Woman's Exponent—Women's Rights and Suffrage

Jen Barkdull, Church history specialist, archivist
13 March 2019

Using quotes from the recently digitized Woman’s Exponent, Jen Barkdull explains how Latter-day Saint women used the magazine to express their unique views on women’s rights and suffrage. 

Historians and archivists recognize how difficult it is to find women’s voices in historical records. Sometimes we are lucky enough to find correspondence and journals written by women. Often, we are left only with materials written by family members—frequently men. From these secondary sources we put together the pieces like a puzzle to formulate the lives of these women. However, at the Church History Library, we have a treasure trove of women’s voices in the Woman’s Exponent, a magazine for women written by women between 1872 and 1914.

This magazine proved to be a safe place for women to express their thoughts, concerns, ideas, and emotions in a way rarely seen outside their personal correspondence and journals. Women wrote about the topics you might initially think of finding in a 19th-century women’s magazine, such as household tips, remedies for sickness, and child-rearing tips. But this magazine went far beyond the typical women’s magazine of the time. The women of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were highly involved in politics, including women’s rights and suffrage, and they wrote about it. The Woman’s Exponent is replete with examples of these conversations. In Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society, Susa Young Gates is quoted as saying, “My sphere of usefulness is being enlarged.” The authors state, “The sisters’ enlarged interests, capabilities, and responsibilities are reflected in bright detail in the Woman’s Exponent. . . . Amid a miscellany of notes on fashion, foods, and family, the most conscientious columns of the paper dealt with women’s rights and woman suffrage, the necessity of education for women, home industries, the on-going debate on women’s proper place in the world, and, until the 1890 Manifesto discontinued church approval of the practice, plural marriage.”1

Five generations of voting Latter-day Saint women

Women in Utah were initially granted suffrage in 1870. Because of anti-polygamy laws, this right was revoked by the federal government in 1887. What a blow it must have been to these women who had been politically involved for at least 17 years. And Latter-day Saint women had been active in policy making well before 1870. When Joseph Smith organized the Relief Society in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1842, Latter-day Saint women were recognized as having an important voice in the Church and the community. This is expressed in the Woman’s Exponent. In 1878, Sarah M. Kimball wrote:

I feel a degree of diffidence and pleasure standing before you to-day. The 19th of next month will be the Thirtieth anniversary of the first organization of women in the States—you will pardon me for referring to this, but it is to compare it with the date of the organization of women in the Church, which goes farther back. . . . [Joseph Smith] said he was glad to have the opportunity of organizing the women, as a part of the priesthood belonging to them. . . . Our sisters in the States are seeking to improve their condition. Miss Anthony, one of the leading women among them, well known everywhere, has written to Mrs. [Emmeline B.] Wells, Editor of the Exponent, saying the women of Utah as a body MUST fight for the maintenance of the right to vote, and also to get national guarantee for all women in the nation. President Smith the Prophet said women should ask us for advice, and the time should come when the women of this Church should lead in such matters.2

Image of Sarah M. Kimball

Even though women in Utah had the right to vote when the Woman’s Exponent was created, in 1872, they did not allow this fact to prevent them from being heavily involved in women’s rights and the suffrage movement around the country. The Woman’s Exponent contains news from local, national, and international women’s groups. There are editorials from many Latter-day Saint women. Women also wrote poetry and prose to express their feelings, such as “A Woman3 and “Simple Justice—Woman’s Right,”4 by Emily Hill Woodmansee.

