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Introduction Unique Sisterhood: Revelation Unique Sisterhood: Helping, Healing Unique Sisterhood: Polygamy & Politics Unique Sisterhood: In their own words


I am glad that there is a little spirit among our sisters, and that they dare say that their souls are their own. John Taylor, 1871 (Arrington 220).

From 1840-1890, women of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormon Church, embodied a multitude of contradictions. Many reasons induced Americans during this time to move across the growing country. These women claimed to possess a higher purpose, however. Revelation, as shown to them by their prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr., led these women throughout their journey west. The guidance he and other prophets gave, which they claimed Jesus Christ and God the Father revealed to them, led the members of this new American church both spiritually and politically, and ultimately shaped the unique sisterhood of the female members.

"It is natural for females to have feelings of charity," Joseph Smith told the women of his church. (Arrington 222). On March 17, 1842, in Smith's store in Nauvoo, Illinois, his wife Emma and other LDS women organized the church's first women's organization - the Relief Society. Throughout the years the organization fulfilled its goal of being a charitable institution where women of the church could display and cultivate their numerous talents. The Relief Society became the arena through which the women discussed and debated the pressing issues of their day, namely polygamy and suffrage, while attending to the spiritual and physical needs of their community.

The Temple in Salt Lake City
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

LDS women did not reserve the polygamy debate for the confines of the Relief Society, however. Joseph Smith's revelation of the practice induced much criticism and fright among members of both genders. Two of the most prominent women of the day, Joseph's wife, Emma, and the head of the Relief Society and poet Eliza R. Snow, fought through the emotional complications the practice raised.

Many women could not deny the everyday freedoms that polygamy granted them. Since other wives preoccupied their husbands, women found themselves exempt from the everyday restrictions a monogamous relationship of the time fostered. Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon, a plural wife of a church leader and the first female state senator in the United States (who defeated her husband in the election) stated of women in polygamous marriages, "If her husband has four wives she has three weeks of freedom every month" (Arrington 230). During these weeks of freedom Mormon women focused on other issues, such as suffrage and protesting anti-polygamy legislation before congress, while still maintaining their homes and raising children.

In addition to emotional and political battles, Mormon women had to fight environmental battles as well. As the church trekked across the plains and into the Great Salt Lake Valley in Utah, women worked on an equal basis with men to cultivate the land and develop the towns. Filled with contradictions and complications, the efforts of these women not only promoted the growth of their church, it also contributed to the growth of their country and the expansion of the freedoms of the women in America.

American Studies
at the University of Virginia
Created by Devan Kirk
Last Update: January 15, 2002