Mormon History Association – Women’s Public Life and Activism Tour

As usual, the annual conference of the Mormon History Association featured several pre- and post-conference tours. Dawn and I signed up for the “Mormon Women’s Public Life and Activism” tour, led by Professor Andrea Radke-Moss, of BYU Idaho, and Janelle Higbee, a member of the Mormon Women’s History Initiative Team. It was a fun and instructive day, as we traveled by bus to various sites in the Salt Lake City area pertinent to Mormon women’s history. I brought along my camera, as did Dawn, and we took lots of photos. Here are some of them. (Click on a photo to enlarge it on your screen.)

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Our tour group on the steps of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum

Our first stop was the Salt Lake City Cemetery, where we visited a number of the gravesite of important pioneer women. We could have spent the entire day in that interesting place, but since our time was limited, we contented ourselves with a few headstones in convenient locations. Andrea gave a brief discussion of each of the women whose graves we visited.

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Emmeline B. Wells (1828-1921), married at 15 to a young man who soon deserted her, became the plural wife of the much older Newel K. Whitney in Nauvoo, came to Utah with the Whitney family, then when NKW died, she became the plural wife Daniel H. Wells, a prominent civic leader who became counselor to Brigham Young. She was a prodigious journal keeper, editor of the Woman’s Exponent, staunch women’s rights advocate, delegate to the Utah Constitutional Convention, member of the U.S. National Council of Women, frequent representative to women’s suffrage conventions, associate of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and, after serving in the presidency of the Relief Society for decades, became its fifth General President in 1910 at the age of 82.

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Elizabeth Ann Smith Whitney (1800-1882), first wife of the prominent and prosperous Newel K. Whitney, she was the mother of eleven natural children and adopted several other homeless children. The Whitneys’ owned the general store in Kirtland; Joseph Smith stayed with them when he first arrived there. Elizabeth became one of the original leaders of the Relief Society in Nauvoo, serving as a counselor to Emma Smith. Later, in Utah, she served as a counselor in the Relief Society general presidency under Eliza R. Snow.

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Mary Fielding Smith Kimball (1801-1852), married Hyrum Smith in 1837 after his first wife died. When Hyrum was murdered in 1844, Mary elected to follow Brigham Young west and became a plural wife of Young’s counselor, Apostle Heber C. Kimball. Mary and Hyrum’s son, Joseph F. Smith, became the sixth president of the Church; their grandson, Joseph Fielding Smith, became the tenth president of the Church.


Monument to Hyrum Smith. Although Hyrum Smith was murdered with his brother, Joseph, in Carthage, Illinois, and is buried in Nauvoo, this large monument to his memory was erected in the Salt Lake Cemetery. It dwarfs that of his wife, Mary (see above), who, of course, is the reason Hyrum Smith’s descendants grew up in Utah and therefore were in a position to assume leadership positions in the LDS Church.

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Our tour group, with Andrea Radke-Moss (center, in the white hat) lecturing on some of the prominent women buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

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Phoebe Carter Woodruff (1807-1885), was the first wife of Wilford Woodruff, the fourth president of the Church. She suffered great hardship as a consequence of her husband’s demanding responsibilities. During much of their early marriage he was traveling overseas on Church missions; in their later years, he was living on the underground, trying to evade federal marshals who had warrants for his arrest on polygamy charges. For a time, Phoebe left the territory to avoid being called to testify. She was a vocal supporter of polygamy, feeling that congress had denied the Saints their right to worship as they saw fit. She died at the age of 78 after falling and suffering a serious head injury. Wilford risked arrest to visit her after the accident; although he dared not attend her funeral, he watched from a window as the funeral procession passed.

