Women and Authority:
Edited by Maxine Hanks

Chapter 3
Empowerment and Mormon Women’s Publications
Vella Neil Evans

[49] Discourse is powerful. Written or spoken, formal or informal, it communicates the belief system from which it springs. Individual statements reflect the understanding of an individual speaker or writer, while the collected discourse of a group discloses the beliefs that distinguish it from another. Discourse that is perceived to be authoritative defines membership in a society and teaches “correct” values.

Patriarchal discourse reveals specifically how men define and direct women. Throughout Western history, prevailing images of male competence and agency and female inferiority and dependency have been reinforced in authoritative discourse and reproduced in life experience. In patriarchal religious communities, where gender dichotomy is most extreme, a male god speaks through male prophets and is recorded and interpreted by male priests within male-dominated church structures. Thus male power and perceptions are reified and become self-reflexive and self-perpetuating.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the fastest-growing denomination in America, is such an institution. In addition whenever the church has gained acceptance and power in the world, it has been most patriarchal in statement and practice toward women.1

For the first forty-two years of church history (1830-72), the vast majority of authoritative published discourse consisted of male [50] sermons, essays, articles, and letters printed in church newspapers and journals. Women were essentially addressed and defined by men, but women were the specific focus or topic in only about 10 percent of total discourse. After the Saints migrated to Utah, male church leaders used increasingly strong language in exhorting the sisters to meet biblical standards of home industry, fecundity, purity, piety, and submission to husbands. Church patriarchs applauded women’s faith and pioneering labors, condemned murmurings against polygamy, criticized love of eastern fashions, and urged frugality. Male perceptions of women were widely disseminated and known, but women had no comparable public voice until 1872 when the first women’s publication appeared.2

Social psychologist William Schutz explained in 1966 how discourse empowers receivers,3 concluding that people who receive sufficient recognition, affection, and respect develop high self-esteem and good mental health. In contrast those who are ignored or given little respect lose self-confidence and grow dependent.

Schutz’s concepts explain why Mormon women’s publications empowered women of the church. Compared with male church publications, the sisters’ published discourse was relatively limited in quantity and read almost exclusively by women. Still between 1872 and 1970, Mormon women produced with regularity at least one and sometimes two official magazines. These publications provided means for authoritative self-definition and expression, increased recognition, respect for diversity of women’s experience, and validation of female independence.

The women’s publications were sanctioned by the church and therefore perceived to be authoritative. Women writers and editors were not only “permitted” but “called” to publish and contribute.4 These women had credibility and official status parallel to the all-male hierarchy in that they filled the prestigious role of social definer or producer of public information—a role otherwise reserved for men. Many of these nineteenth-century writers and editors were members of a “female elite” which was visible and powerful in early Utah.

Although the sister’s publications repeated the restrictive, patriarchal vision of women found in most male discourse, they also departed from that perception by defining an expanded range of [51] female characteristics, roles, and options, including the most complex and positive images of women available in published church discourse.5 Obviously many such views were at odds with Mormon male perceptions of women. However, as female readers encountered diversity in official publications, they were more likely to find a match between public expressions and their own experiences. This duplication of vision reflected and validated the readers’ own judgment and lives. Parallels between readers and their own publications also created a perceived community of women who were interested in and supported female experience.

The sisters’ publications focused on a range of common female experiences and concerns including women’s physical growth and health, spiritual development, friendships, marriage, family relationships, education, fashion and beauty, nutrition and recipes, employment, and unpaid work including child care and compassionate service. This tremendous increase in official recognition and respect undoubtedly increased the female readers’ self-esteem and perceived agency.

Mormon Women’s Publications, 1872-1970

Mormon women published their own views for 98 consecutive years. This near-century of women’s publishing produced three separate magazines and a relatively liberal women’s culture from 1872 until World War II. From that time the Mormon women’s publications and culture experienced increasing institutional constriction.

The publications themselves were fundamentally orthodox in nature. The early Woman’s Exponent supported polygamy, and all three publications promoted marriage, large families, good housekeeping, female dependance and submission, and loyal church service. But at the same time they also defined women as independent, assertive, and strong. All three women’s publications promoted a wide range of ecclesiastical, secular, and domestic options for women which male church leaders ignored or rejected. Such diversity of authoritative perception freed readers to make their own choices about woman’s nature and roles.

The most consistently feminist writing of the women’s maga[52]zines was concentrated in the Woman’s Exponent, and the greatest variety of female images appear there from 1872 until the turn of the century. The Young Woman’s Journal also offered varied perspectives for most of its life between 1889 and 1929. The Relief Society Magazine maintained some diversity from 1914 until the World War II era, after which it published narrowing perceptions of Mormon women.

