The Woman’s Exponent is now digitally available in the Church History Catalog. The Woman’s Exponent was a regular newspaper published from 1872 to 1914 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The editors, writers, and contributors to the paper were primarily women. In addition to creating a platform for Utah women to define and speak for themselves, the paper also aimed “to discuss every subject interesting and valuable to women.”1
Last February the Historical Record blog began a series exploring the Woman’s Exponent by theme and subject to highlight the newly digitized content. The posts cover topics from suffrage, education, and the priesthood to Pioneer Day commemorations, medicine, and poetry. Researching and reading the Exponent has been a rewarding experience for the five series authors. In the pages of the periodical, they found a history that is vibrant, alive, and relevant. For the final post, they want to share their thoughts about the process.
As I have explored the Woman’s Exponent, I have gained new respect for the women who came before us. I am a convert and have often felt disconnected from the pioneers, even the women. But the women who contributed to the Woman’s Exponent were women like me. They experienced ups and downs with life. They worried about their children. They worried about whether they should get an education, go to work, or stay home with their children. They were concerned about their country, wars, and women and children in other countries. They wanted the best healthcare for themselves, their families, and their communities. They wanted to ensure women had a voice in their homes, churches, and communities. They were strong and resilient. They cried, laughed, teased, and were sarcastic. The Woman’s Exponent gave me the opportunity to get to know these women and recognize that they are a part of me, even as a convert. They have a place with the women of the Church, and so do I.
In studying the Woman’s Exponent during the last year, I have been pleasantly surprised at the open and honest tone of some writers. While much of the content seems to paint a rosy picture of life circa 1870–1914 in Utah, some individual voices emerge that problematize that picture. One writer in particular clearly expresses her human frailties. “I know I am weak,” she writes, “and liable to be overcome, to err and swerve from the path of duty. But afterwards I feel sorrowful, conscious that I did not control myself, and that I have grieved those around me, and that it was displeasing in the sight of my Heavenly Father. But I pray God to help me.”2 Narratives such as these, seemingly buried in the text of the Exponent, help me connect in profound ways to other Latter-day Saint women who are long-since gone. But they speak to lived experience with religion in profound and relatable ways. Their voices represent the woven fabric of female contributions to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a lively and complex era of its history.
Researching and writing about the Woman’s Exponent was enlightening. It was a privilege to participate in this project. This experience has strengthened my appreciation and gratitude for the sacrifices made by pioneer women. Learning about women’s participation in the creation and perpetuation of the Pioneer Day tradition deepened my personal connection with the holiday. Knowing that the Woman’s Exponent prompted and encouraged excitement for the holiday reminds me that Latter-day Saint women in Utah during the last half of the 19th century had a strong public presence. This made them peculiar and unique. Many American women lacked political rights during that time and had few outlets where their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs could be expressed. As a newspaper, the Woman’s Exponent legitimized Latter-day Saint women’s participation in the public sphere. Indeed, those women represented themselves. The Woman’s Exponent gave Latter-day Saint women an open platform where they united as sisters with a common goal—to engage “in the practical solution of some of the greatest social and moral problems of the age.”3 Their contribution to Pioneer Day is just one way in which they met that objective.
This project on the Woman’s Exponent has opened my eyes to the roles and importance of women in the early Church. We often hear the stories of the women of the Restoration, but seldom do we hear about the women of frontier Utah. They worked hard to establish communities, helped the Relief Society grow and flourish, earned the right to vote, became educated and industrious, all while the rest of the nation maligned, belittled, and victimized them. And they wrote it all down! Exploring the content of the Woman’s Exponent has connected me to these women because I can see myself and my concerns in the topics they discussed. Many aspects of womanhood are both timeless and universal. I feel like every member of the Relief Society today should know about and read this wonderful paper, both to understand the strength of the women of the past and to understand themselves and their role in the Church of Jesus Christ. I have drawn strength from their writing.
As I’ve done research in the Woman’s Exponent, I have had a wonderful experience understanding and connecting with women from the past. I have been so enlightened by how involved they were in their communities and how they strove not only to inform one another but also to build each other up and inspire each other with their words. Women then cared about the same things we care about now, and I loved learning how they were involved politically, spiritually, and socially. They relied on each other in beautiful ways, and they used the Exponent to help others in their isolated territory to know they were not alone in any of the challenges they faced. Women of the Church today must rely on each other in the same ways the women in the early Church did, and researching in the Exponent has taught me that there are many ways we can do that.
As you delve into the pages of the Woman’s Exponent, we hope that you will also experience the connection we felt. Because of the unique nature of the paper, it is an excellent primary source of women’s voices as they actively wrote about their lives and undertakings. The kind of history available in a source like the Exponent creates an understanding of the past that is beyond the theoretical. These are stories that make history interesting, memorable, and relevant to us today. We have shared some of those stories in our 12 blog posts, but there are so many left to tell.