19th century Mormonism is foreign to our modern conceptions of the Church. Praxis and culture have evolved such that it is improper to discus the frank realities of our history in worship services. No aspect of this transformation is more acute than the dynamic role of women. And no woman is more iconoclastic than Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Smith Young.
It is counterintuitive really. One would think that polygamy is the subjugation of women. To a certain extent, it probably was; the appellation alone of the fullness of the priesthood — the patriarchal order — is a violence to modern identity politics. There is, however, no doubt that women were concurrently liberated. The insurrection against the Victorian ethic surpassed any subjugation.
Liberalism was a requisite function of Mormon culture. Polygamous wives rarely saw their husbands and could not rely on them for fiscal or spiritual support. 19th century Mormon women were independent by exigency. These women raised their children as single mothers, they worked to support these families financially and they were the children’s spiritual ministers.
Perhaps it was not by complete ignorance that the Washington Post heralded Zina as Brigham Young’s "first wife" in 1901. Though she was not his literal first wife, she was the paramount woman.
Zina divorced her first husband to be the Levirate wife of Brigham Young. As a single parent she raised her own children as well as those of a deceased sister wife. After arriving in the Salt Lake valley, she worked as a school teacher. Zina had a long history of ministering to the sick with a blend of folk medicine and priestly gifts, but in the mid 1850’s she took a course in obstetrics. Subsequently, Zina led one school of obstetrics, started another nursing school and served as president of Deseret Hospital for 12 years. Zina also was chosen as president of the Utah silk association, having spent a year concurrently working as the cocoonery manager.
Zina served as a councilor in the General Relief Society Presidency until the death of Eliza R. Snow Smith opened the office of president to her assumption. At this time, General Relief Society President was a role that was filled for the duration of one’s life. As President, she affiliated the Relief Society with the Nation Council for Women, an activist group that fought for women’s rights (an interesting blend of suffragists and abolitionists). Zina toured the nation and represented the Society at the National Woman’s Suffrage Association and at the World Congress of Women at Chicago in 1893. These activist associations were 30 years before the 19th amendment was ratified and upheld by the courts.
Imagine a contemporary General Relief Society President that was divorced and worked outside of the home as a teacher, medical doctor and CEO – a woman who affiliated the Society with activist women’s organizations and retained her office until death. Iconoclasm.