The first regular publication of women’s church discourse appeared when the editor of a Salt Lake City daily newspaper encouraged twenty-two-year-old poet and schoolteacher Louisa (Lulu) Greene to edit a paper for Mormon women. She agreed, providing that church president, Brigham Young, approve and “appoint the duties of that calling” to her as a “mission.”6 Young concluded that a women’s publication would be useful in collecting a history of the women of the church, providing a defense of polygamy, and communicating between the general officers of the Relief Society and members residing in local wards and branches. He therefore blessed the undertaking and the editor but offered no financial support. Instead Eliza R. Snow, a polygamous wife of Brigham Young and general president of the Relief Society, worked through the practical problems with Greene.7 Thus the Woman’s Exponent, a bi-monthly newspaper for Relief Society members, became the first regularly published church discourse by and for women. The Exponent‘s first editorial promised to “speak freely on all topics that interested women.”8

The second regular church publication by and for women appeared in 1889 when Susa Young Gates, Brigham Young’s daughter, established the Young Woman’s Journal, a monthly magazine for members of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association, which included single and teenaged women. Gates assured her “girls” that the Journal “is your own magazine” designed to recognize women who have “received name and fame among our people” and to bear a “message of freedom to every daughter of woman.”9

In 1914 the third regular church publication by and for women came about when the bi-monthly Woman’s Exponent was replaced by the monthly Relief Society Bulletin, retitled in 1915 Relief Society Magazine. In 1923 the Magazine stated its purpose to “endeavor to [53] place before its readers stories of real achievement, particularly as they are reflected in the lives of women.” The Magazine also noted that “fortunately” such events were not “confined to the realm of man’s achievement.”10 This last publication was discontinued in 1970.

Priesthood and Spiritual Gifts

Nineteenth-century issues of the Exponent and Journal reveal a “freedom” of spiritual experience and agency that has been lost to twentieth-century sisters. They reported women’s practices of speaking-in-tongues, healing the sick, prophesying, and using priesthood titles. Sisters’ discourse in both the Exponent and Journal indicate that many women viewed the Relief Society as the female equivalent to the men’s Melchizedek priesthood. Some writers suggested that female leaders had authority to direct the larger community of sisters, and local female leaders had relative autonomy.11 During this same period, male discourse intensified efforts to restrict women’s exercise of the gifts of the spirit and to deny women’s priesthood authority.12

In the midst of this developing divergence, Relief Society president, Eliza R. Snow, told Exponent readers that any faithful, endowed Mormon woman was worthy to wash, anoint, and lay hands on the sick for the restoration of health.13 In 1892 the Journal claimed that “the power of God under Sister [Lucy B.] Young’s hands” had enabled the crippled to walk, the barren to give birth, and “myriad” other healings.14 These pronouncements supported women’s ecclesiastical authority and validated the continued practice of women’s sacred ordinance work.

Women called Eliza Snow and Zina D. H. Young “prophetesses,” “leading priestesses,” and “high priestesses” and believed that they had been “ordained” in Nauvoo. In 1880 Emmeline B. Wells observed that at the time of completion of the Nauvoo temple, “woman was called upon to take her part in administering therein—officiating in the character of priestesses.”15 The 1892 Journal cited above also described Lucy B. Young, a plural wife to Brigham Young, as a woman whose “words of inspiration and personal prophesy” flowed “like a stream of living fire.” The Journal reported in 1896 that “the Seventy’s wife bears the priesthood of the Seventy in [54] connection with her husband, and shares in its responsibilities.”16

After the turn of the century, Mormon male discourse declared only men have exclusive priesthood authority and right to officiate in all sacred ordinances. Conference addresses chastised women for “usurping” the elders’ place and other alleged wrongdoings, vested prophecy only in the president of the church, and threatened sisters with more severe action if they did not follow priesthood direction.17 The sisters’ publications obediently ceased referring to women’s ecclesiastical practices and ordinances and stopped using women’s leadership titles.18 Women’s challenge to exclusive male ecclesiastical authority eventually disappeared.

As a result the empowering image of woman as healer disappeared from official church discourse. The term “priesthood” itself shifted from an “ordination” potentially open to both genders to the more frequent reference of “ordained Mormon men.”19 The titles of “Prophetess,” frequently applied to Eliza R. Snow and other early Relief Society presidents, and “priestess,” denoting a female temple worker, disappeared from usage around the turn of the century.20 “Presidentess” slowly became the gender-neutral “president.” With an exclusive church focus on authoritative male claims and practices, women’s ecclesiastical authority was reduced and women’s former practices forgotten.

