Unshakeable in her commitment to plural marriage, Emmeline Wells was a leading figure in Mormon politics and in the women's suffrage movement who helped close the gap of misunderstanding that separated Mormons and non-Mormon America for more than fifty years.
Wells was born into a somewhat intellectual New Hampshire family in 1828. Her father died when she was four, and she was raised by her mother and numerous older siblings. But this fairly conventional New England upbringing took an unusual turn in 1841 when Wells returned home from boarding school to find that her mother had converted to Mormonism. Wells soon converted as well, and the next year, at the age of fifteen, she was married to the son of the leader of the local Mormon church. In less than a year, the young couple left New England for the Mormon enclave at Nauvoo, Illinois, arriving there several months before Mormon founder Joseph Smith was murdered by an anti-Mormon mob.
For Wells, personal tragedy marked the tumult following Smith's murder. Her month-old son died in November 1844, and soon thereafter her husband, whose parents had parted ways with the church, abandoned her. Nevertheless, Emmeline and her faith in Mormonism survived. Three months later she accepted the Mormon's only recently revealed doctrine of plural marriage and entered into plural marriage with a Mormon elder in a ceremony presided over by Brigham Young.
Wells was part of the Mormon exodus from Illinois, traveling overland across the prairies, and arrived in Utah in 1848. In 1852, two years after the death of her second husband, she became the seventh wife of Daniel Wells, a leading member of the Mormon community and a general of the Mormon militia. After Emmeline bore her fifth and last child in 1862, she turned her efforts toward politics and public service. She began writing for the Mormon women's magazine The Woman's Exponent, becoming its editor in 1877. With the encouragement of her second husband's first wife, she also became very active in the Relief Society, a charitable group run by Mormon women.
Through The Woman's Exponent, Wells became an articulate spokesperson for women's rights and a defender of plural marriage. Drawing on her own experience, she argued against the view, widespread in the non-Mormon world, that women's rights and plural marriage were irreconcilable opposites, the one based in sexual freedom and the other in sexual bondage. For Wells, women's rights and plural marriage were instead complementary, since in plural marriage a woman found the personal freedom and independence to exercise her rights as a member of society. And she gained a more detached perspective on the male part of society than a woman whose social standing rested on a single man.
Wells put her advocacy of women's rights into practice by waging a campaign for women's suffrage in Utah, which met with success in 1870 when the Mormon legislature, fearful of the growing number of predominantly male non-Mormons arriving in the territory, gave women the right to vote. (The legislature still prevented women from holding office, however, and blocked Wells' efforts to become Salt Lake City's treasurer.) In 1887, Congress stripped Utah women of their voting rights as part of a protracted effort to deprive the Mormon Church of its political power and force an end to the practice of plural marriage. In response, Wells and other women formed the Woman Suffrage Association of Utah, a group devoted to returning the vote to Utah women. They were finally successful in 1896 when Utah was admitted to statehood with a female suffrage clause in its constitution.
Wells played an important part in the process of mutual understanding that eventually brought the Mormon community into the mainstream of a non-Mormon, frequently anti-Mormon, American society. To Mormons, her prominence within national organization such as the Woman's Republican League and the National Suffrage Association was evidence that Americans were not universally hostile. To other Americans, Wells' national stature and friendship with such luminaries as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Carrie Chapman Catt made it more difficult to reflexively think of Mormons as anti-social deviants. The Mormon hierarchy appreciated her service. In 1912 she was awarded an honorary degree from Brigham Young University, and in 1928, seven years after her death, a marble bust of her likeness was placed in Utah's capital building.
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