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Martha (“Mattie”) Hughes Cannon (1857-1932). After receiving a chemistry degree from the University of Deseret, she attended the University of Michigan Medical School, receiving her MD in 1880 when she was 23. After briefly practicing medicine in Michigan, and earning a degree in Pharmacy from the University of Pennsylvania, she returned to Utah to become a resident physician for the Deseret Hospital. Two years later she married Angus M. Cannon, Superintendent of the hospital and a local Church and civic leader. Later she became involved in the national women’s suffrage movement and was a featured speaker the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. In 1896, Martha, a Democrat, became the first woman ever elected as a state senator in the United States, defeating her husband, Angus, a Republican. 

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Leah Dunford Widsoe (1874-1975), was the daughter of Susa Young and Alma Dunford. Her mother, a daughter of Brigham Young, later divorced Dunford, re-married, and achieved considerable renown as Susa Young Gates, a writer, editor and woman’s rights advocate. Leah spent a summer term at Harvard University, graduated from the University of Utah as the valedictorian of her class, studied economics at the Pratt Institute, and received a degree in pedagogy from BYU. While at Harvard she met John A. Widsoe, a Norwegian immigrant, who would become her husband and an Apostle in the Church.  Leah believed homemaking and raising children were the most important professions she could have and was the author of numerous pamphlets and articles on homemaking.

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Emily Sophia Tanner Richards (1850-1929), was an important figure in Utah women’s suffrage. She came from a prominent Church family; her father (Nathan Tanner) had been a part of Zion’s Camp and her grandfather had been a key financier of the building of the Kirtland Temple. Her husband was the leading attorney for the Church. In 1888, after securing permission from Church leadership, she formed the Utah chapter of the National Women’s Suffrage Association and in 1896 she was an alternate delegate to the Democratic National Convention for Utah. She also served as a member of the Relief Society General Board.


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Andrea Radke-Moss, BYU Idaho, tour director and primary lecturer.

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Janelle M. Higbee, Mormon History Initiative Team, tour director.

20160609 Women's History 40466Jeff Johnson, retired archivist in the Church History Department, wrote a leading article on the wives of Brigham Young in Dialogue, knowledgable about many aspects of pioneer history.

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Dawn Parrett Thurston, award-winning author, teacher and lecturer on life story writing, associate tour photographer, in a 50-year committed relationship with the author of this blog.

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Emily Warburton Jensen, ill-behaved Web Editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, wife of Robin Jensen (Associate Managing Historian for the Joseph Smith Papers), mother of five.


After leaving the Salt Lake Cemetery, we traveled to the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers museum. This is a fascinating place, chock full of photographs and memorabilia relating to Utah pioneers, particularly women pioneers. Here are a few photos from that stop:

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Jenny Reeder, a specialist in nineteenth century women’s history with the Church History Department, gave an interesting presentation on the Salt Lake 20th Ward Quilt.

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Other scenes from the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum


After leaving the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum, we walked several blocks to the historic Nineteenth Ward Meetinghouse and Relief Society Hall. The Hall is one of many buildings built under the direction of the Relief Society and owned by them in former times. Now priesthood correlation has brought everything done by the Relief Society under the umbrella of Priesthood (meaning male) leadership. The building is no longer used for religious purposes, serving as a dressing and costume room for the Salt Lake Acting Company, which stages its productions in the 19th Ward Meetinghouse next door.



19th Ward Relief Society Hall

MAT_3209_HDRHistoric 19th Ward Meetinghouse

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Interesting flora growing in front of the 19th Ward Meetinghouse


Our next stop was This is the Place Heritage Park, where we had lunch. Dawn and I hadn’t visited “This is the Place” for many years and were unaware that a living outdoor pioneer town/museum had sprung up in the interim. It provided some fun photo opportunities.


Of primary interest to our particular tour was the Deseret Hospital. Several nineteenth century women who practiced here had travelled east to obtain their medical degrees and then returned to serve as physicians in this hospital. Among these were (1) Romaina Bunnell Pratt Penrose, who left five young sons with her mother and obtained an MD degree from Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia, and is credited with performing the first successful cataract operation in the Utah territory, (2) Ellis Reynolds Shipp, who also  left several small children and moved to Philadelphia to obtain her medical degree; when she returned she not only took treated her own patients, but also trained almost 500 midwives throughout the Utah territory, and (3) Martha Hughes Cannon, (see bio under gravestone photo above), who also received a medical degree, as well as a degree in oratory, which likely helped her later defeat her husband to become the nation’s first female state senator.