Political Support for Women

Early Mormon women defined a more vigorous political role for themselves than twentieth-century Mormon women have claimed. For many years the Exponent’s masthead carried the political slogan, “The Rights of the Women of Zion and the Rights of Women of All Nations.” In 1873 the Exponent observed, “A few truthful, honorable women in Congress wouldn’t hurt but would help it.”21 Three years later the magazine hoped women would “fill the highest positions of honor and trust in the Cabinet of the Nation”22 but also lamented that, “It is woman herself who hinders the progress of her own cause in a great degree. Afraid of losing favor with man, and so in many instances exchanges for it her self-respect, yes barters it for a mess of pottage, unsavory and uncertain.”23 In 1880 the Exponent complained, “it is true we have the right to vote, but is this all, this [55] shadow without the substance, that our brethren can afford to give us.”24 In 1882 the Exponent concluded that a republic could not afford to let “half its intellect and morality lie fallow” when woman’s assistance was “needed in public affairs.”25

From 1880 to 1920 Mormon women lobbied for national woman’s suffrage, reported suffrage meetings in the Exponent, Journal, and Magazine, and devoted auxiliary meetings to suffrage activities. Sarah Kimball declared herself “a woman’s rights woman” and called upon “those who would to back” her.26 The Exponent exchanged articles with the Boston Woman’s Journal, a prestigious feminist publication edited by Lucy Stone. Mormon suffragettes received attention, friendship, and visits from America’s leading feminists in the east.

Following ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, local Relief Societies held victory celebrations. The Journal rejoiced that women had finally achieved “equal rights before the law, equal opportunities … equal pay for equal work, equal political rights” and other privileges and recognition formerly reserved for men.27

After Utah achieved statehood in 1896, the women’s publications cheered Mormon women who were elected to state and local office. During the 1920s the Magazine and Journal lobbied for and reported sisters’ interests in American social policy and their own paraprofessional social work. However, as World War II approached, the Magazine lamented that most western women were losing political ground.28 In contrast, after World War II the sole-surviving Magazine was largely controlled by male advisors and church discourse encouraged women only to “study” the political process and “vote.”29 Gone was any encouragement to run for elected office. When the Magazine was discontinued in 1970, the sisters had no official publication in which to debate the merits of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) or the 1977 International Women’s Year (IWY). Instead the male leadership of the church took a strong stand against both the amendment and the political purposes of the IWY conventions. Some Mormon women resorted to independent publications such as the Mormons for ERA Newsletter and Exponent II30 to discuss these issues, but most followed male directives to defeat the ERA and vote against every item on the IWY agenda, including support of equal pay for equal work.

Wage and Non-wage Work

[56] The Exponent, the Journal, and to a lesser degree the Magazine supported women’s employment or wage work for most of their history, while male church leaders typically did not. In this area the contrast between women’s self-definition and male policies are marked and consistent.31

In 1877 the Exponent claimed that every job that opened for women was a “blessing” and urged girls to undertake “real work.”32 In addition both the Journal and the Exponent supported women who worked for personal as well as financial needs, and both assumed that women could manage a career without neglecting home. The Exponent affirmed: “It has been the popular cry that no woman could be a good, true, loving wife, and at the same time successfully follow any profession. If so, neither can a man do justice to any professional calling and prove a kind, affectionate, and loving husband.”33

More surprisingly, even though authoritative male discourse has consistently and unequivocally mandated motherhood for women,34 in 1873 the Exponent 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.”35 More than fifteen years later, the Exponent made a similar assertion: “For all I demand as the right of woman is free play for doing what is in her nature to do; and if she feels she cannot apply herself to anything else but the study and practice of medicine, all I ask is plenty of opportunity to fit herself through education, for that purpose, and afterwards a chance to try her capacity as practitioner.”36

In 1889 Lizzie Smith told younger readers that the female should have “perfect liberty to follow the vocation which comes to her from God, and of which she alone is judge.”37 In addition to an expanded vision of women’s opportunities, the foregoing are examples of women speaking or writing assertively. In 1898 the Journal adopted a more strident tone: “The divine ferment is at work, my brother, and no matter how conservative or stereotyped you may be, the women-folk of your household are either quietly or surreptitiously reaching out tentative hands to touch some form of organized activity outside your own home, or they are deliberately stifling and stultify[57]ing themselves in silent submission to your will.”38

For most of its history, the Journal also provided implicit support for women’s careers as notable women scientists, scholars, educators, and innovators were recognized in full-length articles and news briefs. In 1890 the Journal featured a woman minister in Africa and a female postal-express rider who was “young, plucky and pretty, a good shot, a good talker, and a purely western product.”39

