The Woman's Exponent
Brigham Young had brought his Mormon people west in search of sanctuary from the rest of the United States. But the new transcontinental railroad now ran right through Utah. And it began bringing thousands of new settlers into Young's kingdom -- non-believers who threatened his authority and deplored the Mormon practice of plural marriage, polygamy.
Mormons must have viewed the completion of the Transcontinental railroad
with an incredible ambiguity. On the one hand, they were a very commercial
people. They understood precisely how important the railroad was going
to be to the growth of business and industry in Salt Lake and in Utah.
On the other hand, being able to sustain their way of life depended almost
absolutely on a powerful degree of isolation. The railroad destroyed that,
the railroad opened up the gates, the railroad let the world in, and sometimes
let the Mormons out, and it had to have been a terrible blow to the base
of the society's confidence in itself.
In 1870, some five thousand Mormon women held an "Indignation Meeting" in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. They were protesting against those non-believers who had dared criticize plural marriage.
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.
One of the keynote speakers at the rally was a determined, hard-working woman named Emmeline Wells. Born in Massachusetts and graduated from a select girls school, Wells had converted to Mormonism and moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, where she lost her first child and was abandoned by her husband -- all before the age of sixteen.
A second husband died. Then she became the seventh wife of Daniel H. Wells, the mayor of Salt Lake City. Now, she lived in her own small house, and helped to support herself and her family when Wells's finances suffered. "I have no strong arm to lean upon... no protection or comfort in my husband," she wrote privately in her diary. And yet, her commitment to plural marriage was unshakeable.
actually think that some of the great feminists were women in polygamy.
My great-great grandmothers among them. If there was a woman who excelled
in teaching, you know she had her own life. If there was another woman
who excelled in cooking or farming, she had her life. And everyone had
kind of their own focus. There was a tremendous sense of sisterhood. And
in many ways the men were immaterial."
Throughout the United States, women were denied the right to vote, and Wells, as the outspoken editor of a popular Mormon newspaper for women, wanted to change that.
In her push for the vote in Utah, Wells found a most unlikely ally: the Mormon patriarch himself, Brigham Young. He was certain that adding Mormon women to the voters' rolls would only strengthen his hold on Utah.
On February 12th, 1870, with Young's backing, the Utah territorial legislature granted women the right to vote. Two days later, they exercised it. Young's niece voted first, followed by one of his daughters.
Eventually, Emmeline Wells joined the leadership of the national suffrage movement, determined to win for all American women the right now enjoyed in Utah. But she never stopped lobbying for another cause, just as precious to her: the right to remain a plural wife.
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
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