Woman’s Exponent—The Great Debate: Editorials and Opposing Views

Jen Barkdull, Church history specialist
24 September 2019

In the seventh post in the Woman’s Exponent series, Jen Barkdull explores the way women used the editorial feature of the newspaper to communicate, share their faith and feelings, and even disagree from time to time.

The Woman’s Exponent was created for women by women to “give utterance to their feelings, their faith, their devotion to the cause of truth, and their unwavering hope in the future.”1 One way in which women were able to express their thoughts was through editorials, written to either the editor of the Exponent or to other women. While many of the editorials expressed testimonies of faith, a desire to mingle with other sisters and be numbered among the Saints, and updates on Relief Societies and Retrenchment, other editorials expressed differing opinions. These differences could be in politics, child rearing, home care, health, or education. This open platform provided a safe place for unique and heartfelt conversations.

One such conversation of differing political minds occurred in May through July of 1875. Emily B. Spencer and “Inez” volleyed off editorials about “Strong Minded Women.” In issue number 23, Emily B. Spencer began her editorial with:

Strong minded women! I always pictured a strong minded woman as one who rules her husband, her household, and as far as possible every one around her. One that is smart and knows it, and acting upon her ruling proclivities, makes herself generally disagreeable.2

Inez responded directly to Emily by writing:

I cannot help wondering why the term “strong minded women,” should be so objectionable, so abhorrent in its nature, as to appall even the most timid and sensitive; now that the truth—the great astounding truth—that woman is positively possessed of a mind as susceptible as that of man, is dawning upon the world. To me it would be a matter much more lamentable, to be considered one of a weak mind or intellect, than to be regarded as a “strong minded,” energetic, persevering woman, who might accomplish something worthy of note, even if left to herself, independent of a man to appear always “ahead of” her, to “lead” that she might “follow,” to “dictate” that she might “obey!”3

Unfortunately, Emily and Inez did not come to an agreement on strong-minded women. The last editorial between the two women occurred in the July 1, 1875, issue, when Inez countered Emily’s argument with an editorial entitled “Eve’s Curse: Is It Never to Be Removed?” While these written conversations were ardent, they were not mean-spirited in tone. Women today can still relate to this conversation. The actions, roles, and expectations of women are constantly scrutinized in the media. However, unlike Emily and Inez, we seem to have more difficulty maintaining civility. The women of the Exponent show us that we can have differing opinions and still maintain courteous exchanges.

Women’s roles were not the only points of dialogue among women who wrote to the Exponent. Young adults, dating, marriage, and modesty were also high on the list of concerns. What constituted moral behavior? During the Victorian Era, it is no surprise that all these issues should have been forefront in women’s minds. The Retrenchment Society was formed in 1870 to define moral behavior for women, particularly in dress, housekeeping, and diet. In a December 1879 editorial, an unidentified person wrote:

Few women have the stamina to refuse an opportunity to flirt. No woman will admit that she is a flirt, and yet how few can resign a chance to flirt with an agreeable gentleman, when such a flirtation becomes an eligible indulgence!4

In the following issue, H. T. K. (presumably Hannah T. King) responded vigorously in defense of women:

Allow me a small space to remark upon a small nameless article in you [sic] last issue, i.e. “Coquetry.” The opening words, “Few women have the stamina to refuse an opportunity to flirt!” Can it be a woman who writes this of her sex? If so, I pity her, because I know she can only have been thrown among the light and most frivolous of women! That line endorsed words of Pope, which every true, noble-natured woman knows to be a vile slander; Pope probably wrote it when smarting under some crushing rebuke to his own feelings, and they are bitter, sarcastic and villifying, and—not true! “Every woman is at heart a rake!” But here comes a writer (surely it cannot be a woman) that fully endorses these slanderous words on woman, and with interest too! I care not whether the writer is man or woman, it is a libel, and I know it. . . .

