Carol Madsen on Emmeline B. Wells

Emmeline B. Wells is a powerful figure in Latter-day Saint history. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Carol Cornwall Madsen discussed some of why that is so. What follows here is a copost to the interview (a shorter post with some excerpts and discussion).

To set the stage, though, let’s look at an earlier interview about the Emmeline B. Wells diaries where Cherry Silver described who Emmeline B. Wells was:

Emmeline B. Wells was the most renowned Latter-day Saint woman of her generation. She was celebrated as an editor, public speaker, community activist, and defender of her faith.

Born in Massachusetts in 1828, she emigrated first to Nauvoo and then from Winter Quarters to Utah in 1848. She edited the Woman’s Exponent from 1877 to 1914, was involved in local politics, and served on the boards of national women’s organizations. She led the Relief Society as its fifth general president between 1910 and 1921 and died in Salt Lake City in April 1921.

Emmeline was married three times and had six children. A son with James Harris died in infancy in Nauvoo. Two daughters with Newel K. Whitney were born in Salt Lake City and became civic leaders. Of her three daughters with Daniel H. Wells, two died of illness as young adults. The third, Annie Wells Cannon, had twelve children and became a state legislator, stake Relief Society president, and member of the Relief Society general board.

When the periodical, the Woman’s Exponent, was founded in 1872, Emmeline Wells began to write articles of social improvement under the pen name Blanche Beechwood and reminiscences of her New England upbringing as Aunt Em.

Eliza R. Snow asked her to fill in as editorialist in 1874. That led to training as associate editor before taking over as editor in 1877. Gradually through her pen and speaking assignments, she became a spokesperson for Latter-day Saint women of the 1880s and 1890s and beyond.

A major force in the Relief Society, and particularly with the Woman’s Exponent, Emmeline Wells left an impact on her community.

In the more recent interview, Carol Madsen discussed a few different aspects of Emmeline Wells’ life. In discussing some of the public efforts for women’s suffrage that Wells was involved in, Madsen shared the following:

Emmeline B. Wells seemed to have a charismatic aura about her that drew people—both Latter-day Saints and non-Latter-day Saints into her orbit—despite her marital status as a plural wife (which many of her non-Latter-day Saint associates disdained).

She was tiny in stature but large in self-assurance and urbanity. Her intelligence and capabilities were quickly recognized by national women’s leaders, headed by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, May Wright Sewall, of the National Council of Women, and the Reverent Anna Howard Shaw. Others found Emmeline Wells not only extremely devoted to the cause of women’s advancement but also eager to promote the commonality of women and the National Council of Women, organized to achieve that kind of female unity.

Overall, Emmeline felt that the Church offered women far more individual opportunities than women generally experienced. Occasionally she expressed a desire that more of her Latter-day Saint sisters would take an interest in national women’s affairs and become active in the movement for women’s rights—or at least aware of it.

But she often found her Latter-day Saint co-workers far more capable, learned, and dedicated than the nationally-known women’s leaders. On one occasion (noted above) she found that the only difference between Latter-day Saint women and their cohorts from other faiths was money.

Because of her travels and contacts, as well as her knowledge and ability with people, Emmeline became an unofficial VIP greeter in Salt Lake City. She loved meeting people from various locations, including Europe, and felt fully capable of entertaining them as their guide to the city and exponent of Mormonism.

Emmeline was known and respected by many people outside of the Church and worked to improve women’s affairs.

Part of Emmeline’s inspiration for her efforts in that area came from her mother’s experiences. As Madsen wrote:

Emmeline’s consciousness of the disadvantages of being female began with her mother’s plight in becoming a widow. Diadama Woodward, had no training to become a teacher nor medical experience to become a midwife, Though no record remains of how she managed her family during the early years after David’s death, Emmeline remembered her as “the matriarch of the family,” as “capable of managing an estate as most men.”

The second marriage of Emmeline’s mother, to Samuel Clark, Jr., a house painter, appears to have dissolved. Except for a record of their marriage and the birth of a son, Hiram (whom Emmeline adored), no record of Clark remains in any of Emmeline’s writing, except for a brief reference to Clark “as a cruel guardian. Nor are references made to him in any of the other children’s family accounts.

Emmeline’s high regard for her mother and her recognition of the constraints on women’s public lives—as she observed them restricting her mother’s attempts to provide for her family—were clearly the feminist seeds that grew into the strong equal rights woman that Emmeline became.

She was very pleased when appointed editor of The Woman’s Exponent, which had already shown signs of becoming a voice for the burgeoning woman’s movement in Utah. Emmeline now had a public platform in which to express the thoughts that had been fomented in her Massachusetts childhood.

Emmeline worked hard for the remainder of her life to push back against those constraints on women’s public lives.

One area of her life that tended to baffle non-Latter-day Saints in the women’s rights movement was her polygamous marriage to Daniel H. Wells. To many, both then and now, the practice of plural marriage seemed to run counter to women’s rights. Madsen explained some of how Emmeline Wells viewed this paradox:

I do not think of Emmeline as a fierce defender of plural marriage, but rather as an unapologetic plural wife who lived the principle because she believed it to be a doctrine of the Church to which she was fully committed.

She was not a crusader (as were some other wives in this regard), but simply entered the practice twice because she believed that it was divinely inspired. …

Living in a separate house from his other wives, she did not have the more constant contact shared by his other wives, and his Church and civic duties kept him away from giving her the attention for which she longed.

It was the husband, not the principle that left her lonely. So, yes, in her second marriage, so carefully chosen and hopefully fulfilling, she found loneliness. It was overwhelming at times, but she gained two delightful families, the Whitneys and the Wells, who enveloped her with love and belonging.

But it was the Latter-day Saint woman’s paper, The Woman’s Exponent, which she edited from 1878 to 1914, that brought the loneliness to an end. Far fewer diary entries expose the loneliness of the first twenty-five years of their marriage.

That loneliness was one of many sorrows that she faced during her life, but she remained true to her values and worked hard. And through The Woman’s Exponent, she left to us what Madsen referred to as “one of our most valuable sources of Latter-day Saint women’s history.”

For more on Emmeline Wells (much more), head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk. There’s a lot there to read through, including more thoughts on early Relief Society, some of the challenges she faced in life, and what helped her through those challenges. It’s worth the time to read through.