The New Mormon History
D. Michael Quinn, editor

Chapter 9
The “Leading Sisters”: A Female Hierarchy in Nineteenth-century Mormon Society
Maureen Ursenbach Beecher

[p.153] Mormon apostate writer John Hyde was accurate in his observation of an elite group in early Mormon Utah. He wrote in 1857: “Miss Eliza R. Snow, the Mormon poetess, a very talented woman, but outrageously bigoted, and one or two kindred souls, are the nuclei for all the female intellect at Salt Lake. Let any recant from their creed, or oppose it, she and her band of second Amazons crush the intrepid one down.”1

While Hyde may have exaggerated the vengeance of these ladies against nonconformists, he has suggested that a female elite existed among the early society of the Latter-day Saints and has illustrated some of its characteristics. It centered in one strong woman, charismatic, widely visible, powerful, and around that hub was a select group of “kindred” women; it demanded of its members unstinting adherence to a “creed,” a spoken or otherwise understood set of tenets and behaviors. What Hyde missed was that this elite group not only led in matters intellectual but ruled informally the whole society of Mormon women. Because of the nature of Mormonism—the all-pervasive reach of the radical theology—there was not an aspect of living which the religion did not touch, and the chief disseminator of the religion to the women was Eliza Roxcy Snow, [p. 154] termed by one historian “the female voice of the male hierarchy.”2

Historians of Mormon culture have long noted Snow’s importance to the religious and secular life of the Great Basin Saints. What they have largely neglected is the group of women who performed for the female Saints functions parallel to those carried out for the whole membership by the general authorities assembled around Brigham Young. It is the purpose of this essay to examine that female elite and determine how they arose and where they fit in the Mormon social order.

In their study of organizational patterns in the Mormon church, Jill and Brooklyn Derr point out differences between formal and informal power sources. Authority is conveyed, they assert, through formal organizations such as wards, stakes, priesthood quorums, and, after the 1870s, Mutual Improvement Associations, Primaries, and Relief Societies. In all those formal bodies, the male priesthood administration carries the decision-making power. Since in Mormon practice women hold no generally acknowledged priesthood authority, the formal structure shows them totally under the direction of their male leaders. On the other hand, as the Derrs stress, informal structures also function in organizations, stimulating, facilitating, or interrupting the formal system when it proves inadequate to the needs or counter to the best interests of the people it serves. It is in their use of informal methods, the Derrs demonstrate, that women have been most effective.3 The very founding of the Nauvoo Relief Society from a chance conversation in a young woman’s parlor illustrates the informal undercurrent moving with the mainstream as women bring about their own kind of changes in the system.

Titles and ranks make it easy to identify the key men in Joseph Smith’s or Brigham Young’s administrations. In the absence of such organization, it is less simple to name the women who were their equivalents in early church administration. For some periods there were Relief Society presidencies, but often there was no Relief Society, and equally often it was women other than the officially appointed ones who seem to have been directing women’s activities. Close reading of minutes of women’s meetings during Utah’s later settlement days reveals several “leading sisters” whose words seem to have the force of law to their sisters in the outer settlements. Unofficial in the sense of having no titles or conference-approved general boards, these women carried messages from headquarters, gave [p. 155] assignments, encouraged specific projects, and generally preserved the continuity and sense of community of the women.

A list of “leading sisters” drawn from minute books in the 1870s squares almost without exception with the key women listed by Augusta Joyce Crocheron in an 1884 publication entitled Representative Women of Deseret.4 The book, a compilation of brief biographies, was published to accompany a large composite photograph of twenty women. Crocheron’s list is more representative of the elite than the mainstream. Though she includes leaders of women’s organizations, she also selected some women not in the formal presidencies and left off some who were. Her list includes the following, grouped in five sections: (1) Eliza R. Snow [Smith], whom Crocheron titles “President of the Latter-day Saints’ Women’s Organizations”; Zina D. H. Young, first counselor; Mary Isabella Horne, treasurer (Crocheron neglects to title her with her more active callings—president of the Salt Lake Stake Relief Societies and president of the Cooperative Retrenchment Society, of which more will be said later); and Sarah M. Kimball, secretary (also president of the Fifteenth Ward Relief Society).

