories in their own words. These stories did much to dispel the already existing rumors and myths regarding what it meant to be a female Latter-day Saint. Not afraid of addressing tough topics, these women wrote about their views on plural marriage, family life, clothing and dress, and education, among other things. Through the pages of the Exponent, women were able to share their stories.

The women published their stories in a variety of styles. Some appeared as reminiscence accounts, or stories told about a past event remembered by the narrator. Others appeared as autobiographical life sketches, while even more appeared in the form of memorial essays or obituaries. All of them were compiled or authored by women, and each story provides a unique perspective about characters and events related to the broader narrative of Church history.

Reminiscences account for a substantial portion of biographical narratives in the Woman’s Exponent. Helen Mar Kimball Whitney (1828–96) was the daughter of Apostle Heber C. Kimball and Vilate Murray. Whitney authored a series of reminiscences of her life and major events in Church history. These began appearing in the Exponent in May 1880. Large portions of these articles are quoted in her father’s, Heber C. Kimball’s, diaries. However, Whitney inserts episodes she remembers along the way. One such story was published both from her perspective and from her father’s:

I remember the circumstance which my father refers to, of my disobedience, or carelessness, and my deep repentance. I was then but a little child, and this was almost the first sad lesson which I remember of learning by experience. I was playing under the table, and hardly realized what I was doing until the leaf fell with the dishes, when I was horror-stricken. My brother, who was older than myself, solemnly, though needlessly, reminded me of what I might expect. I had been taught that there was a higher power, and I went and cried to God to forgive me and to soften my mother’s heart, that she might not punish me; and that simple prayer was heard and answered, which greatly increased my faith in Him.2

About this incident, Heber C. Kimball wrote:

My wife, one day when going out to make a call, gave my little daughter, Helen Mar, a charge not to touch the dishes which she had left standing on the table, as, if she broke any during her absence she would give her a whipping when she returned. While my wife was absent, my daughter broke a number by letting the table leaf fall; and then she went out under an apple tree and prayed that her mother’s heart might be softened, that when she returned she might not whip her. Although her mother was very punctual when she made a promise to her children to fulfil it, yet when she returned she had no disposition to chastise the child. Afterwards the child told her mother that she had prayed to God that she might not whip her.

Joseph wept like a child on hearing this simple narrative and its application. 3

This narrative, compiled by Helen Mar Whitney, is unique in that it shows multiple perspectives regarding the same story. Not only does the reader understand Whitney’s memory of her frame of mind when the incident happened, but her father also shares Joseph Smith’s commentary upon hearing about it.

Helen Mar Whitney is not the only author of reminiscences within the Woman’s Exponent. Other notable reminiscent accounts can be found for Patty Sessions, Louisa Decker, and others. Sometimes authors even used pseudonyms with their published reminiscences.4

Sarah Melissa Granger Kimball (1818–98), daughter of Oliver Granger and Lydia Dibble, joined the Nauvoo Relief Society as a founding member. The autobiography of Sarah M. Kimball appeared in the September 1, 1883, issue of the Exponent. Sarah details events surrounding the birth of her son, narrates the beginning of the Nauvoo Relief Society, and mentions an interaction she had with the Prophet Joseph Smith regarding her hesitation to the instruction on plural marriage. The narrative is a unique record of Sarah’s life in her own words: “In the wanderings and persecutions of the Church I have participated, and in the blessings. . . . To sorrow I have not been a stranger; but I only write this short sketch to instruct and happify.”5

Some of the most compelling biographical information published in the Woman’s Exponent is conveyed through memorial essays and obituaries. One such example is the memorial essay for Caroline Barnes Crosby (1807–84), daughter of Dolly Stephens and Willard Barnes. Caroline was baptized in the 1830s, lived in Nauvoo, and migrated to Utah in 1848. Below is her obituary from the Deseret News:6

Brevity is clearly the main driver behind the text of the Deseret News death notice, and given the likely monetary cost of this sort of public announcement, it is no wonder. Now compare that with the memorial essay published in the Exponent, authored by friends of the deceased:

The tender and intimate essay penned by these women, including a tribute poem by Caroline’s husband, goes much further to explain to the reader the events of Crosby’s life and the kind of woman she was. It provides details of her missionary service on the island of Tubuai. Additionally, it talks about her participation in the Relief Society of Beaver, Utah: “Many a day has she travelled the streets of Beaver for the purpose of exhorting her sisters to faithfulness in the principles of the Gospel of Christ.” The tribute goes on to say, “We realize that in the death of Sister Crosby we have lost a valued assistant, the poor a friend, and her family a wise and loving counselor.”7 Readers can see what an immediate impact Caroline Crosby had on those around her—a sentiment the short obituary does not elucidate. The Woman’s Exponent is replete with biographical information during its publication from 1872 to 1914 regarding female membership of the Church of Jesus Christ. While the format of the information varies depending on the individual, the content was created by women for women, and as such, it brings unique literary voice and perspectives to readers today and yesterday.