2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted suffrage to women nationally, and the 150th anniversary of Utah women being the first in the nation to vote under an equal suffrage law. The 1892–96 diaries of Emmeline B. Wells highlight the important contributions of Wells and other Latter-day Saints to the national suffrage movement.
Describing the newly released diaries, project coeditor Cherry B. Silver said,
“If at any time in her life, Emmeline Wells needed to go to work with a will to advance the cause of women, the mid-1890s were that.” Coeditor Sheree M. Bench noted that the diaries show that Wells’s “growth as a leader came in stages, made possible by a burning desire to elevate women.”
Women’s Suffrage Leaders, 1895. 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. (PH 2296, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.)
Readers will see the frenetic pace of Wells’s life in the pages of her diaries—from her work in the Relief Society, to editing the Woman’s Exponent newspaper, to traveling and speaking. A sampling of Wells’s activities includes:
- April 6, 1892: Saw the capstone laid on the Salt Lake Temple.
- May 20, 1893: Presided over the Woman’s Congress at the World’s Columbian Exposition.
- October 5, 1893: Was elected president of the Utah Territorial Woman Suffrage Association.
- April 4, 1894: Chaired the semiannual convention of the Utah Territorial Woman Suffrage Association.
- May 12–15, 1895: Hosted Susan B. Anthony and Anna Howard Shaw in Salt Lake City for the Rocky Mountain convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
- January 4 and 6, 1896: Celebrated statehood for Utah.
The Church History Museum and the Church Historian’s Press will live stream a special presentation titled “Going to Work with a Will: Emmeline B. Wells and the Road to Suffrage” on August 4, 2020, at 7:00 p.m. The presentation will illuminate the role of Emmeline B. Wells and other Latter-day Saints in the fight for suffrage. The online event is free and open to all.
All forty-seven of Wells’s diaries will eventually be published at churchhistorianspress.org/emmeline-b-wells. The original diaries are owned by the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University. Officials there have generously permitted the press to publish transcripts of the diaries.
About the Diaries
The forty-seven volumes of diaries kept by Emmeline B. Wells provide a window into the life of one of the most influential Latter-day Saints in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In them she is both historymaker, as she meets with presidents and works with national suffrage leaders, and historian, as she records noteworthy events and her daily interactions with and impressions of prominent members of her community. She provides glimpses into her relationships with family, friends, and church leaders. She declares her faith in God even in the face of tragedy. The diaries are a record of her perceptions and philosophies, and they are valuable not only to historians but also to those simply curious about this remarkable woman and the time in which she lived.
Emmeline Blanche Woodward was born in Petersham, Franklin County, Massachusetts, on February 29, 1828. As a young woman, she listened to Latter-day Saint missionaries and was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She migrated to Nauvoo, Illinois, and then to the Salt Lake Valley.
Emmeline married three times. She and her first husband, James Harris, had a son who died at a few weeks of age, after which James left in search of work and never returned. She then married Newel K. Whitney as a plural wife, and they had two daughters. After Newel K. Whitney died, Emmeline married Daniel H. Wells as a plural wife. Emmeline and Daniel Wells had three daughters.
In 1873 Emmeline Wells began writing articles for a recently launched newspaper called the Woman’s Exponent. She was soon enlisted as associate editor and then became editor in 1877. She remained editor until terminating the paper in 1914.
Wells helped link Latter-day Saint women to national women’s organizations and championed the achievements of the women of Utah to leaders and members of these organizations. She worked as a committee member for the National Woman Suffrage Association (later National American Woman Suffrage Association), the National and International Councils of Women, and the National Woman’s Press Association. In the state, she headed the Utah Territorial Woman Suffrage Association. She served as secretary of the board of the Deseret Hospital Association. She served her political party and ran for state senate, though she was not elected. She organized two local women’s clubs and supported the beginnings of the Daughters of the Revolution and Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. She shared her talent for organization and meeting management with a broad range of church and civic leaders.
Her aptitude for public speaking and keen memory served her well in church service. She assisted general Relief Society president Eliza R. Snow as a secretary and often traveled with her to visit wards and stakes. Under general president Zina D. H. Young, she was named corresponding secretary and wrote countless letters by hand. With Bathsheba W. Smith as general president, Wells was called as general Relief Society secretary, a role in which she acted much like an executive director of the board as she set up meetings and arranged travel schedules. In 1910, at the death of Bathsheba Smith, church president Joseph F. Smith and his counselors called Emmeline B. Wells as fifth general Relief Society president. She died on April 25, 1921, at age ninety-three.
About the Church Historian’s Press
The Church Historian’s Press was announced in 2008 by the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The aim of the Church Historian’s Press is to increase access to materials related to the history of the church. Previous publications include the Joseph Smith Papers, documents chronicling the early history of the Relief Society, discourses by Latter-day Saint women, the Journal of George Q. Cannon, the Journal of George F. Richards, and the Discourses of Eliza R. Snow. For more information, visit the Church Historian’s Press website.