Emmeline B. Wells’ diaries give insight to women’s suffrage movement

In May 1895, an article in a national women’s magazine mentioned Latter-day Saint suffragist Emmeline B. Wells

“From far-off Salt Lake City comes Mrs. Emeline B. Wells, a smiling, demure, and well-bred woman,” the article stated, misspelling her name. “Nevertheless she is one of the crack debaters of the Council. She brings to the task an inexhaustible memory, a neat delivery, and a perfect self-possession. She is a royal enthusiast who has devoted her life to woman’s enfranchisement.” (Margherita A. Hamm, “The National Council of Women,” Peterson’s Magazine, 5:499.)

Emmeline, “the royal enthusiast” who was about 67 years old at the time, recorded in her diary that she and Susa Young Gates went and bought two copies of the magazine because the mention “was pretty good.” 

A few months later, Emmeline wrote, “I have desired with all my heart to do those things that would advance women in moral and spiritual as well as educational work and tend to the rolling on of the work of God upon the earth.”

Emmeline B. Wells traveled to Washington, D.C., in January 1879 to attend the annual convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association. In her diary entry of Jan. 14, Wells noted, “This morn. went to Photo-gallery had pictures taken.” The photograph was taken at the Charles M. Bell studio in Washington.
Emmeline B. Wells traveled to Washington, D.C., in January 1879 to attend the annual convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association. In her diary entry of Jan. 14, Wells noted, “This morn. went to Photo-gallery had pictures taken.” The photograph was taken at the Charles M. Bell studio in Washington. Credit: Church History Library

Emmeline B. Wells was a Latter-day Saint woman highly esteemed on the national stage. A women’s rights activist, she worked as a committee member for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the National and International Councils of Women and the National Woman’s Press Association. She later served as the fifth Relief Society general president for the Church. 

“Emmeline and her friends worked very hard to get women’s suffrage into the state constitution,” said Cherry Silver, co-editor for the Emmeline B. Wells diaries project. After the constitution was passed, “She and her friends voted to continue to work to support the national movement, which came in the 19th Amendment signed in August 1920.”

August 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. This month also marks the 150th anniversary of Utah women being the first in the nation to vote under an equal suffrage law.

Highlighting Emmeline’s contributions to the national suffrage movement, her 1892-1896 diaries are now available at ChurchHistoriansPress.org/Emmeline-B-Wells. The public is invited to a lecture on Tuesday, Aug. 4, at 7 p.m. titled “Going to Work with a Will: Emmeline B. Wells and the Road to Suffrage” that will be streamed live on the Church History Museum’s Facebook page.

Growth through leadership

Emmeline Blanche Woodward was born on Feb. 29, 1828, in Petersham, Massachusetts. Though her father died when she was 4 years old, her mother made it possible for her to receive a good education. She was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at age 14 in a frozen-over brook near her home

She migrated to Nauvoo, Illinois, where she married Newel K. Whitney as a plural wife after her young husband, James H. Harris, abandoned her. After crossing the plains to Utah and becoming a widow, she wrote a “subtle letter of proposal” to Daniel H. Wells — a friend of her late husband who would later become a counselor in the First Presidency to President Brigham Young — and became his plural wife. She had one son with Harris, two daughters with Whitney and three daughters with Wells. 

“We see Emmeline as kind of a powerhouse, a very influential woman. But she didn’t start out that way,” said Sheree Bench, who works with Silver as a co-editor for the Emmeline B. Wells diaries project. “She started in her own ward Relief Society as an assistant secretary.”

Notable events in Emmeline B. Wells' diares 1892-1896.
Notable events in Emmeline B. Wells’ diares 1892-1896. Credit: Mary Archbold/Church News graphic

Emmeline gained confidence and experience through several leadership roles, including serving as secretary for Eliza R. Snow, second general Relief Society president, and traveling with her to visit wards and stakes, Bench said. 

She began writing articles for the Woman’s Exponent (a newspaper edited by and for Latter-day Saint women) in 1873 and served as editor from 1877-1914. She was appointed by Brigham Young to lead the grain-saving project for the Church in 1876. 

“Then she ends up becoming the woman who represents Latter-day Saint women in the halls of Congress,” Bench said. In her diaries, “we get to see how she grows and how she’s a little tentative at first, but then she really does blossom and become this very influential woman.”

