The Many Faces of Mormon Feminism: Part One – The First Wave

(Quotes in this post were taken from Vella Neil Evans outstanding article “Empowerment and Mormon Women’s Publications” found in Maxine Hanks’ edited volume, Women and Authority.)

Due to Jana’s recent post, I’ve spent the last few days thinking about the many faces of Mormon feminism. From the radical to the moderate, from the social to the ecclesiastical, from the political to the theological, Mormon feminism has always had different strains.

Many of you won’t be surprised to read that Mormon feminism (or at least what can now be interpreted as feminism) started with the presidents of Relief Society. In 1872, the women leaders of our church published the Women’s Exponent newspaper. While those early issues advocated good housekeeping, polygamy, and loyal church service, they also defined women as independent, assertive and strong. According to Evans, the Women’s Exponent “promoted a wide range of ecclesiastical, secular, and domestic options for women that male church leaders ignored or rejected…”

In the Exponent, Eliza R. Snow told her readers that any faithful, endowed Mormon woman was worthy to wash, anoint, and lay hands on the sick for the restoration of health. In the Exponent Relief Society President Emmeline B. Wells observed that women in the temple were “officiating in the character of priestess.”

In the Young Women’s Journal, which the women of the church were also entirely in charge of, Lucy B. Young was described as a woman whose “words of inspiration and personal prophesy” flowed “like a stream of living fire.” This Journal also reported in 1896 that “the Seventy’s wife bears the priesthood of the Seventy in connection with her husband, and shares in its responsibilities.”

Mormon women’s outspoken assertions extended beyond priesthood authority, prophesy, and healing gifts and into the political realm. From 1880 to 1919, Mormon women leaders lobbied for national women’s suffrage, earning attention, friendship, and visits from America’s leading feminists in the east. When the 19th amendment was passed, local Relief Societies held victory parties and the women’s publications rejoiced that women had finally achieved “equal rights before the law, equal opportunities, equal pay for equal work, equal political rights.”

Early Mormon women leaders likewise advocated an expansive social role for women that was not often mirrored in male church leaders’ discourse. Although male church leaders were consistently mandating motherhood for all women, the Exponent in 1873 printed the following: “If there be some women in whom the love of learning extinguishes all other love, then the heaven-appointed sphere of that woman is not the nursery. It may be the library, the laboratory, the observatory.”

The late 1800’s marked perhaps the strongest and broadest era of feminism in the Church. With Relief Society leaders themselves promoting an expansive and empowered view of women politically, socially, and ecclesiastically, the ideals of women’s empowerment touched many LDS women’s lives.

On a personal note, whenever I read excerpts from these old Mormon women’s publications, I become so proud of my Mormon heritage. These early Mormon women endured unspeakable deprivation and hardship, and their feisty, fiery spirit and indomitable will reach out through the old publications and buoys me up. I love these powerful, spiritual Mormon women of old, just as I love my contemporary Mormon feminist friends, in all their diversity of perspectives.

Ideas to consider:

  • I define these old presidents of Relief Society as feminists since they seem to fall in line with the dictionary definition of feminist: those advocating ‘social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.’ Do you agree that they were feminists?
  • Many of these early Mormon feminists were polygamists. Do you have difficulty reconciling their feminism with their polygamous status?
  • Why do you think the early Mormon women leaders were so outspoken and interested in women’s rights, compared with Mormon women leaders today?

My next post will discuss the 2nd wave of Mormon feminism.


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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No Responses

  1. Kaimipono says:

    “Many of these early Mormon feminists were polygamists.”

    Points for understatement, Caroline.

    There is the major exception of Emma. But when we look at others — especially Eliza — we see not only polygamy practice but also a strong polygamy apologia. Eliza was really as much an advocate of polygamy as she was of feminism.

