by JENNA LEVETAN
Emmeline Wells was known in Utah for her leading role in politics and women’s suffrage. She converted to the Latter-day Saints religion in 1842 shortly after her mother did. She then followed the church migration from Illinois and ended up in Utah. (Madson, 1) She first started actively supporting women’s rights when the Utah Territorial Legislature gave women the right to vote in 1870. She even tried to become Salt Lake City’s treasurer; however, women were not yet allowed to be in office. (The West)
Wells was not only a vigorous activist, but she was also a journalist. She began by contributing her writings to Woman’s Exponent. The Exponent was an LDS newspaper that was distributed semi-monthly and it supported polygamous marriages and woman’s suffrage. The paper’s professional slogan was, “The Rights of the Women of Zion, and the Rights of the Women of All Nations.” Women would use this newspaper as a medium for discussion to motivate women to become active in the fight for woman’s suffrage.
On March 1, 1881, Wells showed her support to women by writing, “History tells us very little about women, judging from its pages one would suppose their lives were insignificant and yet their opinions worthless … yet the future will deal more generally with womankind and the historians of the present age will find it very embarrassing to ignore women in the records of the nineteenth century.” (Wells, 148)
After writing for the Exponent for many years, she became Louisa Greene’s successor as the editor of the Woman’s Exponent in 1877. When it was announced that she would assume the editorial duties she told the daughter of Brigham Young, Susa Young Gates, “Believe me I am ever ready to add in all my power in literary work for the advancement and culture of our people.” (Madson, 34)
On January 12, 1887, when the Edmunds-Tucker Act was passed, Wells wrote in her diary that she wished the House of Representatives never had let it pass. She wrote, “It is contrary to all justice and rights.” (Wells, January 12, 1887) The following day, she wrote in her diary about attending a meeting that the town was holding to talk about the new law. She wrote that there was no excitement surrounding the law and that it was not only unfair to women, but also to men. (Wells, January 13, 1887)
Wells used the paper to influence women to speak up about how they deserved the same rights as men. The Edmunds-Tucker Act repealed the right of plural marriages and women’s right to vote in Utah. The bill was enacted because George F. Edmunds and John R. Tucker thought the vote of women would make the political power of the church stronger. (White) When Wells found out about the bill she believed that it was a great step to take in the opposite direction from their former position. (Wells, January 16, 1887)
On January 15, 1887, three days after the bill was passed, one editorial was printed in the Exponent saying, “This outrageous bill derives from two leading men in Congress of the United States and it greatly discredits that they should thus degrade the talents given to them and subverts the aims and intentions of all law making and good government.” (Unknown, 124) The author goes on to say that not only was the bill anti-Mormon, but also anti-American. The unidentified writer also said the repeal makes Mormons “one and all, little better than slaves.” Women suffragists tried to get President Cleveland to revoke the Edmunds-Tucker Act; however, nothing happened quickly. In the same editorial the writer described Edmunds as “proud, rich, cold as an icicle, aristocratic, and arrogant.” She also labeled Tucker as an illiberal, bigoted man.
As time went on Wells continued to tell women to show their independence and fearlessness until suffragettes could convince President Cleveland to veto the “ant-Mormon” bill. (Wells, 139) The Exponent talked about how it was unfair that the right was taken away without due process. Women hoped that Cleveland would see that even if people denounced polygamy that did not mean it was OK to take away human rights. (Wells, 139)
Emmeline Wells paved the way for independent women all over the state and the women of today are still taking initiative. Not long after the 19th amendment was ratified a Utah woman, Jeannette A. Hyde, formed the Women’s Legislative Committee of Utah. It was later renamed the Women’s State Legislative Council of Utah (WSLC) and is still politically active after 90 years. (Stone)
Jenna Levetan is a junior at The University of Utah. She is majoring in mass communication with an emphasis in journalism.
Emmeline Wells Diaries, January 12-16, 1887. Special Collections, J. Willard Marriot Library, The University of Utah.
Carol Madson. An Advocate for Women: The Public Life of Emmeline B. Wells, 1870-1920. Provo: Brigham Young University, 2006.
Unknown, “Comments,” The Woman’s Exponent, January 15, 1887, 124.
Emmeline Wells, “Comments,” The Woman’s Exponent, February 1, 1887, 132.
Emmeline Wells, “Self- Made Woman,” The Woman’s Exponent, March 1, 1881, 148.
Eileen, Stone, “Living History: Utah woman’s group still political after 90 years,” The Salt Lake Tribune, March 12, 2010.
The West, Episode 5 (1868-1874). “The Woman’s Exponent.” Public Broadcasting Service.
Jean Bickmore White, “Women’s Suffrage in Utah.” Utah History To Go.