Following World War I the Magazine began a slow retreat under male pressure for domesticity and gave less direct support to women’s paid employment. However, Journal columns featured women entrepreneurs, sovereigns, suffragists, writers, and artists as role models for younger readers. Other writing was occasionally still prescriptive and direct; the 1929 Journal quoted the following with apparent approval: “Many writers of today advocate the advisability of women continuing in their active outside profession even during the period when they are giving their best efforts to the home and family.”40

Both the Journal and Magazine continued some support of paid employment by including soft news pages depicting examples of women’s wage work. In 1917 the Magazine observed that Columbia and Harvard Medical Schools finally accepted women because they proved “very clever with the work.”41 In 1938 the Magazine recognized Antonia Brico (director of New York Women’s Orchestra), May Briggs (who earned $10,000 a year as postmistress of Los Angeles), and Bessie Pastor (who manufactured synthetic ice that was “perfect for skating”).42

In 1942 the Magazine dutifully admonished Mormon women to remain at home during World War II but at the same time praised non-Mormon women who worked in the defense industries, left academic appointments to lead women in the military services, or enlisted in the ranks.43 At the very least, such inconsistency allowed readers to make personal choices.

The contemporary church takes a strong stand against women’s careers and urges women to stay home and find fulfillment in children and domestic duties. In 1987 LDS president Ezra Taft Benson effectively ordered women out of the workplace44—a stance that has been only grudgingly modified to recognize the “no choice” status of single women, including single mothers.

[58] This is in contrast to the women’s publications which published both conventional and non-traditional images of women’s paid and unpaid work, including housekeeping, home manufacture, and childcare. Recognition of the variety and complexity of this work honored women’s efforts and confirmed their value.

Respect was explicit as well as implicit, and the tone was usually warm and appreciative, suggesting affection. The sisters’ publications praised women directly and also praised women’s efforts, creativity, industry, courage, faith, and success in ordinary and extraordinary roles. For example, in 1923 the Magazine produced a lengthy series titled “Mothers in Israel.” These were sketches of inspiring nineteenth-century pioneer women who were often single heads of households while their husbands were miles or continents away. Both the Magazine and Journal recounted examples of women’s independence within marriage.45

For example, the Magazine profiled women such as Annie Wells Cannon and Jeannette Dansie Crane. Cannon was a mother of twelve who served on the Relief Society board and in the Utah House of Representatives.46 When Crane’s ninth baby was three days old, her husband was called to be a missionary in Great Britain. Jeannette “kept him there for two years, sending him a dollar or two at a time … and kept her family besides.” The year after Brother Crane returned, he died. Sister Crane, then a mother of ten, took over his positions as school trustee, postmaster, and storekeeper and took in “boarders, picked fruit and even did laundry work, but never did she accept charity.” At the time of publication, the woman was still earning her own living by crocheting and making quilts.47

The Magazine defined Crane as a “typical woman” of the church and her achievements appeared alongside accounts of famous artists, female heads of state, scientists, and traditional wives and mothers. Thus the sisters’ publications recognized the full range of women’s interests, including both wage and nonwage work. During this same period authoritative male discourse argued only for male breadwinning and priesthood leadership.48

Domesticity and Independence

The sisters’ publications also challenged traditional domestic [59] relationships. Male discourse insistently defined what was “natural” or God-given and justified separate statuses for the genders, which limited women to passive, domestic, and support roles. This dichotomy has been accepted generally and reproduced by male and female leaders throughout the history of the church, but alternative perspectives can still be found in general church discourse and predominantly in the sisters’ publications. For example, Brigham Young taught that Eve’s curse made women subordinate, but the Exponent concluded that polygamy made women selfless and thus removed the curse.49

In 1874 the Exponent complained that most men considered their wives to be little more than a convenience who would “manage his house, cook his dinner, attend to his wardrobe, always on hand if … wanted and always out of sight if not needed … she must not have an opinion, or if she has she mustn’t express it … [S]he is a subject, not a joint-partner in the domestic firm.”50 However, the Exponent also encouraged female independence in 1874:

All honor and reverence to good men; but they and their attentions are not the only source of happiness on the earth, and need not fill up every thought of woman. And when men see that woman can exist without them being constantly at hand, that they can learn to be self-reliant or depend upon each other for more or less happiness, it will perhaps take a little of the conceit out of some of them.51

Two years later an Exponent column entitled “A Word About Women” had a similar tone: “this is idol-breaking by women, and though men speak of her as silly, vain, and frivolous, they will perhaps find ere long that woman is terribly in earnest; that she is no longer willing to be trammelled by narrow conventionalities, but to step forward on a broader platform, undaunted by the sarcasm or even foul aspersions cast upon her … Does it detract from their dignity because women prove themselves capacitated for the same positions as men, is this any usurpation of power or of rights?” The author concluded that if men are “really superior, let them move on, ‘there is room higher up.’”52