Many of these formative experiences from Emmeline’s life are recorded in the first six volumes of her diaries covering 1844 to 1879, transcriptions of which were published on ChurchHistoriansPress.org in March

1892-1896: Relief Society and suffrage

At the beginning of her 1892-1896 diaries, Emmeline was a new widow following Daniel Wells’ death in March 1891, and she supported herself through the Woman’s Exponent — “a subscription selling for a meager $1-2 a year,” Silver noted. She relocated from her home on State Street in Salt Lake City to a home on South Temple where the Joseph Smith Memorial Building now stands. 

Emmeline recorded entries about the Relief Society Jubilee — a celebration honoring 50 years of the founding of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo — held in the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City on March 17, 1892. 

Serving as secretary for President Zina D. H. Young at the time, Emmeline was heavily involved in preparing for the event and helped order “an immense key of green & white three feet long … to represent the [key] of knowledge Joseph Smith turned for women …

“Since which time women have been developing powers and attributes which had previously lain dormant and also claiming independence and freedom in civil political and religious matters unheard of before,” she wrote on March 14, 1892.

Timeline: What Latter-day Saints can learn from the history of Utah women voting

Another noteworthy event in this time period was a meeting during the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in Atlanta, Georgia, in February 1895 — where women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony demonstrated public affection and friendship toward Emmeline. 

“She puts her arm around her and recognizes her in front of the entire conference,” Bench said. “That’s a really important moment for Emmeline that she records in her diary” (see Feb. 2, 1895 entry).

Through her support of women’s suffrage, Emmeline B. Wells (standing near center of photograph, with white scarf) won the respect of national suffrage leaders, including Susan B. Anthony (front row, third from right). Anthony and Wells maintained a lifelong friendship.
Through her support of women’s suffrage, Emmeline B. Wells (standing near center of photograph, with white scarf) won the respect of national suffrage leaders, including Susan B. Anthony (front row, third from right). Anthony and Wells maintained a lifelong friendship. Credit: Church History Library

Emmeline greatly admired Anthony and fellow women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the genuine respect was mutual, Silver said. “Although Anthony and her cohorts never accepted Latter-day Saint philosophy or religious viewpoint, still they admired what these (Latter-day Saint) women could do, and Emmeline enjoyed being with them.” 

In the Woman’s Exponent in February 1895, Emmeline wrote that the convention in Atlanta was “a notable gathering of brilliant cultured brainy women.” 

“That combination — ‘brilliant, cultured, brainy’ — really appealed to her,” Silver said. “And I think she saw herself of that sort.”

Emmeline and others hosted Anthony and women’s rights activist Anna Howard Shaw in Salt Lake City for the Rocky Mountain convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in May 1895. 

Other highlights in this volume of Emmeline’s diaries include seeing the capstone laid on the Salt Lake Temple in April 1892; presiding over the Woman’s Congress at the World’s Columbian Exposition in May 1893; being elected president of the Utah Territorial Woman Suffrage Association in October 1893; and chairing the semiannual convention of the Utah Territorial Woman Suffrage Association in April 1894. Emmeline ran for state senate in 1896 but was not elected.

Influence on women today

Lisa Olsen Tait, a historian and specialist in women’s history at the Church History Department, said the example of Emmeline and her associates working in “well-informed” and “well-prepared” ways can be inspirational for Latter-day Saint women today. 

“We should see them as role models,” Tait said. “We should see them as mentors. They took themselves seriously. They took their work seriously. They were out to make a mark. And they did.”

Left to right: Louie B. Felt, Primary Association general president; Emmeline B. Wells, Relief Society general president; and Martha H. Tingey, Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association general president. Photograph by the Thomas studio.
Left to right: Louie B. Felt, Primary Association general president; Emmeline B. Wells, Relief Society general president; and Martha H. Tingey, Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association general president. Photograph by the Thomas studio. Credit: Church History Library

Though Emmeline and other women recognized the social disadvantages of the time, they advanced women’s rights “without setting up a dynamic that was adversarial against the men in the community,” Tait said. “They worked together with the men in the community whenever possible and always supported the male leadership.

“I think that’s a really important thing that we can learn from, that men and women are ultimately stronger and happier when we work together.”

A total of 47 volumes of Emmeline’s diaries will eventually be published. The original diaries are owned by the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University and digital images of the entries are available on the library’s Special Collections website.