Sister-Wives and Suffragists: Mormonism and the Women’s Suffrage Movement
“Do you know of any place on the face of the earth, where woman has more liberty, and where she enjoys such high and glorious privileges as she does here, as a Latter-day Saint?” So spoke Eliza R. Snow in 1870, the year when women in territorial Utah became among the tiny minority of nineteenth-century American women to win the right to exercise the franchise. Mormon women were proud of their status as voters, and they took their rights of citizenship seriously, but they also strongly supported their religion’s practice of “celestial” or plural marriage, known more widely as polygamy, which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) had formally endorsed in 1852. Mormon women’s status as polygamous female voters thus thrust the national women’s suffrage movement into the center of one of the most far-reaching political and legal questions of its day.
In 1869 the national suffrage movement split over whether to support the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, specifically whether the rights of freed African American men should take precedence over those of women, white and black. That split replicated itself over the question of Mormon women’s roles in the movement. Lucy Stone and the more conservative American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), supporters of the Reconstruction amendments, emphatically distanced themselves from LDS women because of their marked distaste for the practice of polygamy. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and their more radical National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) took a different approach, however, welcoming Mormon women into the movement regardless of their status as plural wives. If they supported women’s suffrage, that was all that mattered.
Mormon suffragists had good reasons to welcome this alliance with the NWSA. Affiliation with the national movement could help build political support for eventual statehood in Utah, a major long-term goal for most Utahn voters. Another incentive for the suffragists was challenging the unflattering stereotypes that many American citizens held of Mormon women, especially that they must have been duped or coerced to become plural wives in the first place. While it is clear that individual Mormon women often struggled with the daily challenges of living with sister-wives, most were far from ashamed of the practice and instead publicly spoke in its favor, especially its guarantee that all women would have the opportunity to marry and enjoy secure homes and respectable social positions. “Hand in hand with Celestial Marriage is the elevation of women,” asserted Dr. Romania Pratt in 1886. “We are accused of being down-trodden and oppressed,” said Dr. Ellis R. Shipp, another path-breaking female physician, at the same public meeting. “We deny the charge!” Any hope held by non-Mormons that Mormon women would use their votes to outlaw polygamy were quickly disabused.
One notable Mormon woman who saw no conflict between her religion and her support for women’s rights was Emmeline Wells. Born Emmeline Blanchard Woodward in Petersham, Massachusetts, in 1828, she converted to Mormonism at the age of fourteen after her mother joined the church. Soon after, she married the son of a local Mormon leader who deserted her after the death of their own son. In 1845 she became the plural wife of Bishop Newel Whitney, with whom she had two daughters before his death in 1850, by which time she was living in Salt Lake City. In 1852 she entered into another plural marriage with Daniel H. Wells, whose stature as a counselor to LDS leader Brigham Young gave her enhanced social standing in the community. Her first public role was as the secretary to Eliza R. Snow, president of the Relief Society, the most respected and influential women’s organization in the Mormon community. Soon after this initial foray into public life, Wells found herself drawn into suffrage politics.
In 1877, Wells became editor of the influential Woman’s Exponent, a semi-monthly periodical founded in 1872, which for many years was one of the few women’s publications west of the Mississippi River and became one of the longest-running women’s newspapers. Wells had expansive goals for the newspaper, not least of which was that Mormon women “should be the best-informed of any women on the face of the earth, not only upon our own principles and doctrines but on all general subjects.” Not only did her lofty goals promote her visibility on the world stage, her editorship also enhanced her national stature and provided an important credential when dealing with East Coast suffragists. The same year she took over as editor, Wells also took the lead in collecting thousands of petition signatures in support of a proposed sixteenth (or women’s suffrage) amendment to the Constitution. In return for her work, she was named a representative of Utah on the NWSA board, the first Mormon so recognized. In 1879 she and Zina Young Williams, the daughter of Brigham Young, journeyed to Washington, D.C., where Wells addressed the NWSA national convention.