These four women also comprised the presidency of the Relief Society Central Board, counselor Elizabeth Ann Whitney, deceased since 1883, not having been replaced. The Relief Society board and the presidency of Women’s Organizations were composed of the same people, which suggests that the Relief Society was mother organization to the female-directed “auxiliaries”: the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association and the children’s Primary.

Next treated in the book are four women who, not holding specific callings, still had to be included, according to Crocheron’s sense of who was really important: Phoebe Woodruff, Bathsheba W. Smith, Prescendia [sic] Kimball, and Elizabeth Howard. These two groups then were the core women, the leading leading sisters. The third group formed a second echelon: Elmina S. Taylor, general president of the YLMIA; Mary A. Freeze, her Salt Lake Stake counterpart; Louie B. Felt, Primary president; and her stake counterpart, Ellen C. Clawson.

The fourth group was made up of the artists Emily Hill Woodmansee, Hannah T. King, and Helen Mar Whitney (these latter two were noted for far more than their verse and prose); and the author, Augusta Joyce Crocheron. The fifth and last group was comprised of Emmeline B. Wells, editor of the Woman’s Exponent, [p. 156] and Romania B. Pratt, physician at the woman-sponsored Deseret Hospital (both of whom were a generation younger than the central group); and Zina Young Williams, age thirty-four, and Louie Wells, twenty-two, who were included, Crocheron wrote, to suggest the “rising generation” of leaders. Zina did rise to leadership; Louie died at age twenty-five.

Minute books, personal accounts, newspapers, and magazines indicate that it was these “leading sisters” who interpreted the doctrines and set the behavioral standards for their sisters; who discovered worthy causes and organized effective social programs; and who made alliances and identified enemies. The corporate and often private lives of all Mormon women, remote from the central Salt Lake Stake, were affected by the doings and sayings of these few.

But how did such a group arise? How was its membership determined? What had these leading women in common? D. Michael Quinn has found as the single most significant characteristic of the priesthood hierarchy their shared familial relationships.5 The female leaders, not surprisingly, derived much of their status from the men to whom they were connected. Of the central eight, six were wives of apostles or, in two instances, of the president of the church. Of the second echelon in Crocheron’s configuration, another six were either wives or daughters (adopted in one case) of general church authorities.

Yet factors other than kinship helped determine membership in the female leadership group. The Mormon society which established itself in Utah took its form from those that developed or were established in Nauvoo, Illinois. There the most significant event affecting women was the founding in 1842 of the Relief Society, an organization whose repeated demises and resurrections demand reinterpretation. It is often overlooked that, though the “official” founding of the organization took place on 17 March in the Masonic Lodge room, the first Relief Society was actually a grass roots movement which earlier had brought together in Sarah M. Kimball’s parlor a group of neighbors with the purpose of providing aid to men working full time building the temple. In her own account Kimball, a young but relatively wealthy matron, tells of her conversation with her seamstress and of the meeting they called in the Kimballs’ small house. After that first meeting Kimball requested of Eliza R. Snow, a spinster known to be gifted in writing, a set of by-laws for the newly [p. 157] founded group.6 Snow then took her effort to Joseph Smith for his approval, expecting to present it to the group who were scheduled to meet the following Thursday.

Joseph Smith took the fledgling organization under his wing and created for it a place in the general priesthood organization of the church. Under his direction twenty women were invited to an official founding meeting two weeks after the first unofficial gathering. The twenty whose names appear in the minutes, and their circumstances, provide some insight into the pattern which would emerge of female networks among Mormons.7

Analysis of the members of the charter Relief Society meeting suggests two social-geographical bases for their having been invited: those who were Sarah Kimball’s friends from the first meeting and those later invited for the 17 March meeting. In the absence of a contemporary list of women who participated in the initial gathering in the Kimballs’ parlor, we can only surmise that they would be Sarah’s neighbors, women who lived within a short walk’s distance of her home in northwest Nauvoo.