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One of the docents serving at the Deseret Hospital building gave us a lecture and demonstrated pioneer medical tools and practices.


Here are some of the instruments used by these pioneer women physicians. 

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The second floor of the Deseret Hospital contained several interesting exhibits of clothing of the type worn by the women who worked there.

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I find it hard to resist taking photos of colorful flowers. These were outside the Deseret Hospital.


The photographer me would have enjoyed staying all afternoon to take images of the interesting buildings there. As our time was limited, however, I just snapped photos of the buildings we happened to pass. This beautiful mill house is a replica of the Manti Fort Gristmill, originally built in 1854. Small gristmills were generally the first industrial structures built in each town and produced flour from grain.


Not sure what this beautiful house is.


Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institute wagon. ZCMI bills itself as “America’s first department store.”


A barn representational of the barns throughout Utah territory; very similar to my grandfather’s barn that I played in when I was growing up.

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 The blog author/photographer beside an old painted wagon.


In early Utah the Relief Society was an independent organization with its own membership requirements, its own financing and its own buildings. This is a replica representing the various Relief Society halls found in Utah Territory.

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During our visit to one of the homes at the Heritage Park, Dawn found these delightful children dressed in pioneer garb and couldn’t resist photographing them.

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Here is the whole family.


And some of the girls.

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A pioneer ice cream cone?


Our last photo opportunity was the Utah State Capitol Building, where we learned about various women political leaders and landmark laws affecting women.

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Jeff Johnson & Dawn Thurston on the steps of the capitol building.

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These two women acted as our guides in the state capitol. They are standing by a bust of Martha Hughes Cannon, the first female representative to a state legislature in the nation.


Inside the grand hallway of the Utah State capitol building.

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Decorative item on staircases featuring a beehive, Utah’s symbol of industry, which is the state motto. 


I thought it would be interesting to take a photo looking straight up at the dome of the capitol building from the inside.

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Utah State House of Representatives Chamber

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Mural hanging above the senate chamber depicting Seraph Young, a grandniece of Brigham Young, casting the first ballot by a woman in Utah in 1870, when Utah became the second state in the union to permit women to vote in state elections.

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Utah State Senate Chamber. In Utah, about 15 percent of the state legislators are women. This is not something to be proud of; of the 50 states, only Wyoming had a significantly lower percentage of women. Utah’s percentage was about the same as Louisiana’s.  

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The desks in both legislative houses were entirely clear of any books, papers or other detritus, except for two small action figures. There was a little elephant on one desk (signifying, I suppose, unswerving allegiance to the Republican party principles), and this little figure of the Nephite Captain Moroni, holding the banner of liberty (signifying, I suppose, unswerving allegiance to so-called religious liberty causes).


The door to the Supreme Court chambers, where Christine Durham serves as the first ever female chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court.

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Janelle HIgbee and Keepapitchinin blogger extraordinaire, Ardis Parshall.

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Tour leaders, Andrea Radke-Moss and Janelle Higbee standing by the statue of Mattie Hughes Cannon, the nation’s first elected female state representative. 

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A final group photo before boarding the bus.

I very much enjoyed our tour and found it inspiring to hear the things Mormon women have accomplished. I find it astounding to contemplate how relatively recently women have achieved such basic rights as the right to vote, not just in the United States, but around the world. I’m proud that Mormon-dominated Utah became one of the first states to grant women suffrage, but not so proud that so few women have been elected to the state legislature in our time, and not so proud of Church’s leading role in blocking passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Changes toward gender equality in the Church are coming gradually, but I doubt I’ll live long enough to see full equality.

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