At a women’s studies event in honor of Women’s History Month, all four editors of The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Mormon Women’s History discussed the importance of understanding the early history of the Relief Society.
PROVO, Utah (Mar. 17, 2016)—During the summer of 1871 – just one year after the enfranchisement of women in Utah – over a thousand people crowded onto a train from Salt Lake City to Ogden to hear a commemorative 24th of July speech delivered by Eliza R. Snow. The speech, however, was less about the 24th and more about the unique position of women in the Church.
Jill Mulvay Derr, one of four editors of The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Mormon Women’s History – a much anticipated publication from the Church Historian’s Press – showed through Eliza R. Snow’s 24th of July speech how even one single document can help contextualize and give meaning to all of the documents included in the book.
Co-editor Matt J. Grow, director of publications for the LDS Church History Department, said that the Relief Society Minutes recorded by Eliza R. Snow have now been published in full for the first time ever, giving the public access to a wealth of insight regarding the early history of Mormon women and the Relief Society.
The themes of the book range from 19th-century temple building to understanding the priesthood, and from Mormon women’s involvement with the National Women’s Rights Movement to healthcare – and even obstetrics.
It is key documents like Eliza R. Snow’s 24th of July speech in 1871, for example, that provide an opportunity for more unique, nuanced interpretations of 19th century Mormon women’s stances on women’s rights.
Derr said that earlier in the summer of -1871, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton arrived in Utah as part of their tour of the West.
Though Anthony and Stanton were invited to Utah by dissenting Mormon intellectuals, the two suffragists also met with a group of Latter-day Saint women. Derr said that in their address to Mormon women, Stanton and Anthony “praised them for receiving the right to vote, but voiced opposition to early marriage and support for family planning.”
Yet just weeks after the visit from Stanton and Anthony, and now equipped with her own platform, Eliza R. Snow presented her own views on the women’s rights movement.
“Distinguishing her ideas from those recently expressed by the suffragists, she declared, ‘How very different our position from that of our sisters in the world at large and how widely different our feelings and prospects from that class known as ‘strong-minded,’” said Derr, quoting Snow’s speech.
Derr continued, “‘Not that we are opposed to women’s suffrage – or to strong-mindedness –’ but the reformers, she believed, seemed ‘utterly blind, and oblivious to an element incorporated with their platform that within its very nature is calculated to sap the foundation of all on earth that can impart happiness and stability.’”
For Snow, the missing element was the priesthood, something that she believed provided a unifying force that the national women’s movement lacked. Derr said that this idea of incompleteness was an essential component of Eliza’s approach to women’s rights.
Snow also realized, however, that even such unity between men and women in the Church was not yet perfect in practice. Again quoting Snow, Derr said, “‘While the gospel in its mutilated forms has done much toward the elevation of women and in its fullness has been again restored in our day, we should bear in mind that its practice is but imperfectly developed.’”
Derr continued, “This was an important note to sound as she travelled to various wards because she saw women there wrestling with how they could best work together and how they might work unitedly with men, questions that appear repeatedly in these documents,”
Carol Cornwall Madsen, another co-editor of the book and an emeritus history professor at BYU, spoke to the uniqueness of the Relief Society organization and Mormon women’s recognition of its importance at the time.
“The sisters learned that their new organization was not only exceptional among other women’s societies, but it was essential to the purposes of the restoration of Christ’s Church, and would serve as a partner with the priesthood in accomplishing its goals. It gave women an ecclesiastical identity and a collective purpose.”
Kate Holbrook, another co-editor of the book and the first specialist in women’s history hired by the Church History Department also emphasized the importance of this collective purpose and the insight into the everyday unity of the sisters provided by the documents of this book.
The book, she concluded, gives “a sense for the world of meaning and everyday experience that we find in these documents.”
—Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)
Sylvia Cutler covers events for the women’s studies program for the College of Humanities. She is pursuing a double major in English and French and a minor in women’s studies.