The later additions, presumably Joseph Smith’s choice, were women who lived within four blocks of the Smith household, which itself was only a block from the red brick store where the meeting took place. Many factors intrude here—Joseph Smith’s acknowledged bent for housing his leading men and their families near his own house; the tendency of a leader to know and trust kinsmen of his co-workers; the probability that the wives of church leaders, having suffered the privations which proved their husbands, were likewise proven faithful. These factors most likely had some bearing on the women chosen for the first meeting, as well. About half the second group, however, were women with no familial attachment to leaders, either present or past, or to boarders or servants in the Smith household or to dwellers on the Smith property. As the Relief Society was being organized eleven people shared the Homestead property with Joseph and Emma Smith and their family, and three of these were at the meeting.8

Those groups then with some overlap make up the first meeting, the inner core around which 1,400 Nauvoo women would rally in the next two years. But just as the women gathered from different backgrounds, so they assumed divergent agendas for the organization. Sarah Kimball’s group had begun with the almost [p. 158] exclusive purpose of providing benevolent services; that purpose became the society’s most lasting characteristic. But a close reading of the minutes reveals other purposes and achievements. To the stated objectives of “administering to [the] wants” of the poor were added other responsibilities: “correcting the morals and strengthening the virtues of the female community” (female has been stricken out in the original); admitting no woman to the society without a recommend as to her worthiness; expounding doctrine, which charter had been given Emma Smith in her Doctrine and Covenants revelation; and exercising spiritual gifts. That so much of the impact of the society should be in areas other than temporal welfare suggests that in the mind of Joseph Smith at least, as perceived in his sermons, there was an agenda more essential than the care of the poor.

The timing of the organization of the Relief Society is significant.9 The day before the 17 March meeting, Joseph Smith had organized in the same room the Nauvoo lodge of the Masonic order. Three weeks later he would induct a chosen group of his male associates into the Holy Order, the name by which the priesthood temple endowment was identified. In succeeding weeks the two rituals, Masonic and priesthood, would be conducted in the same room in which the Relief Society met, the Masonic orders in the evenings and the endowments in the afternoons.

Considering the significance of women to the endowment, and reading carefully Joseph Smith’s sermons to the Relief Society, it becomes apparent he was preparing the women of the church for the eventuality when they too would participate in the priesthood endowment. That the prophet anticipated that this “society of the virtuous and those who will walk circumspectly” remain small and “select” is revealed in his comments to the third meeting that society members “were going too fast”—the original twenty members had already grown to eighty-eight.10 His agenda altered with the interest of so many women in joining, however, and by 28 April, when he preached his most powerful sermon, he was willing to agree that “if you do right, [there is] no danger of going too fast.” Even so at that meeting he required that women whose worthiness had not been proved be excused, that only those accepted as faithful hear his message. Priesthood, spiritual gifts, keys of authority, and proper church organization being stayed “until the Temple is completed” were dealt with in his address. Its overtones of coming blessings for [p. 159] women is underscored a month later when Bishop Newel K. Whitney, himself recently endowed, “rejoiced at the formation of the Society that we might improve upon our talents and to prepare for those blessings which God is soon to bestow upon us.” That four of the women present at the first meeting were among those endowed during Joseph Smith’s lifetime does not prove a hidden intent but adds to other indications of a dual purpose in organizing the women in 1842.11

Lists compiled by Dean Jessee and Jeffery Johnson might bear on the women invited to the 17 March meeting. Closely connected to the endowment in the minds of church leaders was the principle of celestial or plural marriage. Of the twenty women at the meeting, one was first wife to Joseph Smith, one gave him her daughter as a plural wife, two were offered the chance to become his wives but declined, and five more, thus invited, accepted. Most of these negotiations took place within weeks before or after the 17 March meeting. Besides those involved with Joseph Smith in plural marriage, three women of the group were married to other men who took plural wives.