The sisters’ publications addressed the artificial and oppressive nature of traditional female images. In 1875 an Exponent column complained that “While men are determined to keep women subordinate, they will of course pamper these ‘defects in her, because it is [60] flattering to their own self-love,’ and they cry out ‘we want women left us and not female men,’ and talk and write about making room for a ‘third sex.’”53 In 1876 the Exponent observed that “thousands of women” are “taught and encouraged in dependence.”54 A year later Emmeline B. Wells observed that most men find a dependent woman “dearer, lovelier [and] more companionable” than one “equal in education and self-reliance”. That same issue encouraged woman to “train herself to fill any position and place of trust and honor as appropriately and with as much dignity as her brother man …”55 The Journal warned readers that men also manipulate women with flattery “that you know, and they know, are false.”56

In 1890 the Journal contested the marriage mandate, even though male leaders claimed that unmarried church members, male and female, would be denied the highest salvation.57 In the first volume Lucinda S. Dalton, a plural wife, urged the wise Mormon girl to wait to marry until she had “a suitable opportunity; but she is resolved to remain single rather than marry an inferior man.”58 And in 1890 the Journal claimed, “where woman is the stronger, she takes the precedence of man,”59 an empowering contrast to the male-defined notion of man as “head” (1 Cor. 11:3) and woman as “helpmeet” (Gen. 2:18, 20).

After World War I such nontraditional perceptions waned as direct male influence on the sisters’ publications gradually increased. However, female independence continued in Journal and Magazine biographical highlights of prominent nontraditional women. Alice Louise Reynolds termed George Eliot “heroic” for her “contempt” of the “ignorant” clergy who disapproved of Eliot’s non-married relationship with her lover. Meanwhile, Mormon male discourse consistently condemned such unions.60

The Journal praised such noted radicals as Joan of Arc, Madame de Stael, Methodist minister Anna Shaw, and feminist theorist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The Journal deemed Stanton the female equivalent of Joseph Smith in vision61 and Susan B. Anthony the female equivalent of Brigham Young in executing the plan. Brigham Young was known in the church as the “lion of the lord,” and the Journal reinforced the Young/Anthony parallel by dubbing Anthony the “c[o]eur de leon” (lion-hearted).62 The publication also defined Mary Wollstonecraft as a reformer who [61] rightly opposed archaic definitions of marriage, including the belief that marriage was sanctified by words “gibbered before a priest.”63

In 1929 the Journal featured Professor Maria Mitchell, an astronomer at Vassar and the first woman elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. After lamenting that “few women” have “mastered” astronomy, author Julia Wolfe advised that “girls will do well to emulate her noble work.” Mitchell was single, but the Journal stated that “It would be impossible to over-estimate the value of such a life as hers.”64

All of the sisters’ publications praised the strength of women homesteaders who built homes, fenced land, raised crops, and battled nature. One such pioneer, a widow, asserted: “We have fought the good fight and enjoyed freedom … I would like to say to every woman the world over, abandon the traditions of those many generations, step independently into God’s free, open air, and claim that which is your right … I’m not yet entering old age at sixty-four, for there are still many castles in the air.”65 Journal readers also met “Canada’s Girl of the Golden West,” who was “strong,” “buoyant,” “self-reliant,” and as much at home with “rod and reel as with the gun.”66

Late in the Magazine’s history, Mildred Bennion Eyring argued against instinctive female nurturing when she wrote that “Mothers are just people [and] motherhood does not insure affection for the child.”67 But during the prosperous decades following World War II the Magazine reproduced the male paradigm and extolled only traditional feminine traits and roles. However, Mormon women were still visible as editors and writers of the Magazine, and this image of expressive women alone was an empowering presence.

The Demise of Women’s Publishing

Lack of funds and increasing male influence in the women’s publications reduced female freedom of expression, diversity of perspective, and empowerment. The Exponent struggled with subscriptions and sale of its own stock, but the Magazine sold advertising space and thus fared much better.

In 1929 the Young Women’s Journal, the forty-year-old publica[62]tion of the Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association, ended a period of uneasy finances and “married” the Improvement Era, the slightly younger publication of the Young Men’s MIA. Several issues in advance, the Journal trumpeted the “engagement” of “Princess Journal” to “Prince Era” and published a play for local stake celebrations of the “Story Book Wedding.” The script called for a cast of thirteen, a musical background of “crashing chords” and “fairy” strains, and an exchange of vows. “Prince Era” was asked only to pay the bills, “cherish” and “deal gently” with Journal, and “consider [her] counsel.” In contrast “Princess Journal” was required to “further with all [her] heart his every ambition and righteous effort.”68

A churchwide nuptial extravaganza complete with wedding cake for 3,000 was held at the June MIA Conference in Salt Lake City. The “bride,” true to patriarchal custom, took the “groom’s” name. The male editor of the Improvement Era became managing editor, and the female editor of the former Journal became associate editor. During the following decade Improvement Era articles on women’s programs diminished while attention to men’s programs increased.

