A few years back, my ward celebrated the Relief Society’s birthday by having several women perform a brief biography in character and lead a breakout group discussion following. I was asked to do Emmeline Wells because, well, I have an unhealthy obsession. Remember my 6-part series on her? Yes, obsessed.
In my table’s discussion, I was honest about both her successes and her heartbreaks. She had a lot of both. After hearing the heartbreaks, a friend of mine asked, “Wait, so she was essentially the red-headed stepchild wife and died heartbroken over her release as general RS president? Why am I supposed to leave this meeting feeling empowered about the Relief Society?”
I gave a short and inadequate answer at the time, so this is my more articulate answer. Because I have covered her life in great detail earlier, this post will be an exploration of why having Emmeline Wells’ story in my life matters, rather than providing new details about her.
Emmeline Wells speaks to me because her life was an example in taking the world in its messiness and seemingly impossible choices and creating a space where she can have what matters most. When Emmeline Wells was baptized, she assumed she’d be giving up a lot. She did. But she also maintained the things that were most important to her – her intellect, her desire to cause positive change, and a deep spiritual life.
I encountered Emmeline Wells’ story during a period when I was exploring what it meant to be an LDS woman of faith, what I wanted out of my life, and how those two explorations fit together. I felt like the narratives presented to me were too rigid and narrow, too either/or, and that I would have to shrink or deform myself to fit within any of them. Emmeline Wells just wrote a new narrative and took the women around her along for the ride.
Wells possessed a deep and life-changing faith in the gospel, and felt God powerfully in her life. She used that faith to enrich all the things she valued before joining the church. Her faith enriched her suffrage work, her mind, her service, and her leadership. She worked tirelessly to use her leadership and intelligence to better the women around her and improve her church.
Something that I only began to comprehend when I encountered Wells, but I have thought deeply about in later years, is the way that being a part of something larger than yourself both expands and restricts you. When you become a part of something larger than yourself, you are given opportunities to become and create something larger, more powerful, and more beautiful than you could on your own. At the same time, you are pouring your soul into something you can influence, but ultimately not control. It is rarely a perfect fit. So, what do you do?
Wells claimed what was good and beautiful and could not be had any other place. From there, she took the opportunities she had to build the rest. She taught me to live within seeming contradictions, and shattered my notion that faith meant shoving myself into what I saw, rather than working with God to see what we could create together. Not that I’ve done anything revolutionary, but still, the world is a beautiful place when you can see it as both/and, and when you are given freedom to create a narrative of your mutual choosing.
Emmeline Wells taught me that faith is complicated. Polygamy, and her church membership as a whole, both expanded and limited her life. It would be a mistake to disregard either side of that equation. But I love that she opted for the path that expanded her life and built from there.