Unfortunately, this moment of prominence for Mormon women on the national stage was short-lived, as the political and legal climate turned sharply against Mormons and the practice of polygamy in the 1880s. The “Mormon Question” had been a hot-button political issue since the 1850s, and after the Civil War the practice of polygamy was seen by many as the one remaining “act of barbarism” from the Western territories after the abolition of slavery. In 1879 the Supreme Court determined that LDS church members did not have a constitutional right to practice an alternative form of marriage as part of their protected religious freedom. Then in 1887 Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which stripped the right to vote from all Utah women, whether they practiced polygamy or not.
Notwithstanding these significant political and legal setbacks to the practice of polygamy, the question of Mormonism and national women’s suffrage continued to play out in interesting ways. Recognized as legitimate political actors who had been among the first to demonstrate the feasibility of female enfranchisement, Mormon women continued to contribute their considerable organizational clout to the fight. By the time the LDS Church officially renounced the practice of polygamy in 1890, the two leading organizations of the NWSA and AWSA were in the process of merging into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The controversial issue of polygamy had not fully disappeared, but it became much less of a dividing wedge within the movement. When Utah successfully won statehood in 1896, it entered the union with the franchise restored for all its women and Utah women were warmly welcomed at the NAWSA convention that year. All except, unfortunately, Emmeline Wells who could not raise the necessary funds to pay her way that year.
Despite this temporary setback, the suffrage career of Emmeline Wells was far from over. Just a few years later, in 1899, Wells delivered a speech on “The History and Purposes of the Mormon Relief Society” to the International Council of Women in London. The next year she and other Mormon suffragists presented Susan B. Anthony with a bolt of black brocade silk proudly made in Utah for Anthony’s eightieth birthday, and Wells remained as editor of the influential Woman’s Exponent until it ceased publication in 1914. When Utah suffragists finally were able to celebrate the passage of the 19th Amendment in August 1920, 92-year-old Emmeline Wells proudly sat on the platform. She died the next year, with a remarkable record of voting regularly (except for one short interval of disenfranchisement) for almost fifty years.
In retrospect, participation in the national suffrage movement in the 1880s and 1890s represented a high point of political activism for Mormon women on the national scene. The centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment offers a chance to write these Mormon women back into history. Mormon suffragists were highly politicized actors. They knew how to organize mass meetings, gather petitions, raise money, and lobby politicians and church leaders. Far from the popular image of downtrodden women degraded by polygamy, these committed suffragists saw no conflict between their religious beliefs and their actions on behalf of women. In fact, they felt privileged to be part of a community which took its women so seriously. Mormon women deserve to be part of suffrage history both on their own merits and also because their story helps explain some of the divisions that kept the national movement from reuniting until 1890.
Susan Ware is the Honorary Women’s Suffrage Centennial Historian at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. Since 2012 she has served as General Editor of the American National Biography. The author of numerous books on 20th century American women’s history and biography, her most recent publication is Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019). The Library of America will publish her edited anthology American Women’s Suffrage: Voices from the Long Struggle for the Vote, 1776-1965 in July, 2020. She also served as a historical consultant to the forthcoming American Experience documentary, “The Vote.”
This essay is adapted from Susan Ware, Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2019. It draws on the following sources:
Arrington, Leonard J. “Emmeline B. Wells: Mormon Feminist and Journalist,” in Susan Ware, ed. Forgotten Heroes: Inspiring American Portraits from Our Leading Historians New York: Free Press, 1998.
Derr, Jill Mulvay. “Eliza R. Snow and the Woman Question,” in Carol Cornwall Madsen, ed., Battle for the Ballot: Essays on Woman Suffrage in Utah, 1870-1896. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1997.
Gordon, Sarah Barringer. The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Ladies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Mormon” Women’s Protest: An Appeal for Freedom, Justice and Equal Rights. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret News Print, 1886.
Madsen, Carol Cornwall. An Advocate for Women: The Public Life of Emmeline B. Wells, 1870-1920. Provo, Utah, 2006.
Madsen, Carol Cornwall, ed. Battle for the Ballot: Essays on Woman Suffrage in Utah, 1870-1896. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1997.
Madsen, Carol Cornwall. Emmeline B. Wells: An Intimate History. Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 2017.
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2017.
Van Wagenen, Lola. Sister-Wives and Suffragists: Polygamy and the Politics of Woman Suffrage, 1870-1896. Provo, Utah: Dissertation Press, 2003