The Relief Society Magazine suffered a different fate. Its predecessor, the Exponent, was written, edited, and printed exclusively by women. No man served as an official advisor or as a member of its editorial board. The Magazine replaced the Exponent in 1914, and by 1920 10 percent of the by-lined essays in the Magazine’s table of contents were written by men. By 1934 20 percent, by 1942 30 percent, and by 1952 33 percent of the signed articles and 60 percent of the by-lined lessons were written by men. By 1956 33 percent of the articles and 75 percent of the lessons were written by men; women wrote only the “homemaking” lesson and the visiting teachers’ “message.”69

The church also lost the presence of women with perceived power. The nineteenth-century “leading sisters” were widely-known and revered, and their discourse was deemed authoritative. Their successors had social and friendship ties to male church leaders that gave the sisters some influence in church policy-making.70 Most of these powerful women leaders were gone by the 1930s, however, and church politics have not been as amenable to women’s influence [63] since that time.71 As Mormon women lost administrative power between 1920 and 1970, female discourse and leaders have appeared less significant.

According to Apostle Thomas S. Monson in 1967, churchwide changes were necessary to achieve new goals. The Priesthood Correlation Program was designed to eliminate “unwholesome competitiveness” among various church auxiliaries, “correlate” all auxiliary activities under priesthood direction, and unite all church forces in combatting evil.72 This institutional change ensured female authority as subordinate to the male. It was a major male victory in the long struggle between men’s and women’s authoritative discourse, with the Relief Society Magazine as one fatality. In 1970 when the Correlation Program went into effect, the Relief Society not only lost its magazine but its general and local funds and authority to develop its own programs. In 1971 the Improvement Era was replaced by the male-directed Ensign for adults and New Era for young adults.

A century of publishing by Mormon women had come to an end. A black-bordered notice in the June 1970 Relief Society Magazine stated that “in compliance with the directive of the First Presidency,” the Magazine would finish its career with the December 1970 issue.73 Marianne Sharp’s final editorial concluded: “As we detail and recall nostalgic memories, we still, obedient to the priesthood and receiving direction from them, face forward in step with the new era of the 1970’s with anticipation and a sense of dedication and support for the all-adult magazine. Moriturae te salutamus.”74 Sharp translated the Latin to read, “We salute you in death.”

Currently Mormon women serve as writers and in assistant editorial positions for the adult, young adult, and children’s magazines, and for the “Church News.” Men manage the publications, hold top editorial positions, and write essentially all doctrinal discourse. All church texts are prepared under the direction of the Priesthood Correlation Committee, including the women’s and girls’ lessons, instructional materials, and other communications. Thus woman’s status image as image maker is greatly reduced. Women have no autonomy in contemporary discourse, and as a result sisters have lost the ability to empower each other to the degree that was formerly possible.


[64] In 1883 the Exponent affirmed the empowering principles of autonomous publication: “There is no better method of communication between people engaged in any public enterprise than that of a newspaper, and until women talk to each other freely in this way and express their views and feelings, no great, tangible change will take place in the advancement of the masses of women.”75

Contemporary Mormon women lack the official public voice, authority, and empowerment that previously were available to female writers, editors, publishers, and readers. What are the consequences of this relative silence for women and the institution? Klaus Krippendorf states that if members of a system are prevented from examining their circumstances and stating their multiple perceptions, the system and its members may become dysfunctional.76 On the other hand if official discourse allows multiple perspectives to be taken, members may create self-directed paths toward good mental health.

When Mormon women recognize that they are being defined by narrow, constrictive church images, some seek non-church avenues for identification and support. Some remain on church records but reduce their commitment and participation. Others feel damaged and suffer poor self-esteem or depression.77

In partial response, unofficial publications such as Exponent II and the Mormon Women’s Forum Newsletter, women’s writing in Sunstone and Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, and women’s conferences, essays, and books have provided means for self-definition while still supporting church membership. Not all Mormon women are aware of these publications, however, and thus female readership is relatively small.