The spiritual component of the Relief Society in Nauvoo is undeniable: after the 14 April meeting the Relief Society presidency administered to Sister Durfee for her health; during the next meeting, her testimony of the healing was followed by manifestations of other spiritual gifts. Eliza R. Snow blessed Presendia Buel, prophesying over her; Abigail Leonard and others testified to the truth of the prophesies; Sarah Cleveland spoke in tongues and Mrs. Sessions (presumably Patty Sessions) interpreted. At the next meeting, Joseph Smith, taking his text from 1 Corinthians 12 and 13, approved the limited use of these charismatic expressions. Thus were institutionalized the ritual observances which would mark the practice of Mormon women for the next half century, rituals fostered by and most characteristic of the “leading sisters.”

The benevolent, or “relief,” aspect of the society was, however, the more pervasive, even in Nauvoo. During the second season of its existence (the society met only during the summer months, mainly because of the lack of space large enough to house the meetings), all but two of the charter members faded from the records, and the activities of the second group of leaders were almost exclusively welfare oriented.

[p. 160] The third season began auspiciously in the spring of 1844 with Emma Smith again taking the lead. Knowing the limits of space, she conducted the same meeting four times, at ten o’clock and one o’clock on March 9 and 16. There she delivered a double-talk indictment of plural marriage, a coded but unmistakable opposition to the practice which her husband was ever more widely promulgating. After those four sessions, as John Taylor later explained, “the meetings were discontinued” because “Emma Smith the Pres[ident] taught the sisters that the principle of plural marriage … was not of God.”12 Eliza R. Snow left the situation ambiguous by acknowledging to a Relief Society in 1868 that “Emma Smith … the Presidentess … gave it [Relief Society] up so as not to lead the society in Erro[r].”13

Out of the Nauvoo Relief Society then came women who would add other shared experiences: temple endowments, sealings, participation in plural marriage, and the trials of continued loyalty and unflagging obedience to church leaders. Of the charter members four women would be counted among the female elite in Utah forty years later: Sarah M. Kimball, Elizabeth Ann Whitney, Eliza R. Snow, and Bathsheba W. Smith. Four others, Zina D. H. Jacobs [later Young], her sister Presendia L. Buel [later Kimball], Mary Isabella Horne, and Phoebe Woodruff, all joined the Nauvoo Relief Society within its first months, and though their association was not demonstrably close, the shared knowledge gained there became a later binding force for them.

The practices and relationships begun at Nauvoo solidified in Winter Quarters, that shanty-town on the Missouri River where the first groups of Saints waited almost a year before finishing their trek from Illinois to the Great Basin. The significance of the events of that place that first winter have not been fully assessed, especially as far as women’s affairs are concerned. It was there that the associations and ordinances of Nauvoo tightened into the bonds of families real and adopted, which formed a basis of selection into the leadership positions of the male hierarchy. Similarly among the women bonds not only of kinship in newly acknowledged plural families but of sisterhood born of proximity and necessity were formed whose ties would continue in many cases into the next century.

Readers of Eliza R. Snow’s Winter Quarters diary and that of Patty Sessions have noted the proliferation of “blessing meetings” which filled the afternoons and evenings from midwinter until the [p. 161] time of departure of the various companies. Kenneth Godfrey in a description of Winter Quarters through the eyes mainly of Mary Haskins Parker Richards observed that those meeting were restricted mainly to the ecclesiastical elite.14 If he is right, then the thesis is even more accurate than supposed: in Winter Quarters women who subsequently lead out in women’s affairs in Utah identified themselves, set their standards, re-established certain rituals, and thus cemented the ties which held their group.