    The mixture is complicated, and sometimes contradictory. But one way to reconcile them, I think, is to see both views as assertions of independence from prescribed societal roles. Society constrained her choices, both as a woman (you may not vote, you may not hold office) and as a potential wife (you may not marry someone who is already married). For her, both feminism and polygamy were empowering ways to reject those societal constraints.

    Of course, the opportunity to participate in polygyny is not something that all women will see as empowering (particularly today), and is a practice very much open to womens abuse.

    But for some women, such as Eliza, it offered a type of enhanced sexual autonomy, in that they received new opportunity to form a sexual liason with someone who they desired. (It’s pretty clear from her writings that Eliza absolutely worshipped Joseph.) Also, it provided avenues to authority in the community. (Eliza was never quiet about her role as prophet’s wife.) And so its no surprise that, for Eliza, polygamy seems to have been part of the package for empowering women.

  2. MJK says:

    Our social views of polygyny aside, it does not necessarily have to be a demaning thing for women. There was a really excellent article on Slate magazine about the economic reasons why polygamy can be good for women.

    As long it’s it’s not “sold into sexual slavery at 14 to a 60 year old man,” I totally agree with the article – and the lives of those mormon women seem to back it up.

  3. Caroline says:

    Good points. I would also add that polygamy did free women up to pursue careers that would otherwise be difficult to pursue. When you’ve got 5 sister wives ready and willing to offer child care, there are many more opportunities to contribute to society politically and professionally.

    I think it’s also important to mention that the women we’re talking about here, Eliza, Emmeline, etc. were socially, professionally, economically at the top of the Mormon hierarchy. These were women of privilege. I can imagine that polygamy looked quite different for those women who were breaking their backs trying to earn money and food to feed their children.

    Though I have a viscerally negative reaction to polygamy, I try to keep my mind open that it can indeed work for some families. (If that’s what they want out of a marriage.)

    But I think it’s good to remember that countless polygamous Mormon marriages brought heartbreak to women over their unsatisfactory marital relationships. Annie Clark Tanner, who began her marriage as an enthusiastic polygamist, realizes as an older woman that it was a mistake. Emmeline B. Wells, Relief Society President, though publically a supporter of the practice, nursed depression and miserable loneliness because her husband paid her scant attention and showed her little affection.

  4. Lucy says:

    Great questions. I’m really fascinated by the last one. Some thoughts that come to mind are that the early church seemed more malleable than the church today. Revelation flowed more freely and perhaps this coincides with the openness of the women in the early church. Members of the early church were trail blazers and the Relief Society was not heavily controlled by the men of the church.
    I don’t really know the answer, but I have noticed that in my sphere of influence many LDS women are afraid of the 1970’s second wave of feminism.

  5. journeygal says:

    As to the last question, I think the most basic answer is that the early church was out to be different from society, while the modern church seems to seek more conformity. The Church left the country it was founded in to seek freedom to be different – I wonder if it would be willing to do the same today. The desire to conform and be mainstream seems to overpower the desire to live and practice “different” doctrines.

    As to the question of feminists practicing polygamy – the work of being a wife in the 1800s seems quite difficult (constant farming, cooking, child-bearing, and cleaning) and I can see the appeal of “sharing” a husband. Also, the point already made about sharing child-care duties with other women makes sense. If sister-wives were friendly and had good relationships with each other, the friendship factor seems nice. Also, the potential for specialization (i.e., I’m good at teaching so I’ll watch/teach your kids all day. But I hate cooking, so in exchange, you have to do all the meal preparation). But, most of these results can be acheived amongst women/people without sharing a husband. Two women could kid/cook swap regardless, be freinds regardless, and share duties regardless. However, the point I’m trying to make it, although I am not personally interested in polygamy, I think a woman could practice polygamy and be a feminist at the same time. When a woman is forced into polygamy and doesn’t assert her desire not to engage in such practices, that is when I have a hard time viewing her as a feminist.