If the participation and spirit of the self-defining Mormon woman is lost, what effect does that have on the church and on the strong women who have empowered the institution itself? Perhaps a wistful observance in the 1881 Exponent anticipated and addressed this problem: “I ofttimes think it would be well if the brethren would read our paper more than they do and become better acquainted with the sisters’ feelings and desires, and perhaps we could work to one another’s interest better than we do now.”78

Historically while strong Mormon women expressed many un[65]conventional perceptions, they also directed most of their efforts to supporting church interests and thus empowered the institution. Empowerment tends to be reciprocal and thus mutually beneficial. For the sake of all then, perhaps Mormon women should exercise official, autonomous, authoritative voice again.


Vella Neil Evans is adjunct professor of Communication at the University of Utah. She also teaches for the Women’s Studies program and developed a course on “Women in LDS Culture” which is taught twice a year. In addition, she is a homemaker and mother of four. “Empowerment and Mormon Women’s Publications” first appeared as chapter 7 of her dissertation, “Woman’s Image in Authoritative Mormon Discourse,” University of Utah, 1985. A shorter version was presented at the 1990 Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium as part of a panel entitled “Women and Author-ity.”

1. Vella Neil Evans, “Woman’s Image in Authoritative Mormon Discourse: A Rhetorical Analysis,” Ph.D. diss., University of Utah, 1985, 444-45.

2. Ibid. Women wrote a few poems or short essays for some papers and for Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, but they were infrequently published and reflected no continuing assignment or authority.

3. William Schutz, FIRO-B: The Interpersonal Underworld (Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books, Inc., 1966). This tripartite model of interpersonal needs has been widely adopted and appears in many academic texts including most basic texts in communication.

4. Sherilyn Cox Bennion, Equal to the Occasion: Women Editors of the Nineteenth-Century West (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1990), chapter 6.

5. Evans, “Woman’s Image in Mormon Discourse,” 397-98.

6. Bennion, Equal to the Occasion, 75.

7. Ibid.

8. “Our Position,” Woman’s Exponent, 1 June 1872, 4 (hereafter cited as Exponent).

9. “The Editor’s Department,” Young Woman’s Journal 1 (1889-90): 32 (hereafter cited as Journal).

10. “Editorial: Backward and Forward,” Relief Society Magazine 10 (1923): 254 (hereafter cited as Magazine).

11. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, “The Leading Sisters: A Female Hierarchy in Nineteenth-Century Mormon Society,” in Eliza and Her Sisters (Salt Lake City: Aspen Books, 1991), 128-47; Jill Mulvey Derr, with C. Brooklyn Derr, “Outside the Mormon Hierarchy: Alternative Aspects of Institutional Power,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Winter 1982): 21-43.

12. For a detailed account of the conflict between women’s and men’s perceptions of women’s ecclesiastical powers, see Linda King Newell, “Gifts of the Spirit: Woman’s Share,” in Sisters in Spirit: Historical and Cultural Contexts for Mormon Women, eds. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987).

13. Eliza R. Snow Smith, “To the Branches of the Relief Society,” Exponent, 15 Sept. 1884, 61. Snow was a plural wife to church founder Joseph Smith and to its second president, Brigham Young. She was known as a “presidentess,” “priestess,” “prophetess,” and “poetess” and exercised considerable influence in nineteenth-century Mormonism.

14. “Sketches of the Labors of Sister Lucy B. Young in the Temples: Worker in the St. George Temple,” Journal 4 (1892-93): 299.

15. E. Wells, Exponent, 15 Oct. 1880, 74.

16. Journal 7 (1896): 398.

17. See Evans, “Woman’s Image in Mormon Discourse,” 188-99, for discussion of conference discourse from 1857 to 1921.

18. Newell, “Gifts of the Spirit: Woman’s Share,” 135-36.

19. Evans, “Woman’s Image in Mormon Discourse,” 193.

20. Ibid., 187.

21. Susan Kohler, “Woman’s Exponent Revisited,” Exponent II, 1.

22. Reprint, Exponent II, June 1976, 4.

23. Exponent, 1 July 1876, 20.

24. Exponent, 1 Mar. 1880, 146.

25. Exponent, 1 July 1882, 17.

26. Jill C. Mulvey, “Our Foremothers and the 1870 Franchise,” Exponent II, Dec. 1974, 14.

27. Journal 32 (1920): 378.

28. Amy Brown Lyman, “World Parliment of Women,” Relief Society Magazine 25 (1938): 578.

29. Evans, 218-24.

30. Exponent II was founded in July 1974; Mormons for ERA Newsletter in 1980.

31. Gordon Shepherd and Gary Shepherd, A Kingdom Transformed: Themes in the Development of Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1984), chap. 4, 246, discusses the need for priesthood leadership in the home.

32. “Be a True Woman,” Exponent, 1 Apr. 1877, 164.

33. “Heart vs. Head,” Exponent, 15 Nov. 1874, 92.

