Sydney Walker: My personal connection to Emmeline B. Wells, Eliza R. Snow and the suffrage movement

As I sat next to Relief Society General President Jean B. Bingham in the Church History Museum’s exhibit “Sisters for Suffrage: How Utah Women Won the Vote” on its opening night Nov. 21, 2019, I asked her how she felt about Latter-day Saint suffragists and how they organized through Relief Society to advance women’s rights. 

President Bingham answered, “This story inspires me to do the same — to be persistent in being a voice for women, a voice for women all around the world. 

“We have such an opportunity as Relief Society sisters to work together, to support one another, to encourage one another and to actively work so we can improve our situations, increase liberties, and increase freedom to be able to fulfill our potential.”

Over the past several months of reporting, I have developed great admiration for early Relief Society leaders Eliza R. Snow and Emmeline B. Wells, who were perhaps the most influential Latter-day Saint women of their time. I’ve also learned quite a bit about the Relief Society’s role in helping women gain the right to vote — both in Utah and nationally. 

But it wasn’t until recently that I learned I have a personal connection to all of this. 

While going through photos in the Church News archives last week, I came across a photo of the Deseret Hospital Board of Directors, circa 1882. Eliza, president, was seated middle row middle, and Emmeline, secretary, was seated front right.

As I read through the photo caption, my jaw dropped when I recognized the name of the woman seated in the front next to Emmeline: Jane Snyder Richards, my fourth-great grandmother. I was alone in my home office at the time, so there was no one to hear my audible gasp.

Deseret Hospital Board of Directors, circa 1882 (left to right): front row, Jane S. Richards, Emmeline B. Wells, middle row, Phoebe Woodruff, Isabelle Horne, Eliza R. Snow, Zina Young, Marinda Hyde, back row, Dr. Ellis R. Shipp, Bathsheba W. Smith, Elizabeth Howard, Dr. Romania Pratt Penrose.
Deseret Hospital Board of Directors, circa 1882 (left to right): front row, Jane S. Richards, Emmeline B. Wells, middle row, Phoebe Woodruff, Isabelle Horne, Eliza R. Snow, Zina Young, Marinda Hyde, back row, Dr. Ellis R. Shipp, Bathsheba W. Smith, Elizabeth Howard, Dr. Romania Pratt Penrose. Credit: Church History Library

I didn’t know Jane was my fourth-great grandmother until two days earlier after exploring RelativeFinder.org, and at this point, I still didn’t really know who she was.

But to see a photo of her sitting next to Emmeline and Eliza — it was as if I discovered gold. Learning that my ancestor sat next to these women, talked with these women, worked with these women and traveled with these women gave me an overwhelming feeling of joy and connection and added meaning to my recent work. Suddenly these women became more real.

Jane was the wife of Franklin Dewey Richards, who served as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for 50 years and as the first president of the Genealogical Society of Utah (now FamilySearch) when it was organized in 1894. 

A member of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, Jane later served as first counselor to Zina D. H. Young in the Relief Society general presidency from 1888-1901. With a call to serve as president of the Weber Stake Relief Society in Ogden, Utah, in 1877, she became the first female stake officer in the Church. She served in this capacity for 31 years. 

Jane Snyder Richards was the wife of Apostle Franklin Dewey Richards.
Jane Snyder Richards was the wife of Apostle Franklin Dewey Richards. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Josephine Richards West, Jane’s daughter who later served in the Primary general presidency, referred to her mother in her autobiography as “an indefatigable worker in the Relief Society for the greater part of her life.”

“In every position, she was most energetic in the performance of duty and never left anything undone for the advancement of the cause she represented,” Josephine wrote of her mother. “Few women have done more for the poor and unfortunate, irrespective of religious affiliations for she knew no creed in her work.”

Jane was a suffragist and active in the advancement of women’s rights. She accompanied Emmeline to the National Council of Women held in Washington, D.C., in 1891, and returned as a Utah delegate to the National Council of Women held in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1898. 

Emmeline’s diaries mention she and Jane attending women’s suffrage meetings and Relief Society meetings, visiting sisters together and writing Jane a letter for her 70th birthday. They were dear friends.

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

Some of Jane’s teachings to women are recorded in Relief Society minute books. At one conference, she counseled, “Put aside the many little vexations and think of the great blessings we receive every day. Those who are impoverished in Spirit are suffering the worst kind of poverty.”

At another conference, she taught, “Women should not expect the Church to do all their teaching for them. Nor should they assume that children will cling to the Gospel simply by living in a home where parents model Christ’s teachings. … We cannot expect our children to be carried away with the Gospel if we do not teach it to them.”

Church News reporter Sydney Walker interviews Relief Society General President Jean B. Bingham at the Church History Museum’s exhibit “Sisters for Suffrage: How Utah Women Won the Vote” on its opening night Nov. 21, 2019
Church News reporter Sydney Walker interviews Relief Society General President Jean B. Bingham at the Church History Museum’s exhibit “Sisters for Suffrage: How Utah Women Won the Vote” on its opening night Nov. 21, 2019 Credit: Trent Toone

Thrilled with these and other discoveries about Jane, I longed to talk with my late grandfather, Allyn Joseph Wirrick, through whom I am related to Jane. Instead, I called his 94-year-old brother Calvin “Uncle Cal” Wirrick. 

We talked for quite awhile about our ancestors. When I asked how he felt about being a direct descendant of Franklin, Jane and the Richards family, Uncle Cal said, “I’ve got some good lines.”

Then he added with a chuckle, “But it doesn’t do much for me. I’ve got to prove myself.”

I, too, want to honor my ancestors’ legacy by living a life of faith, service and devotion to the gospel.

I hope that one day, Jane can look down at her fourth-great granddaughter and know that her sacrifices and service didn’t go in vain — that wherever I am, I am striving to play an active role in Relief Society, serve those around me and stand for truth, just as she did.