Guest Post: The Hope of Suffragists and History

by Spunky

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?


Spunky lives in Queensland, Australia. She loves travel and aims to visit as many church branches and wards in the world as possible.

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11 Responses

  1. Vada says:

    This is great. I’ve never really felt strongly one way or the other about modern RS (it’s never implied a particular political position to me, for instance), but I also love the history of RS. I missed the broadcast last week, but I think it’s wonderful for President Beck to call for us to learn of the history of the RS. I think learning about strong women from church history is a great thing.

    As a side note, I’ve certainly seen instances where someone not of our faith was considered part of the RS. In college there was a girl who attended our branch regularly even though she wasn’t a member, and we considered her one of us. She had VTers and she had a calling on the activities committee. Also, an awesome woman in one of my wards had a great story. Her husband was a member, and when they got married he got stationed at a base not near where either of them had lived. She attended church with them there, and after a year or so the bishop called her to be in the RS presidency. Her response was along the lines of “Okay, but do I need to be a member for that?” They were apparently completely unaware she wasn’t a member. She ended up getting baptized and serving in the calling, which I’m grateful for, since any community would be lucky to have her as one of them. So I think it’s possible for someone to be a member of the RS if not a member — all you have to do is come to the meetings.

  2. Jenne says:

    I visibly startled when I heard President Beck say that the Relief Society history would be a new area of focus. Truly, it was the last thing I thought “the sisters of the should know and learn…” I was expecting “to know she is a daughter of God” or some other well worn phrase. Because to me the history of Relief Society is synonymous with independent women, professional women, working mothers, women giving blessings, prophetic women, “priestesses”, and activism. All of which are frowned upon, covered up and discouraged at this time. When I read about the history of Relief Society, I say I want to be involved in that. I want to live in that time. And I pine for the former glory and don’t recognize those actions in the Relief Society today. When I first heard the announcement my fear was that the history would be whitewashed. That the fact that women giving blessings and being told they were given the priesthood through the temple would be ignored and hidden. That the way in which women giving blessings was phased out will be called a revelation from God and His will even though my reading of the history does not support that idea. I’m afraid at how these historical events will be handled. I can have hope that women will find the inspiration in their former powers and hope for its restitution but I can’t say I have faith that it will happen. Time will tell. And I hope my uneasiness does not interfere with whatever the Lord intends with this.

    And in the interest of gossip, does anyone know how this history is going to be implemented? Its not going to take the place of Gospel Principles I know. Is it just a book that sisters will be encouraged to read on their own? Will it become part of or take the place of Teachings for Our Times? Are we going to be discussing this during Sunday meetings?

  3. prairiegirl says:

    I just hope the Priesthood has to study the history of the Relief Society to. For years now, both the RS and Priesthood have studied the same books–so that is my hope–that the men have to study the history of RS as well. Especially because I’m tired of having to reeducate and defend the RS first president, Emma Smith, to uninformed and uneducated men!

  4. EM says:

    I look forward to learning more about the history of RS. My mother was very upset when the RS came under the correlation program as she saw the onset of the “sugary sweet” RS we have today. In her day (’50’s) you joined the RS by paying your dues, thus raising funds for whatever project it was needed for. Also, she remembered studying “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe – and other various authors, who’d ever thought that was possible. She sure didn’t appreciated the mamby pamby stuff that gradually was taught. Rumored had it that Barbara Smith (RS GP) was quite upset when the correlation program came in. So I’m hoping that we go back to the good old days of learning the real meat and not the sugary coated, milky stuff and silly crafts. And I think we should go back to paying dues so we have control of our own finances! Well maybe not.

  5. Starfoxy says:

    I’m another one who has felt that the ‘largest women’s organization in the world’ claim is at least a bit disingenuous. Even in my strident anti-feminist youth I knew that it wasn’t a ‘women’s organization’ in the truest sense of the word, given that men were ultimately in charge of it and membership in the RS is effectively the same as membership in the church. Given those parameters there are probably a few organizations that have larger female membership numbers than us.
    I am very excited about learning the history of the RS, and am curious to see how it will play out.

  6. Corktree says:

    It’s taken me a while of digesting to realize what this all means. I never considered that associating with the RS gave me a political affiliation, but I also never thought about how I was never given the option to choose my membership or not. How strange.

    I, too, was excited at the prospect of learning about the foremothers, and just studying women more in general in church, but I assumed it would inevitably be watered down.

    But what if this is the beginning of a new era of change, directed from God? What if S/He wants to encourage us by reminding us of the strong spirits that came before us. From what I know of some of our predecessors, I have to imagine if they had been alive today, how much they would be involved in pushing for our voices to be heard and advocating for change. I’m so excited to learn more and look to their examples for guidance. If we are going to face widespread challenges, we should be looking to those who valiantly and successfully managed those of their own time.

    And spunky, you’re not alone in disliking RS. I’ve had my share of frustration with feeling useless and annoyance at the syrupy sweetness. I used to hate the VT program too (disingenuous and forced friendships didn’t sit well with me) until I came to understand the role I could play and how I could use it to truly serve. Maybe the same needs to happen to the Relief Society in general. Maybe we will go back to our roots and find ways to be more useful in the communities and for each “member” to feel more necessary in service. I really hope so.

  7. Rebecca says:

    I don’t think we RS women know our own history and I’m all for more lessons on that! I only learned recently that the RS had their own buildings at one time. Now the idea of even a small office dedicated to the Relief Society president would be pretty exciting!

    Personally, I have a deep love for Relief Society. I like that it gives me friendships with women across the lifespan, much older and much younger than myself. I love the idea of women bound together by service and a love of Christ. I’ve seen many acts of selflessness over the years. Women truly extending love to one another. Maybe the best thing is the practical side. In the church, the RS is frequently where the rubber hits the road. Women taking casseroles to a new mother or giving elderly sisters a ride to church. A former Relief Society president in my ward would go over and clip the toenails of a mentally handicapped woman in the ward. I’ll always remember the beauty of that humble act.

  8. Caroline says:

    I kind of have benign feelings toward RS. I like all women groups – probably comes from having attended a women’s college. I just would hope that we can get to the point where we could feel free to be vulnerable with our struggles. I also hope that we can have better lessons someday. Those manuals which just have quotes out of context…. very difficult. I also hope that the general RS will come up with a big vision project. Something they could encourage each ward RS to work towards. I think the Jack presidency was the last one that attempted such a thing, and its focus was literacy, I believe. Maybe a new focus could be outreach to the impoverished in the community, or help for battered women — something along those lines.

    I also LOVE the history of the RS. I think it’s pretty interesting to think about the enormous autonomy those women of the early RS had.

  9. Jenne says:

    Corktree, I’m trying to not get my hopes up that this might be the beginning of changes to RS and a period of embracing female power and ability in the church. I have wondered the same thing, that maybe this is the beginning of something.

  10. Deborah says:

    Spunky: I LOVED hearing that quote in conference. Hope indeed. I’m right there with you. I claim Relief Society because what it *was* gives me a spark of hope for what it might be again. IMO Women of Covenant is the best book ever published by Deseret Book:

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