  6. madhousewife says:

    I agree that they were feminists. I can reconcile their feminism with their pro-polygamy views. When a polygamous family structure works, it can certainly be empowering for women. (How it empowers a non-abusive male is more difficult to see… 😉 )

    I think these women were more outspoken and interested in women’s rights than today’s Mormon women because they were radicals living in the 19th century, when women had hardly any rights to speak of. (Any woman willing to join the Mormon church and a polygamist family in the 19th century did not have trouble thinking outside the proverbial box.)

    The LDS church today is much more conservative, from a social perspective. (We grow a lot of social conservatives and we attract them, too–even if our theology is still technically a little out there.) And women in the Western world enjoy unprecedented legal freedom and social autonomy. Obviously women in non-Western(ized) societies still face obstacles to what we consider basic human rights. (Actually, come to think of it, most of their men do, too.) Mormon women are probably less outspoken about women’s rights for the same reason Mormon leaders in general are not outspoken about global issues of social justice.

  7. Wes says:


    I really enjoyed this post. I am coming more and more to see things by your point of view. I am not going to be beating down the prophet’s doors or anything like that, but I am much more sympathetic to feminist views now than I was a year ago. I have never read the quotes from those early Mormon women. I am actually fascinated by what they said. I do have a comment about the statement made about Emmeline B. Wells. It seems there are many women today who suffer from lack of attention and affection. I think that is a product of an unconcerned husband rather than a product of polygamy.

  8. Sue says:

    I just finished reading an excellent article, “Feminist Implications of Mormon Polygamy,” by Joan Iverson. Fascinating and 100% relevant. I had to purchase the right to view it, so I can’t point to a link, unfortunately…

    A few interesting tidbits from the article:

    Brigham Young urged Utah’s women in 1869 to work in nontraditional jobs, partly because of the labor needs of the society. Susan Young Gates said, “Women will always be the head and genuis of the home but whether it is a corollary that she shall forever wash dishes and scrub floors has become a grave question.”


    “Polygamy often required the assistance of women to support plural families. When separate dwellings were maintined, women sometimes had to fend for themselves and be self-sufficient. On occasion a wife was given capital and full managerial responsibility for land or farm, and significant indication of this can be found in the early Utah census reports which listed plural wives as “heads of households.” It was a rare plural wife that had no activity in addition to the home. One plural wife went to school at age 49 to become a midwife. She delivered 700 babies thereafter and took the little gold pieces that she received as payment for her services to share with all of the plural family.”

    “Martha Cannon, plural wife, doctor and legislator, told Beatrice Webb, English Fabian socialist, that if plural marriage had been allowed to continue, practiced freely, it owuld have given women an independent life.”

  9. Sue says:

    Another nugget from the article, then I will stop:

    “The stridency of the antipolygamy crusade had the further effect of creating a situation where any open rejection of polygamy was tantamount to rejecting the church itself. For this reason, undoubtedly, monogamous Mormons did not openly criticize the doctrine. This silence frustrates our inquiry into the full effects of the system on women.”

    She also talks a great deal about how they did not feel that romantic love was necessarily very important. One wife indicated that she was “not so much a slave as a single girl,” while another reported that plural marriage had helped her to become less “bound” to her husband and that she had become “freer” and able to work out her individual character as separate from her husband.”

    So perhaps if they did not view romantic love as an ideal or something to seek after, and accepted that, then they could find happiness in polygamy.

  10. Sue says:

    “Why do you think the early Mormon women leaders were so outspoken and interested in women’s rights, compared with Mormon women leaders today?”

    In my opinion, it’s because it fit naturally with what they were being told was the ideal. Polygamous families. If polygamy was the ideal, then women working and having other roles was a part of that, in order to support the family. Voting was a part of that. Independence from their husbands was an unavoidable part of that. The society was still a patriarchy, but out of necessity, women had to take on other roles.

    Women were put forward as the primary defenders of polygamy – encouraged to speak on behalf of polygamy. (Would not have looked that great to have only men defending the practice, would it?) I’m sure that being an activist isn’t a habit you get out of that easily, and being encouraged to play a strong role in the polygamy fight probably encouraged them to speak out on other issues.