Latter-day Saint women typically framed their discussions on women’s rights and suffrage around two categories: religion and motherhood. Utah Latter-day Saint women were politically active in maintaining their right to freedom of religion, including polygamy. They used the political platform not only to maintain their rights but also to educate women throughout the nation about their beliefs. In 1879, Emmeline B. Wells and Zina Young Williams attended the Eleventh Annual Convention of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association. It was reported in the Woman’s Exponent:

Aside from the importance of attending the Convention itself, their visit was most auspiciously timed, for not only were they prepared to meet the efforts of the local anti-polygamic crusade and represent the women of Utah in a right way, but to answer interesting queries regarding the probable feeling existing among the Latter-day Saints as a sequence to the recent decision made by the Supreme Court of the United States, declaring the validity of the anti-polygamic law of 1862.5

Photograph of Susan B. Anthony with women’s suffrage leaders

They also tied their rights to the gospel and scriptures, as written in these examples from 1872 and 1880:

People fear the effect upon the family if women should vote and think. They think that the tenderness and sweetness of the family relation has something to do with weakness. . . . Make mothers more and you make their children more. You will not make them coarse by giving them power. Is God coarse because he is infinite? That which the family needs more than anything else is a higher state of womanly development.6

Since the abilities of woman have been agitated it has caused many reflections to arise in my mind, and more especially since I heard this question given for debate. “Is it right for woman to vote?” I was struck with astonishment. This privilege has been granted us Latter-day Saint women for fifty years, or at least ever since the rise of the Church, and for ten years we have had political suffrage. And now the question arises, it is right? I conclude it came from the unthinking part of society—those who have never weighed the subject. The Scripture says, “the man is not without the woman, or the woman without the man in the Lord.” And if created in the image of God, how could she be companionable without intelligence? Accordingly, she must possess this quality; or did our Father bequeath this gift to His sons only? If so, what kind of posterity will they raise? I object to this idea, realizing that we are beloved by our Father equally to themselves; unless they keep His commandments better.7

Portrait of Emmeline B. Wells

It may surprise some that the editorials by Latter-day Saint women could be sarcastic and somewhat caustic at times. However, when you consider the context of their thoughts and fears, especially regarding their children, one can easily understand. Two quotes, one from 1874 and another from 1879, express these fears and frustrations:

No! even though it is an admitted fact that a father can scarcely even understand the height, the depth, the beauty and the strength, the utter devotion of a mother’s love, yet, the law, as a simple deduction from the fact of his ownership of the mother, gives the child to the father alone. So, in case of separation, the father, unless he can be proved a lunatic, a dangerous drunkard or a felon, has the authority of law to tear his child from its mother’s arms. Indeed, though the two parents may have lived as harmoniously as two doves in a nest, the father, dying, may execute a will even without his wife’s knowledge, giving his child, even if unborn, to the care of a stranger, and the mother has no redress. But let it be remembered that her death and forty wills could never disturb him in possession of his child.

This, friends, is the land of boasted equal rights! This is the sovereignty which woman inherits. This is the “protection” which the strong extend over the weak.8

The illogical, contradictory and evasive adverse report of the United States Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections, showing that women are, “inexperienced in political affairs” (as every man is when he casts his first vote); that “they are quite generally dependent on men” (whom they endowed with life and brought safely up through the scarlet fever, measles, whooping cough and cutting their thirty-two teeth); that “they cannot fight” (though they furnish all the armies of the earth with their beloved sons who go from their arms to be shot to death with bullets); that woman, “if allowed to vote, would proceed to impair or destroy the marriage relation” (to which chaste, modest man has only been able to hold her hitherto by the strong arm of the law) this Majority Report, representing the convictions of six United States Senators on the woman question, together with the Minority Report of the same committee recognizing the right of woman to self-government and the duty of Congress to aid her in securing the exercise of this right, are also on record in Congress, inviting intelligent men in both Houses to a fuller discussion of human rights.9

Latter-day Saint women’s voices in the 19th and early 20th centuries are present and clear thanks to the Woman’s Exponent. As we celebrate the 177th anniversary of the Relief Society this month, we can gain knowledge and faith from their examples. Latter-day Saint women are strong and have always been strong. We have a purpose. We are daughters of a Heavenly Father who knows us and loves us.

Look for more posts exploring topics in the Woman’s Exponent. All issues were recently digitized and are available in the Church History Catalog.