Relief Society played essential role in fight for women’s suffrage

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Editor’s note: This is one of two parts commemorating 150 years since Utah women were the first in any U.S. state to vote in 1870. Pioneering women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made key contributions to suffrage and were also key in establishing BYU.

Seraph Young was the first woman to vote in the United States under equal suffrage laws. (Deseret Evening News, March 24, 1902)

The 19th Amendment was ratified 100 years ago this coming Aug. 18, 2020 and gave female American citizens the constitutional right to vote. It was 50 years earlier, however, when the nation’s first woman voted in the Salt Lake City municipal election on Feb. 14, 1870.

Seraph Young became the first woman in the country to cast a ballot under equal suffrage laws, following Utah Territory’s extension of voting rights to women on Feb. 12, 1870. Although Wyoming had also done so two months earlier, Utah women were the first to actually vote in an election.

Young, grandniece of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints president Brigham Young, was a 23-year-old schoolteacher at the University of Deseret’s model primary school when she cast her historic ballot. She stopped at the polls early on her way to work, passing stump speeches and the local Latter-day Saint 10th Ward brass band before entering the City Hall. There, she voted and became the first woman in the U.S. to do so.

Young did not go on to lead a life of activism, nor did she get involved in politics or even stay in Utah. Like much of Utah’s role in women’s suffrage, Young’s story was all but forgotten. She moved to Maryland and was eventually buried beneath a misspelled headstone in the Arlington National Cemetery.

Just as the general public is unaware of Seraph’s role in women’s suffrage, so are most people unaware of the fact Young got her chance to vote thanks to activism performed by the Relief Society and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Relief Society was heavily involved in the promotion of women’s suffrage both in Utah and across the nation, continuing to engage in activist work until the end of the 1920s. 

Suffrage in Utah began within the Church

The Church was highly supportive of the women’s suffrage movement, according to Katherine Kitterman, historical director of Better Days 2020, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing awareness to Utah women’s history. 

According to official reports and newspaper articles from the era, the response to proposed women’s suffrage in the late 19th century was positive, she said. Opposition mainly came from outside the Church and was frowned upon by male Church leaders.

According to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Harvard professor, Relief Society leaders “were central to the indignation meeting that led to Utah women’s engagement in the suffrage movement.”

“They were mobilized because leaders of the Utah Suffrage Association — and earlier groups — overlapped with leaders of the Relief Society at all levels,” Ulrich said, “and because the Woman’s Exponent, a women’s rights newspaper, was also the main organ for the Relief Society.” At this time, there was not yet an official Relief Society publication.

The Relief Society as part of the national movement

In the 1880s, the United States federal government revoked Utah women’s voting rights because of the women’s support for polygamy, leading Utah to enter the national fight for constitutionally protected women’s suffrage.

Part of Utah women’s push to regain suffrage was influenced by their desire to defend the practice of plural marriage, Kitterman said.

“Sometimes it’s characterized as ‘we only care about it when it matters for our own rights,’ like, they’re just trying to protect their own suffrage,” she said. Early on, this was sometimes true.

They did not fight just for their own rights, however, but also for those of women nationwide. Latter-day Saint suffragists were invited to conventions back East after working to circulate petitions in favor of the constitutional amendment for women’s suffrage.

“We’re not just talking about protecting Utah rights or ‘give us the vote so that we can defend polygamy,'” Kitterman said. “A large group of them are really interested in advancing rights for women across the country, and that focus remains beyond women regaining the right to vote in Utah in 1896.”

Latter-day Saint women like Martha Hughes Cannon and Emily Richards testified before Congress in favor of allowing women to vote, and some women from Utah traveled to protest in front of the White House.

“Within in the Latter-day Saint religion are the first ones who were defending their right to vote,” Kitterman said. Their experience showed “that families don’t fall apart — women can still sweep floors and take care of babies and vote. It’s safe.”

Although their pro-polygamy stance was controversial, the Relief Society women’s perspective as past voters gave them credibility and made their voices more valuable in the eyes of their fellow suffragists.

“Latter-day Saint women were key players in the national movement,” Kitterman said. 