O woman! for Heaven’s sake rise up and shake the dust of ages from thy heart and brain, and let the world see that God is thy Maker and Fashioner, and not man!5

The Woman’s Exponent editorials became the social media of the time. Women who presumably did not know each other previously could begin conversations through the editorials. One of the most fascinating conversations occurred in October 1875 through September 1876 between “The Old Maid in the Corner” and “Hal.”

“Old Maid” began the conversation with “An Old Maid’s Protest”:

You may call me “Woman’s rights advocate,” “Blue stocking,” or any other tender epithet, I care not. I am independent, and not afraid because I am a woman to express my views on any subject.6

Hal” responded:

I do not profess to be a reader of character, but still, I consider myself safe in making the following statements. You did not mean all that you said. You thought you did, for at the moment of writing you felt just as you wrote. You often feel like that and give vent to similar sentiments, but after all you do not mean it.7

The conversation continued throughout the year. In August 1876 “Old Maid” wrote:

But what could lead you to think that you are older than I am, I can’t imagine.

You must be anti-quated, indeed! or are you uncle-quated? . . .

P. S. Although I have not the masculine failing of curiosity, I should really like to see you, just for fun.8

In September 1876 “Hal” concluded:

You would like to see me, “just for fun” would you? I am sorry to say that I am not at all funny. But as funny people and sedate people generally agree well together, I hope to hear from you again very soon.9

This conversation led to many questions on the reader’s side. Did they ever meet? Did they become friends? How did they continue their conversations? If not through the Exponent, then did they correspond through letters or in person? Who were these women? Maybe, like women who become friends through social media, they maintained a safe and distant relationship through the Exponent. It would be fascinating to hear the rest of the story.

The editorial conversations in the Exponent were not only among Church members. In January 1882 Emily Scott, a “Gentile,” began writing to the Exponent. Letters continued between Scott and several other women through 1886.

In April 1882 Scott addressed Mrs. E. B. Wells:

Her [Ann Eliza’s] lectures—first caused me to question the truthfulness of the statements concerning the wickedness and depravity of the Mormons. Then I came across the Exponent, and read in it, only of good works being done; no accounts of murders, suicides or evil doings. Its pages were as pure as the heart of a little child; the poetry in it, true poetry, fragrant with faith in God, and love toward each other. More and more I felt convinced that, those Mormons are not all bad, and I determined to inquire into the matter to see if these things were so.10

When so many people were denigrating Church members for their practice of plural marriage and their other nonconventional beliefs, it must have been very heartening to the ladies who read the Exponent to have another woman, not of their faith, supporting them, and in such a public way. Emily never wavered in her support of the women of the Exponent. While we do not know if she joined the Church or not, she did remain faithful to her “sisters” in the Exponent in her constant written moral praise.

Although the Exponent provided women a safe place to express themselves, there are no editorials arguing against plural marriage or other spiritual ideas, including the 1890 Manifesto. Instead, women used the Exponent to voice their testimonies, their love for one another, and their desire to be considered one in heart and mind. They used it as a means of teaching and sharing and a way of forming friendships. These were all things that the pioneering sisters of Nauvoo had experienced when they were one Relief Society. However, they knew they would never be able to go back to that original experience; the growth of the Church made that impossible. But while distance kept the sisters from joining together in singular meetings, the Exponent provided a singular experience for the women of the Church. Perhaps it is best expressed by Emmeline B. Wells in the last issue of the Exponent:

The aim of the paper has always been to assist those who needed assistance in any or every line. . . . The paper has always stood for high ideals, both in the home, in the state, and in the Church; desiring above all things the welfare of the people at large. For women, it has been a standard bearer, proclaiming their worth and just claims throughout the long years of its existence. . . . We love the readers of this paper as a part of ourselves; we love women and would ever strive to uplift and help them to attain their ideals; we love the Latter-day Saints and we love the Relief Society—that great organization which this little paper has ever sought to represent and build up; and may our Heavenly Father ever have in His gracious care, the women, whose life service is the regeneration of mankind.11