By the time Emmeline Blanche Woodward was fourteen, she had already lost her father, finished school at the New Salem Academy, become a teacher and was on her way to her first marriage. Her betrothed, James Harris, was the 15 year-old son of the local Mormon leader, and soon Emmeline and her family were baptized members of the LDS Church.
Less than a year later, Emmeline and her family joined the church migration of the Saints to Nauvoo, Illinois. Sadness and grief marked her short time in Nauvoo, where her first child died shortly after birth, and her husband abandoned her. Carol Cornwall Madsen described this time in Emmeline’s life:
“In 1844 they traveled with James’ parents to Nauvoo. Two months later, the Prophet and his brother were assassinated, and soon after, the elder Harrises, Elias and Lucy, left the Church. They urged James and Emmeline, with their newborn son, Eugene, to return with them to Massachusetts, but the young couple refused. When Emmeline and James also refused to allow James’ parents to take the baby with them, until the young parents were more settled, the Harrises left Nauvoo alone, leaving bad feelings behind. The baby, unfortunately, died soon afterwards, and James, unable to find any satisfactory work in Nauvoo, took a boat to St. Louis, promising to return for the bereaved Emmeline as soon as he found employment. Alone in Nauvoo, Emmeline found a place to stay with the Aaron Johnson family, waiting day after day for word from James.
“I hope soon, very soon, to see him and hear words of love and affection,” she wrote in her diary. But those words never came. Nor did James.”
Alone, but not entirely without resources, Emmeline began teaching again. During this time, the revelation concerning plural marriage was received, and Emmeline became plural wife to the much older Newel K. Whitney, who was a bishop in Nauvoo. She joined the extended Whitney family on the exodus to Utah in 1848, at which time she began keeping journals. Emmeline would bear two daughters in her marriage with Whitney, and remained close with the family and other wives even after his death.
In 1850, just twenty-two years old, she became a widow, and found herself in Salt Lake City supporting two small daughters by again teaching school. Her experiences in life had already taught her the importance of being self-sufficient, and she bore the primary responsibility for herself and her children the rest of her life.
In 1852, already the veteran of two marriages, Emmeline approached Daniel H. Wells, a friend of her late husband, about marriage. She became Daniel’s seventh wife, possibly out of financial necessity, and had three daughters with him. After the birth of her fifth (and last) daughter in 1862, Emmeline truly began to find her voice on women’s rights and political issues.
In 1872, at the age of 44, Emmeline B. Wells began editing the semi-monthly publication for Mormon women- the Women’s Exponent, succeeding Louisa Green, who founded the paper in 1872. “I believe in women, especially thinking women,” she wrote, becoming her time’s pre-eminent advocate and proponent of women’s rights and plural marriage. As editor, Emmeline had unparalleled freedom to write about and promote the key issues of the day: suffrage in Utah, education and economic opportunities for women, and reports on the Relief Society, where she served in the general presidency for more than three decades.
Unlike those outside the Mormon world, Emmeline preached plural marriage not as a barrier to women’s equality, but rather as a means of personal freedom and independence. For Emmeline, polygamy could be a way in which women could have social standing and rights of her own, unlike traditional marriage in which a woman’s social and economic standing often rested on that of her husband.
Brigham Young called Emmeline to head a grain saving program, which was eventually so successful that the church was able to sell surplus grain to the US government for World War I. She received a personal visit and presidential commendation from Woodrow Wilson for her efforts.
On the national level, Emmeline had ties to many prominent suffragettes, including both Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In 1879, she became a lobbyist for Utah interests in Washington D.C., and a mediator between Mormon and non-Mormon women, primarily defending and dealing with criticism of polygamy and her religion.
As editor of the Exponent Emmeline faced personal failure as the newspaper faced financial ruin. Emmeline lobbied the Relief Society to officially adopt the Exponent, but was rejected in her attempts. In 1914, while Sister Wells was president, the Relief Society Board rescinded support of the Women’s Exponent, and the publication closed. Seven years later, Emmeline would be the first to be released as Relief Society president, which had previously been a lifetime calling.
In 1921, at the age of 93, three weeks after being released as General Relief Society president, Emmeline B. Wells died. Her daughter is said to believe the release broke her heart, and contributed to her death.
She was eulogized as Utah’s “foremost woman”, and as “unyielding as her native granite in her devotion to duty.” On what would have been her one-hundredth birthday, a bust of her was placed in the rotunda of the state capital, posthumously recognizing her achievements.
This post is a very, very brief overview of what can only be noted as a remarkable woman who lived a truly remarkable life. Please take a moment, or an hour, and look over some of the links to find out more about our foremother, Emmeline B. Wells. We do ourselves a disservice to not know more about her and her life. And frankly, I am appalled that I made it through women’s studies courses in college, and knew next to nothing about her- she isn’t just Mormon history- she is American history.
Up next in History 101: Eliza R. Snow
New Perspectives on the West, Emmeline B. Wells
An Avocate for Women: The Public Life of Emmeline B. Wells
Official RS Bio Sketch
Women of the West, Museum of the American West
Emmeline B. Wells, Short Bio.
And of course, Exponent II,