Ulrich said some Relief Society leaders served as officers in the National American Women’s Suffrage Association and corresponded with national suffrage leaders. In addition, they reprinted national women’s suffrage stories in the Woman’s Exponent publication.

During all of this, support from the men of the Church continued.

“When women were going back East to testify or go to the conventions they also, in many circumstances, received blessings from Church leaders,” Kitterman said.

Some criticize the women for having sought permission from the men, Kitterman said, and suggest the men were the ones “pulling the strings” and telling the women what to do.

“But it’s really independent,” Kitterman said. “Yes, they’re talking to them about what to do. Yes, they’re seeking their permission and blessing, that kind of thing. But women are the members, women are the leaders, women are the presidents, the treasurers — the main force behind it.”

Activism in the 20th Century

The question of women’s suffrage regained prominence at the beginning of the 20th century, and the Church remained on the front lines.

By 1910, the national suffrage organization had another big petition drive, and Kitterman said Utah punched “above their weight.”

“They gather three times their quota of numbers, almost a tenth of the petition signatures total from across the country in favor of suffrage,” Kitterman said.

Public figures and the media tried to discredit the movement for women’s voting rights by reminding the public of the Church’s involvement in the push for suffrage, showing how much Latter-day Saint women had impacted the movement.

“Once the question starts heating up again, nationally, you see articles like in The New York Times saying suffrage was invented by socialists and Mormons. They’re trying to discredit it that way,” Kitterman said. “But it says something about that relationship, like, wait, who was really starting this or who’s advancing this?”

Latter-day Saint women’s activism did not stop with passage of the 19th Amendment, however.

Even into the 1920s, the Relief Society spearheaded initiatives to improve women’s maternal health and child welfare. Multiple Latter-day Saint women served in the Utah State Legislature and promoted protections for working women and children, raised the age of consent, and more, Kitterman said.

A Different Direction

Today, the Relief Society has diverted from an early focus on social activism.

Barbara Jones Brown, executive director of the Mormon History Association, said this switch can be attributed to the Relief Society becoming an auxiliary to the priesthood, whereas before, the society was an independent organization in the Church. 

Now, it is “not nearly as powerful as an organization,” Brown said. “In terms of activism and power it isn’t the same.”

While an independent organization, the Relief Society had its own buildings, controlled its own budget and set its own agendas. Now, those independent halls have been exchanged for Relief Society rooms within ward buildings.

The Relief Society has taken more of a “supportive role,” Brown said, and lost much of its independence. 

Although the Church supported women’s rights during the first wave of feminism and the struggle for women’s suffrage, the issue of abortion prompted the Church to turn away from the women’s movement in the 1960s and ’70s, according to Brown.

Ulrich said efforts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment were also a large factor in the downturn of Church-supported activism.

“Before that, general relief officers participated in the National Council of Women,” Ulrich said. “There was a general downturn in women’s activism everywhere after 1920, so LDS women were not unusual in that regard.”

The growth of the Church is another reason for its step back from active participation in national and local affairs.

“Given the complexity of the world-wide Church today,” Ulrich said, “it is hardly surprising that it has seldom become involved in specific national issues. The ERA was a dramatic and controversial exception. Today it concentrates on collaborating with other charitable organizations.”

She said the organization’s history of political engagement is complicated and the Church’s reputation of not adopting what some consider “progressive” stances is less of a political issue than it is one of an expression of core values.

Ulrich spoke of the Church’s current support of immigration and human rights but mentioned that the Church’s size limits its worldwide impact. Thus, leaders focus on spiritual transformation before anything else.

“In our pioneer era and even in much of the 20th century (the Church) could have a direct effect on politics and the economy. Now, I think it encourages members to live out their values independently of the Church in those areas,” she said. “At least that is what I have seen in my 60 years of living outside the Rocky Mountains.” 

Ulrich said she would like to see the Church “put more emphasis on social justice as a core principle of the gospel.”

“I think that current practices tend to emphasis personal piety rather than community engagement, but I think we have a great tradition to work with and many members are doing so,” she said.

Despite the turn from activism, the history of the Relief Society’s progressive efforts continues to inspire women in the Church to become involved in their communities and local politics today.

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