Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Emmeline Wells, Part 1

I believe in women, especially thinking women
-Emmeline Wells

I am excited and nervous about writing this series of posts about Emmeline Wells. I can't begin to describe my admiration, respect, and gratitude for this woman, and I want to do her justice.

I have a confession. Before starting this project, I intentionally avoided accounts of polygamous women in the early church because I thought that with my feminist sensibilities, I would have a hard time handling their circumstances. So imagine my surprise when I read account after account of empowered, intelligent, and independent women's rights activists who also happened to be in polygamous marriages (although it is clear that not all women in polygamous relationships had this experience). Emmeline Wells was one of the first of these women that I encountered. Her life and accomplishments impress me, and I'll talk about them in upcoming posts. But I love her strong sense of self and her convictions, and I want to focus on that today. In addition to being an advocate for women's suffrage, she was also an advocate for the right of Utah women to be in polygamous relationships as a part of their religious commitment. I love how she combines these belief systems in her rhetoric:

The world says polygamy makes women inferior to men -- we think differently. Polygamy gives women more time for thought, for mental culture, more freedom of action, a broader field of labor... and leads women more directly to God, the fountain of all truth.

Another of my favorites of her quotes on the topic:

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 women can exist without their being constantly at hand... it will perhaps take a little of the conceit out of some of them.

I love Emmeline's ability to carve a niche for herself in these two seemingly contradictory realms. While she wasn't always happy with her treatment under both of these systems (and for good reason), she stayed true to her convictions and made important contributions to both the women's rights movement and the LDS church. Instead of nursing hurt feelings, she worked to foster understanding and make improvements. While I can't relate at all to wanting to be in a polygamous relationship, I relate to her efforts to reconcile her faith and feminism. I hope as I go through life, I'll be able to develop the moral compass that Emmeline had so I can find my own place within these two value systems, and to contribute in my small way to both groups.

PBS: The West, Episode 5


Elissa said...

Those quotes make me really like Emmeline Wells. I'm anxious to hear more.

Jon W. said...

Emmeline is one of my favourites of the period. I think she was a take no prisoners type who matched up well against the Anti-polygamists.

Andrea said...

I named my daughter after Emmeline B. Wells although I spelled it Emeline. I think it is so important for my daughters to have strong female role models in and out of the church (I have another daughter named Harriet--after Harriet Tubman.)