    Today we of course have monogamy as the ideal – not just monogamy, but Ozzie and Harriet monogamy. And regardless of whether you think women are supposed to be submissive now, there is no doubt that women have been told over and over in the past that they should be submissive to their husbands. And that still influences us today – follow the lead of the priesthood.

  11. Ann says:

    Good point about these women being members of the privileged class, Caroline. I find it interesting that some women, sister wives of these privileged few, lived in utter poverty.

    Eliza had no children. Zina D.H. Young had only three; of these, only one with Brigham Young. Emily Partridge had seven children with Brigham Young, yet he often refused to pay even her water bills. The “privilege” was surely not equitable among his plural wives.

    This is an area where I think feminism often fails: helping women who are poor, raising children alone with few resources.

  12. madhousewife says:

    Emily Partridge had seven children with Brigham Young, yet he often refused to pay even her water bills.

    Oy, Brigham’s on my bleep list again.

  13. Day says:

    “The late 1800’s marked perhaps the strongest and broadest era of feminism in the Church.” I agree that the early women of the church were feminists–in wondering exactly how that came about, I thought of the book Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz. Coontz talks about time periods when society was headed towards a little more equality for the sexes. Before the Victorian era was one of those times. I wonder if the church experienced some of the same societal changes as the rest of the Western world, only later, due to its isolation in Deseret.

  14. Lucy Stern says:

    I think you so called, “Mormon Feminists” and your manifesto are totally bonkers! You are puffed up and proud and you want to tell the church what they should be doing? You sound more like Leman and Lemuel to me….

  15. Eve says:

    Oh, Lucy, but you really should try being bonkers sometime. It’s a blast! I especially like the part when you get to smite your younger brethren with a stick. In a cave. (Surefire way to see an angel.)

    But for all my bonkers advocacy, I don’t see what’s so offensive about Caroline’s post. She’s just considering a part of Mormon history, not telling anyone what to do. She even asks questions inviting differing perspectives at the end. See? All calm and rational-like. Not a bonkers word to be found.

  16. Lucy Stern says:

    Sorry Eve, I didn’t mean to sound so “bonkers”. Ha ha.

  17. Eve says:

    Lucy, no harm done.

    I tend to suspect all bloggers are just a little bonkers, but that may simply be because I am and so I incorrectly imagine that others are, too.

  18. Ardis Parshall says:

    Ann, could you point me toward a source for the statement that Brigham Young didn’t pay Emily’s water bill? I’m not challenging it as necessarily wrong, just unexpected. During Brigham Young’s lifetime, Salt Lake had no municipal water plant, no water meters, no way of knowing who dipped how many buckets out of the ditches that ran along the city streets. Hence, no water bills.

    It matters, because the point is offered as an illustration of the unfairness of polygamy, which is a major component of this thread. It matters, because readers make emotional judgments based on your illustration (see the comment following yours).

    Thanks for your assistance in helping me track that claim until I understand it.

  19. Day says:

    “The world says polygamy makes women inferior to men — we think differently. Polygamy gives women more time for thought, for mental culture, more freedom of action, a broader field of labor… and leads women more directly to God, the fountain of all truth.”
    ~Emmeline Wells (from

    Perhaps Utah’s version of polygamy released some wives from constant male authority, thus allowing them more opportunities to work for women’s rights.

  20. Day says:

    “As long it’s it’s not “sold into sexual slavery at 14 to a 60 year old man…”
    I thought of my husband’s uncle, whose ancestor, an abandoned Native American girl, was raised by a pioneer family to the age of 13, when her adopted father decided she was ready to get married, so he asked the stake president to take on another wife. The Pres.’s second wife, on finding an Indian was going to be living in their home, left for her parents, only to be kicked out by her father, who sent her back to her husband. Not really much choice for anyone in the matter.

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