Question: Who was Emmeline Woodward (Wells) and what role did she play in advocating the rights of women in the early days of Utah?
Answer: Emmeline Blanche Woodward was born February 29, 1828 in Petersham, Massachusetts. She was the seventh child of David and Deiadama Hare Woodward. Her father died when Emmeline was four years old. She began her studies in public school until she was enrolled in the New Salem Academy. She graduated from the Academy at the age of fourteen. She taught school briefly before her first marriage at the age of fifteen. Emmeline, along with her mother, joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on March 1, 1842.
Emmeline was barely five feet tall, weighing less than one hundred pounds. She married sixteen-year-old James Harris, also a new member of the church, on July 19, 1843. In 1844, the young couple, his parents, and other Latter Day Saints from their region migrated to Nauvoo, Illinois. After the death of their infant son, Eugene Henri, James left Nauvoo looking for work and never returned.
The young Emmeline returned to teaching. Through his children attending her school, Emmeline met and later married Newel K. Whitney, under the Mormon practice of plural marriage. Emmeline left Nauvoo in 1846, and traveled to Utah Territory with the extended Whitney family in 1848. At this time, she began maintaining a personal journal. Wells would continue writing in her diaries (forty-six journals are known) until 1920, shortly before her death. On the first page of volume 1, dated Friday, February 27, 1846, she recorded: “Mrs. Whitney, Sarah Ann, and myself crossed the river to go the encampment of the Saints. We crossed the river a part of the way on foot, and then went on the encampment about 1 mile beyond....We repaired immediately to Mr. H. C. Kimball's tent, took supper, and slept for the first time on the ground. There was a snowstorm without, yet all was peace and harmony within.”
Newel K. Whitney's death in 1850 left her with two young daughters, whom she supported by again teaching school in Salt Lake City. She remained primarily responsible for supporting herself and her children for the rest of her life.
In 1852, she became the seventh wife of Daniel H. Wells, a friend of her late husband, Apostle, Counselor to Brigham Young, third Mayor of Salt Lake City, and a prominent civic and Church leader, and they had three daughters.
Emmeline was selected as general secretary for the Relief Society by president Eliza R. Snow and served for twenty-two years in the position under succeeding presidents. In her youth in Nauvoo, Emmeline briefly knew Joseph Smith, founder of the church.
In 1905, as Relief Society Secretary, she wrote the following to the young women of the church: “In the Prophet Joseph Smith, I believed I recognized the great spiritual power that brought joy and comfort to the Saints. ... He was beyond my comprehension. The power of God rested upon him to such a degree that on many occasions he seemed transfigured. His expression was mild and almost childlike in repose; and when addressing the people, who loved him it seemed to adoration, the glory of his countenance was beyond description. At other times the great power of his manner, more than of his voice (which was sublimely eloquent to me) seemed to shake the place on which we stood and penetrate the inmost soul of his hearers, and I am sure that then they would have laid down their lives to defend him. I always listened spell-bound to his every utterance—the chosen of God in this last dispensation.”
Emmeline was one of Utah’s greatest leaders of women’s suffrage, which encompassed religious freedom. “I desire to do all in my power to help elevate the condition of my own people, especially women,” she wrote. “I have desired with all my heart to do those things that would advance women in moral and spiritual as well as educational work and tend to the rolling on of the work of God upon the earth.”
Emmeline was the editor of the Woman's Exponent, a semi-monthly periodical established in 1872 for Mormon women. She was a contributor to the magazine from its inception, and became the associate editor in 1875. She was the editor from 1877 until the publication ceased in 1914. As editor she wrote all the editorials, many of the articles and most biographical sketches contained in the publication. Near the end of her tenure as editor, she had the assistance of her daughter, Annie Wells Cannon, as assistant editor.
Emmeline’s written contributions to eastern women’s papers, refuting the misconceptions about LDS women, had brought her name to the attention of national papers. She reminded the readers of these papers that Latter-day Saint women could vote, when most of them could not; that LDS women were educated at local colleges and were engaged in many professions, including medicine and law, when most other women were not; and that they headed their own organizations and contributed to the economic welfare of their communities.
In 1876, Emmeline was appointed by Brigham Young to head a church-based grain-saving program, and managed the church-wide program until the beginning of World War I. In 1919, she received a personal visit in her Salt Lake City home from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson who presented her a commendation for selling the wheat to the government for the war effort.
Beginning in 1879, Emmeline advocated that women be granted the right to hold office in Utah Territory. She was appointed as a Utah representative to a suffrage convention in Washington D.C. She was a delegate to the 1882 Utah State Constitutional Convention, where she served on the committee on education and the committee on schedule and elections. She joined the National Council of Women of the United States in 1891 and was the first woman from Utah to hold a public office.
In January 1880, Emmeline wrote that the Nauvoo period was “one of the most important eras in the history of woman. It presented the great woman-question to the Latter-day Saints, previous to the woman’s rights organizations...not in any aggressive form as woman opposed to man, but as a co-worker and helpmeet in all that relates to the well-being and advancement of both, and mutual promoting of the best interest of he community at large.”
Emmeline was called as the Relief Society's fifth general president in 1910 at the age of 82. She served for eleven years. Emmeline also wrote numerous short stories and poems, many of which were published. She later compiled her poetry into a single volume, Musings and Memories. In 1912 she became the first Utah woman to receive an honorary degree, in literature, awarded her by Brigham Young University. “Emmeline B. Wells was the most noted Utah Mormon woman of her time.”
Emmeline died on April 25, 1921 at age ninety-three, and is buried in the Salt lake City Cemetery. She was privileged to have her funeral in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. Church President Heber J. Grant, characterized her as “one of the finest products of ‘Mormonism’” and “as unyielding as the granite of her native New England in her devotion to that which she considered her duty.” A bust of Emmeline inscribed "A Fine Soul Who Served Us," is found in the rotunda of the Utah State Capitol and was made posthumously as a tribute to her.
Sources: Wikipedia; FamilySearch.org; Relief Society General Presidents, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Ensign, July 2003, “Emmeline B. Wells” by Carol Cornwall Madsen