Woman’s Exponent—More Than a Domestic Drudge: Women and Education

By Michelle Sayers, Church history specialist, archivist
19 November 2019

In this ninth installment of our Woman’s Exponent series, Michelle Sayers highlights the importance women placed on education, both for themselves and for their children.

A Woman’s Exponent editorial on September 15, 1874, stated: “There is no subject of more importance to a community or a nation than is the subject of Education. On it depends the future destiny of nations, kingdoms and empires; their rise and progress, or fall and dissolution, in proportion to the intelligence of the people.”1

The Exponent pointed out that “abroad in the world, and even in the United States, the people are under the impression (most of them) that this peculiar people the Latter-day Saints do not believe in educating the masses.” However, the article continued, “many of the pioneers of this country, and the first settlers here, have donated largely for the benefit of schools, have sought by every means in their power and all the influence they possessed, to impress upon the minds of the people the advantages of liberal education.”2

Because they lived far from “civilization,” Latter-day Saints were often considered ignorant and lacking in education. One Relief Society sister stated in an Exponent article that this couldn’t be further from the truth. She said that the Saints laid claim to “superior intelligence” given to them by God to help them “understand the things of eternity to-day, better than the wise men of the world.”3 Another article stated that Latter-day Saint communities, driven by gospel learning and trusted leaders, created conditions making it easy for the “children of Zion, who should have more foresight and greater self control, to become the most learned, and through the blessings of God, the most wise and powerful of all people.” The author continued, “Let us heed the inspired counsels of God’s servants, let us walk in the ways of heavenly wisdom, and be ever willing to receive instruction . . . that our minds may be supplied in the hour of need, that by a touch of inspiration the intelligence of Zion may shine forth in a day to come as a light to brighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of God’s people—Israel.”4

Education in the Home

Foundational to building and sustaining the kingdom of God, the education of the Lord’s people—especially the women—was a cornerstone message of the Woman’s Exponent. The Exponent encouraged mothers and young women to seek education and to provide educational opportunities to their children. Education was both an intellectual and a spiritual pursuit, and spiritual education began in the home. In a discourse given by Brigham Young to the Relief Society of the 15th Ward in February 1864, women were admonished to “pay attention to the education of their children.”5 When the Mutual Improvement Associations were organized for the young men and women of the Church, a woman named Tina stated in the Exponent, “This Association was organized especially for the benefit and improvement of the young folks, and there is now a duty binding upon us to strive with all our might to cultivate our minds and improve the talents our Father in Heaven hath bestowed upon us.”6 Education was the form in which young people could find and develop their talents for the building up of the kingdom of God.

In the home, mothers needed education to answer the questions of their children. In the November 1, 1873, Exponent, a woman named Lina asked: “Is there not a general need for a reformation in the domestic realm in regard to the education of mothers? Shall we not all, or nearly all, agree that we have fallen into the way of too much hard work, and too little genuine study . . . ? We send our children to school and require that they should be taught. Is it more requisite that they understand things than that their mothers should?”7 A mother’s role was to guide and nurture this curiosity, which she could only do by taking the time to educate herself.

For this reason, parents were especially encouraged to attend to the education of their daughters so they could be “in possession of the necessary information for the guidance of children in the observation of nature.”8 President Young advised the Relief Society sisters that “the education of females ought to be more thorough and practical than it generally is.”9

One woman wrote that girls must be educated to “provide for the possible problems of self-help in the noblest possible way.” Because no one could see the future, and because “no amount of pecuniary endowment will be a sure defense against the demons of pauperism,” it was important that “the daughters of millionair[e]s and mechanics alike should be made distinctly to understand that all the love romances lie, and that there is no such thing as making a compact with fortune to avert the necessity of honest toil.”10 Only education could protect girls and women from poverty.