34. Shepherd and Shepherd, A Kingdom Transformed, 87, 246.

35. “Education of Women,” Exponent, 1 Apr. 1873, 163.

36. Reprint, Exponent II, Spring 1982, 9.

37. Lizzie Smith, “Our Girls: Equality of the Sexes,” Journal 1 (1889-90): 176.

38. Susa Young Gates, “With the Editor: Women in Public Life,” Journal 10 (1898-99): 239.

39. “The World: As Seen Through a Woman’s Eyes,” Journal 1 (1889-90): 457.

40. “Lesson 20: The Girl and Her Profession,” Journal 40 (1929): 70.

41. “Medical Colleges Open Doors to Women,” Magazine 4 (1917): 605.

42. Annie Wells Cannon, “Happenings,” Magazine 25 (Jan., Mar., and Apr. 1938): n.p.

43. Annie Wells Cannon, “Happenings,” Magazine 29 (1942): 549, 637.

44. Ezra Taft Benson, To the Mothers in Zion (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1987.) In addition to this pamphlet, see also, Benson, Women’s Conference address at Brigham Young University, Sept. 1980.

45. Lucinda S. Dalton, “Love, Courtship and Marriage,” Journal 1 (1889-90): 316.

46. Amy Brown Lyman, “Annie Wells Cannon,” Magazine 29 ((Oct. 1942): 676-80.

47. Lily Crane Haycock, “Lesson Department. Literature for Missions. Typical Women of the Church. Lesson 2. Jeanette Dansie Crane: A Successful Mother, Reared in England,” Magazine 25 (1938): 567-70.

48. Shepherd and Shepherd, A Kingdom Transformed, 247, 249.

49. Exponent, 1 June 1884, 4.

50. Blanche Beechwood, “Real Women,” Exponent, 1 Jan. 1874, 118.

51. Blanche Beechwood, “Why, Ah! Why,” Exponent, 30 Sept. 1874, 67.

52. Emile, “A Word About Women,” Exponent, 1 Nov. 1876, 84.

53. Exponent, 1 July 1875, 21.

54. Reprint, Exponent II, Winter 1978, 1.

55. Exponent, 1 July 1877, 20.

56. “Man’s Flattery of Woman,” Journal 1 (Mar. 1890): 192.

57. Shepherd and Shepherd, A Kingdom Transformed, chap. 4.

58. Lucinda S. Dalton, “Love, Courtship and Marriage,” Journal 1 (1889-90): 316.

59. Lizzie Smith, “Our Girls: Equality of the Sexes,” Journal 1 (1889-90): 175.

60. Alice Louise Reynolds, “George Eliot’s Religious Life,” Journal 10 (1899-1900): 109; “Literary Studies. Fourth Year Course, Lesson V. For second meeting in February. George Eliot,” Journal 18 (1906-1907): 46. For a discussion of the Mormon stance regarding adultery, see Shepherd and Shepherd, A Kingdom Transformed, 233, 253. See also Glenn M. Vernon, Mormonism: A Sociological Perspective (Salt Lake City: self-published for University of Utah class use, date varies), 320-22.

61. “An Alphabet of Women: for why should men do all the deeds?” Journal 22 (1910-11): 266-68.

62. Ibid., 20 (1908-1909): 375-76.

63. Ibid., 22 (1910-11): 629.

64. Journal 40 (1929): 458.

65. Hannah Jane Smith, “One Woman’s Success in Homesteading,” Journal 32 (1920-21): 287-88.

66. Frank C. Steele, “Canada’s Girl of the Golden West,” Journal 38 (1926-27): 552-53.

67. Magazine 39 (1952): 283

68. Journal (1929): 521-22.

69. MIA conference in Salt Lake City (June 1929).

70. See Beecher, “The Leading Sisters.”

71. For a comprehensive account of changes in the sisters’ auxiliaries, see Derr and Derr, “Outside the Mormon Hierarchy”, op. cit.

72. Thomas S. Monson, “Correlation Brings Blessings,” Magazine 54 (1967): 246-47.

73. “Notice to Subscribers,” Magazine 57 (1970): 480.

74. Marianne C. Sharp, “Editorial/Facing Forward,” Magazine 57 (1970): 895.

75. “Women Self-Supporting,” Exponent (15 May 1883): 188.

76. Klaus Krippendorff, “The Power of Communication and the Communication of Power: Toward an Emancipatory Theory of Communication,” Communication 12 (1989): 178.

77. Consider, for example, the 1979 KSL Television documentary, Mormon Women and Depression, in which several Mormon women and Mormon psychotherapists address the negative effects of the contemporary Mormon woman’s role.

78. D. K., “Plain Talk,” Exponent, 15 Apr. 1881, 170.