A significant occasion took place on Christmas 1846, when a group of the women gathered for a visit. Eliza R. Snow wrote of the event in her diary: “This mor[ning] take leave of the female family and visit sis. [Patty] Sessions with Loisa [Beaman] and Zina [D. H. Jacobs] very pleasantly. Last eve we had a very interesting time to close my five-day visit with the girls, for whom my love seem’d to increase with every day’s acquaintance. To describe the scene alluded to would be beyond my pow’r. Suffice it to say, the spirit of the Lord was pour’d out and we receive’d a blessing thro’ our beloved mother Chase and sis Clarissa by the gift of tongues.”15

Two significant notes grow from this account: first, the women were perpetuating the spiritual activity which bound them together in commitment to the faith. Such meetings would escalate in Winter Quarters the following spring, continue as feasible across the plains, carry on for the first few years in the valley, and be relived for a time in Cardston, Alberta, and Snowflake, Arizona. The emotional bonding of women under such circumstances has been described in Carroll Smith Rosenberg’s 1975 study of “The Female World of Love and Ritual” as characteristic of the homo-social patterns of the nineteenth century.16 The ritual blessing of each other could not but strengthen whatever individual friendships might be forming under the adverse and isolated conditions of the winter’s camp.

The second significant note deals with the individual women named in that and adjacent entries. It is apparent that in Winter Quarters, for the first time above whispers, plural wives were identifying themselves to each other. In the case cited, Brigham Young was a husband to all but one of the “female family,” Mother Chase, and she was mother of Clarissa Ross, Young’s plural wife since 1844. Loisa Beaman and Zina Jacobs who accompany Eliza, and Eliza herself, were all Young’s wives; and Patty Sessions, whom the three women [p. 162] afterward visit had also been a plural wife of Joseph Smith.

Among the participants in subsequent Winter Quarters blessing meetings were most of the wives of Brigham Young and of Heber C. Kimball, Young’s next in command. Eliza R. Snow, whose reputation in Nauvoo had been based mainly on her intellectual and poetic gifts, here emerges as a spiritual leader, an honor she shares with Patty Sessions who plays a lieutenant’s role to Eliza’s general. Legitimized by her marriage since October 1844 to Brigham Young, Eliza could also speak of her earlier preference by Joseph Smith, a fact she continued to emphasize in later years.

Two sisters prominent in the Winter Quarters accounts are Zina Huntington Jacobs and Presendia Huntington Buel (or Buell), both of whom had chosen Joseph Smith over their living husbands and since had been relocated—Zina in Brigham Young’s family and Presendia in Heber Kimball’s. Winter Quarters brought them together as wives of the two leading elders. Bolstered by each other and by their friendship with Eliza Snow and Patty Sessions, they rose to some heights in the blessing meetings, as indicated by the frequency with which the diaries mention their names. Vilate Kimball and Mary Ann Young, the first surviving wives of their husbands, figured in the meetings but as attenders more than as active participants. Not herself of the Young-Kimball group but certainly linked by affection and by the marriages of her son and daughter to Kimball’s families was Elizabeth Ann Whitney, who had taken an active role in the Nauvoo Relief Society. In Winter Quarters her gifts of tongues and prophecy gained her the respect of her sisters, and her title of “Mother Whitney” became even more widespread.

That the women varied widely in age seemed no deterrent to their mutual affection and concern. The test of faith which plural marriage was becoming had cut across age barriers, as women in their late forties found themselves sister wives to women half their ages. The meetings in Winter Quarters joined more than divided the women in their common cause: older wives mentored younger ones, delivered their babies, coached them in their exercise of “the gifts,” while younger ones performed tasks for their older sister wives, visited with them, honored them with the title “Mother.” The accounts of the meetings show a second echelon of younger women learning their roles: such names as Helen Mar Kimball, Mary Isabella Horne, and Emmeline Harris Whitney [later Wells], occasionally [p. 163] mentioned in Winter Quarters, would appear increasingly during the thirty years following their arrival in Utah.