Promoting Education in the Community

According to the Exponent, both inside and outside the home, a “woman fills an important sphere; her duties are most significant; and for this reason she should be educated. It is admitted that woman forms the character of society; that she gives character to her children, and that the most minute parts of their education depend upon her.” The Relief Society called upon “those sisters who are sufficiently ambitious and persevering, to come forward and aid in organizing and supporting classes for the purpose of gaining knowledge pertaining to the laws of life and health.”11

In the community, women also had a special gift for teaching that the Exponent encouraged. In August 1875 the Normal Institute opened. There, “teachers will certainly derive great advantages from attending. . . . Teachers should avail themselves of this most advantageous opportunity for improvement in the methods and practice of imparting instruction.”12 A notice for the Ladies’ Library and Reading Rooms (established by women) appeared, where “the collection of books is particularly well chosen, and strict attention has been given to the selection of papers, magazines, periodicals and current literature, with which the library is well supplied.”13 These were places where women could go to educate themselves and their children.

Lowell schoolteachers, 1909–10

Older women were especially encouraged to promote the education of girls and young women. In a meeting with the Senior and Junior Cooperative Retrenchment Association on October 11, 1872, Eliza R. Snow invited the women to elevate their thoughts, beliefs, and actions through study and service. She exhorted “the aged to use their influence with the young in trying to get them interested in educational matters.” Of course, being good housewives was also a priority, but “our young ladies should learn trades and get all the book knowledge that they can.”14 In a reprinted article titled “Schools for Girls” from the New York Tribune, the Exponent stated, “It is hardly possible to overestimate the effect which a woman teacher with any personal magnetism can exert upon her scholars. . . . In consequence of this impressibility, the girl is educated not by books so much as by the atmosphere of the home or school, and the two or three salient examples of human nature, after which or opposed to which she models herself.”15 The books themselves did not teach the children, but the good examples of educated mothers and teachers cultivated young minds.

Knowledge in the Pages

The Exponent itself was a tool for women’s education, going beyond domestic activities. In columns that appeared under many different titles, including “Facts and Figures,” “Notes and News,” and “Pen and Scissors,” women were kept apprised of worldwide events and worldwide accomplishments of women. Articles regularly appeared regarding new discoveries in science or explaining a scientific process, and the Exponent kept women informed regarding political events in the United States and beyond.

When it came to Latter-day Saint women, contributors to the Exponent thought progressively. Women were destined for more than just “domestic drudgery.” Of course, these women thought it was important to understand domestic tasks and perform them adequately, but “it is not right for her to confine herself exclusively, to that monotonous calling, having no thoughts, no interests, hopes or prospects above and beyond so humble a sphere.”16 A woman named Camelia advised parents to give boys and girls “equal advantages, and true genius will show itself.”17 This in a time when most universities were still segregated based on gender and women were not encouraged to try to rise above their station.

Even more progressive was the idea in the Exponent that not all women were meant to be solely wives and mothers. George W. Curtis finished a speech recorded in the Exponent in 1873 this way: “If there be some women in whom the love of learning extinguishes all other love, then the heaven-appointed sphere of that woman is not the nursery. It may be the library, the laboratory, the observatory. Not the happiness of Romeo and Juliet, but star-eyed science is her place. Does such a woman prove that perfect liberty of education unspheres a woman? On the contrary it has enabled that woman to perceive exactly what God meant her to do.”18

Students in the library, 1901

Latter-day Saint publications and Church leaders continue to promote education among women in the 21st century. In a 2010 talk given at Brigham Young University–Idaho by President Russell M. Nelson, he declared: “Please be true to yourself. … Honor—yes, even demand—highest expectations from yourself. Pursue your education as a priority of the highest order. Gain all the education you can. With us as Latter-day Saints, education is a religious responsibility. ‘The glory of God is intelligence’ (Doctrine and Covenants 93:36). Your personal intelligence—your personal identity—is everlasting and divine.”19 The message of education still resonates with Latter-day Saint women today and continues to be a religious pursuit. Women are instructed to get all the education they can and to develop their talents. With mind, body, and spirit working together, women can walk the high road that leads to achievement and happiness.20