In the spring of 1830, Joseph Smith Jr. founded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Almost 12 years later, in a collaborative revelation between Joseph Smith and women including Eliza R. Snow, Sarah Kimball and Margaret Cook, the LDS Relief Society was formed.
In her book “Women at Church,” Neylan McBain notes “the constructive three-way collaboration between the women, the prophet, and the Lord resulted in a women’s organization that was the first of its kind in the modern world and still thrives today.”
Women of the early Relief Society gave blessings to the sick, did religious rites of washing and anointing to women in childbirth and generally felt they had full access to the Priesthood, even though it was something the men of the church were ordained to and the women were not. Early in the days of the LDS church, women were active in politics, including the national suffrage movement and had the right to vote before they achieved statehood.
Female church leaders of the early 20th century, such as Emmeline B. Wells, were active suffragettes. Sister Wells is known to have quipped: “I believe in women, especially thinking women.” She also ran for office and served as the general Relief Society president for the LDS church. She used her public presence as an opportunity to speak and write about women’s rights.
Through the years, Emmeline took pride in the fact that the Relief Society had opened “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 help-meet in all that relates to the well-being and advancement of both, and mutual promoting of the best interests of the community at large.”
Orson F. Whitney, speaking at the Utah Constitutional Convention in 1895, said: “It is woman’s destiny to have a voice in the affairs of government. She was designed for it. She has a right to it. This great social upheaval, this woman’s movement that is making itself heard and felt, means something more than that certain women are ambitious to vote and hold office. I regard it as one of the great levers by which the Almighty is lifting up this fallen world, lifting it nearer to the throne of its Creator.”
According to Joanna Brooks, writing in the Journal, “Dialogue,” the shift away from those early days of seeing women as equals can be seen just by looking at articles published in the LDS Church’s youth magazine.
“In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries all of the articles in the Church’s youth magazine the Era “advocate[d] nontraditional, or extra-domestic, activities for women” — a reflection of the hands-on roles that Mormon women played in the economic lives of Utah communities as well as in national politics, social reform, the building of institutions like hospitals and schools, and LDS Church life."
This shifted dramatically between 1910 and the 1970s — from 66% advocating “non-traditional” roles in 1910, to almost 74 percent defining young women only in relationship to domestic roles in the 1970s.
Over time, attitudes changed and early Mormon women’s writings were lost. In the 1970s, Susan Kohler re-discovered the Woman’s Exponent, a progressive newspaper produced by and for Mormon women, in Harvard’s Widener Library. Many Mormon feminists of the 1970s were stunned by the bold proclamations of feminism by those early Mormon women. Laurel Ulrich remembered, “These women were saying things in the 1870s that we had only begun to think.”
In the last 18 months, current leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ have implemented numerous changes affecting the women of the church and, based on early church history, I wonder if they aren’t more of a restoration than an innovation.
It doesn’t really matter, though. God loves His daughters just as much as His sons - and now policies are reflecting that even more.
Holly Richardson, a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune, was personally rooting for allowing mothers with children still at home to serve as temple workers. She is raising a granddaughter and will be nearly 70 before her granddaughter turns 18. She’d rather serve now.