For the first few years in Great Salt Lake City, the informal meetings continued as they had in Winter Quarters.17 They were then succeeded by a rash of various associations for very disparate purposes, none of which seem to have brought together the same groups of women. In 1854 the Polysophical Society in Apostle Lorenzo Snow’s hall collected an intellectual elite of both sexes, Lorenzo’s sister Eliza being central to the enterprise. The Council of Health and its female counterpart interested the more practical Patty Sessions and other midwives and lay practitioners. Elocution societies, the Universal Scientific Society, the Horticultural Society, the Deseret Philharmonic Society, and the Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society attracted their separate followings. One such thrust was especially significant: with the blessing of Brigham Young, Relief Societies sprang up in at least twenty-two wards, this time with the express purpose of providing clothing for Indian women and children. But there was no central organization, and though some of the women who composed the ecclesiastical and social elite of the community were involved, they were not together in one group. Only in their individual callings as workers in the Endowment House might the leading women have served together.

The 1850s Relief Societies, disrupted in most wards by the Utah War, continued in others almost exclusively as a welfare service, looking to the needs of the poor of the ward. The winter of 1866-67, however, brought some innovations which suggest a widening official view of women and their roles. Brigham Young reestablished the School of the Prophets among the men of the church and announced on at least one occasion his intention to so organize the women. The cooperative movement with its drive to monopolize purchasing to local outlets drew attention to the need to involve women, both as consumers and as workers in the operation. The General Sunday School Union called attention to the rearing of children. And above all, on the highest spiritual plane, Brigham Young as holder of the keys began administering the sacred second anointing, an ordinance which men cannot receive without their wives.18

That the Relief Society should experience its third birth at that time seems consistent and that it should have a spiritual focus was inevitable. Eliza R. Snow, who had been officiating as matron in [p. 164] the Endowment House and whose reputation as prophetess and priestess had spread far, was called to head the women’s work. She had been secretary for the Nauvoo society and promulgated the example of that organization by carrying with her its minutes, reading from Joseph Smith’s sermons as she instructed local leaders. Although her 1867 call to organize the Relief Society carried no official title, she made of it the supreme office among Mormon women: “Presidentess of the female portion of the human race” was the honor accorded her by one over-eager ward secretary as she traveled about organizing local units.

But in her calling she served alone at first. Not until 1869 did she have a coterie of aides to assist in the work. It was in the organization of the Retrenchment Association that the “leading sisters” came together and became the force behind the local Relief Societies.

The Senior and Junior Cooperative Retrenchment Association began when Mary Isabella Horne, one of the younger stalwarts from Nauvoo and Winter Quarter days, was visiting her son, the bishop in the central Utah community of Gunnison, when Brigham Young and his entourage arrived en route to the Dixie colonies. Young was disturbed that the women in the various towns seemed to be such Marthas about the fine meals they prepared that they were losing the Mary-like values of his visits. He assigned to Mary Isabella the task of teaching her sisters a simpler way, encouraging them to “retrench” from their elaborate preparations. Arriving back in Salt Lake City, Sister Horne called on Sister Eliza Snow and Sister Margaret Smoot, and the three approached President Young for clarification.19 That one meeting seems to have been his total official involvement in the setting up of a group which would meet thereafter for at least two decades with agendas expanded far beyond the initial goals of the retrenchment movement. The women elected their own president, Sister Horne, and six counselors and established a pattern of meeting on alternate Thursdays. Called finally the “ladies semi-monthly meeting,” it was the only continuous gathering of women which crossed ward and stake lines, was not accountable to local authority, and brought together the “leading sisters” in a network which was capable of unhindered activity.

A reading of the three years of minutes of that group reveals the working of the network.20 It was there that the women not only [p. 165] shared personal witness and affirmed sisterhood but learned of activities they would later more formally support: the retrenchment program itself, various Relief Society programs, cooperatives, home manufacture, civic duties, the MIA for young men (which would grow out of their young women’s example), Primary Associations, and the United Order. In each case the group assembled in the Fourteenth Ward building felt it entirely appropriate to take unilateral action towards the goals it espoused, often with no more suggestion than a casual comment of Brigham Young. After he had spoken to Emmeline B. Wells about the necessity for storing grain, for example, she stewed for a while, wrote an editorial for the Exponent, and then the women in their regular meeting, directed by Eliza Snow, elected a central board to oversee the project. What began as an assignment to Wells became the responsibility of the whole group.21 Following similar steps, the women of the semi-monthly meeting, especially those who traveled as companions to Eliza Snow on her frequent tours to various settlements, directed affairs of their sisters throughout Mormondom, independent of hierarchical authority chains.

