Guest Post: The Hope of Suffragists and History
Spunky is a busy post-graduate who enjoys Exponent II and church women’s history when not obsessing with research associated with her study. She is married, tutors special needs children privately and has a very, very spoiled dog.
I am a strange LDS feminist, if I am even considered an LDS feminist. The reason is that as a rule, I do not like the Relief Society. On the very few and rare occasions when I have voiced this, I am greeted with shock, belittlement, and even anger. So I am quiet and keep it to myself and tend to avoid Relief Society, unless I am teaching. No kidding. Furthering my freakishness, I love visiting teaching and do it every month. No joke. I love it. I love visiting with women personally.
My dislike of Relief Society started when I was in Young Women. This was back in Ronald Reagan days. One day, for whatever reason, my mother proudly informed me that “President Reagan was really impressed when he learned that the Relief Society was the largest women’s organization in the world.” I didn’t like Regan, even though my parents did. And impressing Reagan did NOT impress me. I thought at the time that I was bound to be in the Relief Society one day, and I might be counted as one of these “happy to impress Ronald Regan” women. I didn’t want to be one of those women. Not at all.
That was it: I realized that in some way, just being counted as a member of the Relief Society implied a certain political position. What’s more, all LDS women are assumed to be members of the Relief Society. Post 1971, you could not join or resign Relief Society membership. Period. In my eyes, I would turn 18 and became a member of the Relief Society that would brand me with an implied political opinion that would impress Reagan-ites. The only way out was to NOT be Mormon. To quit the Relief Society, I would have to quit the church. But I love the gospel, so I didn’t want to quit the church. Ugh. At least boys and men get to choose if they want to be set apart with priesthood.
So I began to do a bit of research on the Relief Society. I fell in love. I love the Mormon suffragists. I love Eliza R. Snow and her cry for Heavenly Mother in ‘Oh, My Father’. I love that Eliza R. Snow didn’t have children, and was the general Relief Society president. I love that the Relief Society helped the Federal US government in the Great Depression. I love the practical and professional nursing training that was offered in the Progressive Era to the members of the Relief Society. I love that the Relief Society was so well off financially that they constructed buildings. I admired the branch and ward members of the Relief Society who funded the buildings of chapels by baking and sewing and doing underpaid work (I was annoyed that men didn’t have to bake and sell cookies to donate to the church building funds). I was amazed at the huge chunk of cash that the Relief Society had earned, and was ‘turned over’ to the church. That made me suspicious. Was the motivation in correlation to obtain the Relief Society finances? Or was it to control the women and crush their publications? Was it to gain financial control of the women? My conspiracy theories still abound.
It is obvious that I love the history of the Relief Society. But I have little love for the modern Relief Society. I am still unreconciled with the idea that I am assumed to be a member and do not have a choice. Even if women were heavily pressured to join in years past, they still had a choice. I don’t. I can’t marry the ‘classic’ RS and the ‘modern’ RS in my mind. (Even non-LDS women were members of the ‘classic’ Relief Society –imagine that today?!?) So I was amazed and even startled with President Beck’s words at the General Relief Society meeting. She said (assuming I typed the quote from the podcast correctly): “Our presidency has prayed, fasted, pondered and counselled with prophets, seers and revelators to learn what God would have us do to help His daughters be strong in the face of the calamities which shall come upon the inhabitants of the earth. The answer has come that the sisters of the church should know and learn from the history of the Relief Society. Understanding the history of the Relief Society strengthens the foundational identity and worth of faithful women.”
Probably. But I have had hope for this last week. It’s been nice. Amazing even. What do you hope? Is there anything in the history of the Relief Society that you wish was embraced in the modern church?