Belle Spafford: An Illuminating Lady

(My mother and Belle Spafford at center, left to right, early 1970s)

Growing up I was certain of three things that my mom loved with a passion (aside from us kids): the Church, Mexican food, and Belle Spafford.  So when former Exponent 2 editor Aimee Hickman and artist Molly Cannon Hadfield asked for volunteers to write mini bios on the 25 women featured in Illuminating Ladies: a Coloring Book of Mormon Women, I knew exactly who I’d be researching. What I found was a leader who was strong, humble, and dedicated to the advancement of women. Let me highlight a few things that make her remarkable.

In the modern age when a General Relief Society president’s tenure may last a mere five years, it blew my mind that Belle, born in 1895, served as the 9th President for almost 30 years, from 1945-74, longer than any president before or since. During her three decades of official service she witnessed dramatic changes in the status of women at home and abroad. The Relief Society membership went from 100,000 members to one million. She supervised the raising of funds for and building of the Relief Society Building in Temple Square. She championed social work and directed agencies throughout the western US, focusing on protecting and empowering children in need. Serving for that long gave her a perspective and authority unlike any other President. It allowed her to maneuver the halls of power both in and out of the church with diplomacy. One friend said of her, “She knew how to disagree without being disagreeable. She wore a velvet glove yet her grip was of steel.” A skill my mother acquired as well.

Like any kid, I experienced rejection and would feel so alone in my occasional status as outsider. I remember my mom telling me a story about Belle that encouraged me to be patient but persistent. As part of her Relief Society duties she was asked to attend the National Council of Women. During her first luncheon with the group, the other members were suspicious of her because of her religion. Belle tried to sit at several tables where there was space, but at each table, knowing she was a Mormon from Utah, the women told her the seats were taken. After being turned away from every table, Belle approached the council president and said, “Where would you like me to sit? It seems that all the chairs are taken.” The president, realizing what was happening, insisted Belle to sit next to her at the head table. Within a few years Belle was not just accepted as a vital part of the group, but became the president at the urging of its members and served with the group for 42 years. Belle, once rejected, was even chosen to represent the ICW abroad and felt that “One of the thrills of my life was when I led the procession of delegates at the formal and very colorful opening session of the International Council of Women in Helsinki, Finland….It is a heartening thing to see women of all nations working to bring about a better world.”

At the end of her three decades of service, Belle reflected on what has changed and what has stayed constant since the Relief Society was founded:

“Tremendous changes . . . have taken place in the social, economic, industrial, and educational life of most countries in the world since Relief Society was founded. And I don’t think any change in the world has been more significant than the change in the status of women. At the time the Relief Society was founded, a woman’s world was her home, her family, and perhaps a little community service. Today a woman’s world is as broad as the universe. There’s scarcely an area of human endeavor that a woman cannot enter if she has the will and preparation to do so…. Through the years, Relief Society has been just as constant in its purpose as truth is constant. The purposes that were important for a handful of women in Nauvoo are still important to women world-wide. That is the miracle of Relief Society.”

As Mother’s Day approaches I am grateful for the amazing women who came before me and model many ways to elevate the status of women, whether traditionalists or iconoclasts. It’s good for me to remember that sometimes its possible to appear conventional while quietly subverting the status quo. Well-behaved women can make history. Thanks, Belle. Thanks ,Mom.

To read about more awesome Mormon women check out all 25 saints featured in our gorgeous coloring book!


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8 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Thanks so much for this, Heather. I had vaguely known about Belle Spafford for years, so it was great to learn more about her. She sounds like a remarkable person.

  2. Caroline says:

    And by the way, I am sad that our general Relief Society Presidents today don’t have long tenures like Belle Spafford did. When you have decades in a leadership position, you can tackle big projects and think long term, with vision and patience. I’m thinking of her tenacity in getting that Relief Society Building built. I understand she had to work and battle pretty hard for years and years to make that happen. When you have only five years, there’s just not so much that can get done.

    • Heather says:

      I know! Just when they figure things out and get a vision they are released. How can meaningful long term plans be made by women for women?

  3. Andrea Jay says:

    Having just had a similar experience happen to me last night, I am delight to hear how Belle Spafford turned a cold shoulder into a wonderful relay. Thank you for sharing her story.

  4. Andrea Jay says:

    *warm relationship

  5. Wendy says:

    This is just what I needed, Heather. It feels empowering to learn about Belle’s life and contributions! What a life. I’m utterly inspired.

  6. Dava says:

    After I had my forth baby, in 1973, I needed to ‘re- group’ myself. I read Belle’s book, ‘Women in Today’s World’. Thank you for reminding me about how that book influenced me: helped me gather myself together, lent me strength, helped me decide what I wanted out of life, and in many ways helped me to choose happiness. Belle Spafford is a marvelous woman.

  7. Spunky says:

    Thank you so much for this! I think I would have liked Relief Society much better when Belle was involved. Reminders like your post inspire me to hope for better things to come for women in the church.

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