A group as powerful as this, it can safely be assumed, would of necessity have as its core those women who individually held the reins of leadership among their sisters—an elite not only ecclesiastically but socially and politically. A tally of the women named in the minutes, noting the frequency with which they are mentioned, confirmed the thesis with which this essay began: (1) there was an elite among the Mormon women in Utah, (2) that elite had power in its sphere, (3) the women who made up the power base were those who had come earliest into the valley, having undergone the early formative experiences in Nauvoo and Winter Quarters. The names which recur most frequently in the minutes are familiar: Eliza R. Snow, Zina D. H. Young, Presendia L. Kimball, Elizabeth Ann Whitney, Sarah M. Kimball, Bathsheba W. Smith, Mary Isabella Horne, and Phoebe Woodruff. These were the leaders. They had in common more than just those characteristics of primacy and longevity. They lived in the central wards of Salt Lake City. (Margaret Smoot, who often traveled with Eliza Snow, pled distance as excusing her from the meetings; she lived in the 20th Ward, six blocks from downtown.) Six of the eight here named were married to general authorities of the church. All were plural wives; all had belonged to the Nauvoo Relief Society and all but one had participated in the Winter Quarters experience.

[p. 166] Next to this inner elite was a second echelon of “leading sisters,” identified in most cases by their association with the inner core. These women, such as Emmeline Wells, Hannah T. King, Willmirth East, Elizabeth Howard, Zina Y. Williams, and Helen Mar Whitney, shared some but not all the characteristics of the leading group. Emmeline Wells had been at Winter Quarters but had not participated then or in the early years in Salt Lake City in blessing meetings; Hannah King was married to a non-Mormon (though she was later sealed to Brigham Young), and Elizabeth Howard had not entered into polygamy; Willmirth East moved to Arizona; Zina Young Williams, who later moved to Canada, was a daughter and Helen Mar Kimball Whitney a daughter-in-law of the older leading sisters.

These and other second echelon women, well schooled in the advantages of a united corps of strong women, carried on much the same pattern of unhindered leadership in women’s projects as they functioned remote from the central group. Jane S. Richards, living in Ogden, too far for intimate involvement with the inner group, nevertheless kept in close touch with them by mail and visits each way. Willmirth East, writing from Arizona, acknowledged the primacy of Eliza Snow’s advice over that of her local priesthood authority in the affairs of the women. And Zina Young Williams, emigrating to southern Alberta in 1887 with her new husband Charles Ora Card, maintained strong ties with her mother’s inner circle in Salt Lake City, thus reinforcing the position of leadership which she held by virtue of her role as wife of the president of the colony, not as Relief Society president. In these as in other colonies, the women continued those rituals which bound them together in their female groups—the blessing meetings, the washings and anointings, the administrations, as well as the institutionalized Relief Society—in much the same patterns as had been established in the original settlement of Salt Lake City a generation earlier.

Meanwhile, after 1877 when stake organizations regionalized some of the responsibility and created a new level of administration, and when the women’s organizations, Relief Society, MIA, and Primary, were given each its own head, the power of the Salt Lake City central group gradually diminished. The “old girls” died, albeit slowly—Bathsheba Smith remained president of the Relief Society until 1910—and the younger women had less in common. But for that half century there was a powerful elite running as an effective [p. 167] undercurrent in the tides of Mormonism. Rulers in women’s sphere, “free to create their own forms of personal, social and political relationships,”22 they participated parallel to their brothers in building God’s kingdom. Brigham Young knew the power of the women. He said, “I may preach to the female portion of this community until I am as old as Methusaleh; but when they, the sisters, themselves, take hold to reform they will wield an influence that will be successful, and will save many thousands of dollars yearly to the community. It is utterly vain for me to try to exert such an influence.”23

The statement, flippant though it sounds, reflects an organizational reality. Women were their own acknowledged and unquestioned leaders. With operational power thus vested in a cohesive group of faithful, conscientious women, it is not surprising that they and their sisters contributed so remarkably to the political, educational, economic, and social well-being of the Mormon community of the Intermountain West. As Leonard Arrington concluded, with atypical restraint, their “contributions to Mormon economic and territorial growth have not been negligible.”24



1. John Hyde, Jr., Mormonism: Its Leaders and Designs (New York: W. P. Fetridge & Company, 1857), 127-28.

2. Beverly Beeton in conversation with the author, spring 1975.

3. Jill Mulvay Derr and C. Brooklyn Derr, “Outside the Mormon Hierarchy: Alternative Aspects of Institutional Power,” MS in my file.

4. Augusta Joyce Crocheron, Representative Women of Deseret (Salt Lake City: J. C. Graham & Co., 1884).

5. D. Michael Quinn, “The Mormon Hierarchy, 1832-1932: An American Elite,” Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1976.

6. “Sarah M. Kimball,” in Representative Women, 26-27.

7. Minutes of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, 17 Mar. 1842, archives, historical department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah; hereafter LDS archives. Of the twenty women listed, two names, Athalia Robinson and Nancy Rigdon, have been stricken through, and subsequent histories of the Relief Society based on a latter typescript of the minutes have listed only eighteen women as having attended. A likely explanation for the striking out is in the notion that when Mormons left the church, as these two daughters of Sidney Rigdon did, [p. 168] their names were blotted out, that they were remembered no more among the people of God” (Al. 1:24).

8. Nauvoo Census, 1842, microfilm, LDS archives.

9. William Lawrence Foster, “Between Two Worlds: The Origins of Shaker Celibacy, Oneida Community Complex Marriage, and Mormon Polygamy,” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1976, 224-28.

10. Nauvoo Relief Society Minutes, 30 Mar. 1842.

11. Names courtesy Andrew Ehat.

12. John Taylor, in Harrisville Ward General Minutes, 29 June 1881, LDS archives. For an account of these events from the viewpoint of Emma Smith, see Linda King Newell and Valleen Tippets Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984).

13. West Jordan Ward Relief Society Minutes, 7 Sept. 1868, LDS archives.

14. Kenneth W. Godfrey, “Winter Quarters: Glimmering Glimpses into Mormon Religion and Social Life,” unpublished ms. in possession of Leonard J. Arrington.

15. Eliza R. Snow, Diary, 1846-49, 1 Jan. 1847, microfilm, LDS archives.

16. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth Century America,” Signs 1 (Autumn 1975): 1-29.

17. Richard L. Jensen, “Clothing the Indians and Strengthening the Saints: Organized Activity of Mormon Women During the `Lapse’ of the Relief Society, 1844-1867,” Task Papers in LDS History, No. 27 (Salt Lake City: Historical Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1979), 2.

18. Wilford Woodruff Diary, 31 Dec. 1866; also year end summary for 1867, 1868, LDS archives.

19. Susa Young Gates, History of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association … (Salt Lake City: General Board of the YLMIA, 1911), 31.

20. Minutes of the Senior and Junior Cooperative Retrenchment Association, 1870-73, LDS archives.

21. Woman’s Exponent 5 (1 Dec. 1876): 98.

22. Estelle Freedman, “Separatism as Strategy: Female Institution Building and American Feminism, 1870-1930,” Feminist Studies 5 (Fall 1979): 514.

23. Deseret News Weekly, 11 Aug. 1869.

24. Leonard J. Arrington, “The Economic Role of Pioneer Mormon Women,” Western Humanities Review 9 (Spring 1955): 164.