Latter-day Saint History

Who Was Emmeline B. Wells?

Emmeline B. Wells was ambitious and unafraid of hard work. While others slept, she wrote.

Emmeline B. Wells rubbed shoulders with Susan B. Anthony, presided over the general Relief Society, and weathered the ups and downs of pioneer life. Not surprisingly, the Emmeline B. Wells diaries provide rich insights into the lives of nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint women and church leaders. In this interview, biographer Carol Cornwall Madsen tells the story of the prominent Utah pioneer woman.

Learn more by reading Carol Madsen’s biography, Emmeline B. Wells: An Intimate History.

Did Emmeline B. Wells see a difference between religious and secular pursuits?

No. Since she had committed herself in 1889 to work on behalf of her sisters in the Church, Emmeline’s public life rested on her conviction that all women—even Latter-day Saint women—were constrained by forces in the law, society, tradition, and religion.

It was the husband, not the principle that left her lonely.

Emmeline B. Wells believed women of her Church had far more freedom of action, and directed their own Church-based organizations (Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary) but lacked opportunity for general leadership positions both within and outside the Church setting.

Woman suffrage was the unifying goal for women of many persuasions. Emmeline believed, as did many of her co-workers, that once women had the vote, they would be a viable political power, opening doors then closed to them.

Besides extending women’s political rights, she worked to raise the “age of consent” for permission to marry (for a woman), lobbied to pass a married woman’s property rights bill and to permit women to hold local and territorial offices. These were national issues as well as local concerns of Emmeline.

She had herself been nominated for county treasurer in 1878 but had been disqualified because of her sex. This experience solidified her determination to work with women across the country seeking the same rights. The primary difference between these wealthy women seeking the same goals, she discovered, was “money.”

Why was Emmeline Wells such a fierce defender of plural marriage when her marriages were so lonely?

I do not think of Emmeline as a fierce defender of plural marriage, but rather as an unapologetic plural wife who lived the principle because she believed it to be a doctrine of the Church to which she was fully committed.

She was not a crusader (as were some other wives in this regard), but simply entered the practice twice because she believed that it was divinely inspired.

After the death of her second husband, Newel K. Whitney, who had several plural wives but also provided her with his attention and love for five years of their marriage, she selected Daniel H. Wells, also engaged in plural marriage, to be her third husband.

Living in a separate house from his other wives, she did not have the more constant contact shared by his other wives, and his Church and civic duties kept him away from giving her the attention for which she longed.

Emmeline B. Wells lived in a separate home than her husband, Daniel H. Wells, and several of his wives.
Emmeline B. Wells didn’t have as much contact with her husband because she lived in a separate house, according to Carol Cornwall Madsen. Daniel H. Wells lived in this home on the corner of Main Street and South Temple in Salt Lake City with five of his families between 1862 and 1889. Credit: Church Historian’s Press.

It was the husband, not the principle that left her lonely. So, yes, in her second marriage, so carefully chosen and hopefully fulfilling, she found loneliness. It was overwhelming at times, but she gained two delightful families, the Whitneys and the Wells, who enveloped her with love and belonging.

But it was the Latter-day Saint woman’s paper, The Woman’s Exponent, which she edited from 1878 to 1914, that brought the loneliness to an end. Far fewer diary entries expose the loneliness of the first twenty-five years of their marriage.

How did Emmeline Wells receive letters from her first husband decades after he died?

During the romantic finale of Emmeline’s marriage to Daniel Wells, when he seemed to want to erase the years of neglect and awaken the feelings they may have once had together, Emmeline could hardly believe the depth of the love they had that had been denied for so many years.

Yet, while the effort brought inexpressible joy to Emmeline, it carried a deep resentment that she likened to “dead sea apples”—beautiful to the sight but vaporous to the touch.

While others slept, she wrote.

Emmeline pondered what life could have been like had Daniel Wells found a place in his life for her and their children throughout the years when she needed—and wanted—him so much. And then, two years after Daniel’s death and the intense renewal of their early love, Emmeline unexpectedly received a bundle of letters from North New Salem, where her first mother-in-law, Lucy Harris, lived and whom Emmeline had visited often during her trips to the East.

The bundle contained letters from James—beautiful love letters, written until he died in Bombay in 1859. James had sent them to his mother, not knowing Emmeline’s whereabouts. But Lucy had kept the letters despite the many visits Emmeline had made to her home.

At this point in the story, Lucy had died and someone who knew the story of Emmeline’s relationship with James sent the letters to her.

Yes, indeed, “this was another instance of love revealed too late.” Another instance for Emmeline of “dead sea apples.”

Emmeline B. Wells is the subject of Carol Cornwall Madsen’s book, “Emmeline B. Wells: An Intimate History.”

How did Emmeline B. Wells show strength during her sorrows?

Emmeline B. Wells lived on the strength of several absolutes that guided her life, including her belief in Providence, faith in the truths of the gospel, her mother’s example, and belief in herself.


First, Emmeline absolutely believed that her life was overruled by Providence. She did not equate that quality with fate or even a pre-ordained life. She believed, rather, that each experience was an independent incident and a part of mortal existence. For her, each was a lesson meant to teach her a truth.

Unalterable faith

A second force that saw Emmeline B. Wells through her tragedies and disappointments was her unalterable faith in the truth of the gospel as taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her experiences gave her an understanding of how the Church refined and clarified her perspective on life.

She knew that Latter-day Saint women were limited by many of the same mid-Victorian expectations of the “woman’s sphere” within which all women lived at that time—but she believed that Latter-day Saint women enjoyed far more freedom.

Indeed, Emmeline Wells believed that the Church was liberating to women in special ways, and this helped her internalize a sense of equality—or even superiority—with the non-Latter-day Saint women with whom she worked on adjusting social policies that disadvantaged women.

The opportunities enjoyed by Latter-day Saint women were stabilizing for Emmeline. They enabled her to redirect her energies when disappointments, failures, and other impediments interrupted her work and her private life.

Emmeline B. Wells was ambitious and unafraid of hard work. While others slept, she wrote. She learned to bear her burdens silently and alter direction when expedient.

A mother’s example

Emmeline also found that her mother’s example was always before her. She once said to a friend that her mother was an early woman’s rights woman. A widow with eight children, little education, and no skills beyond homemaking, Emmeline’s mother improvised and invented ways to sidestep the legal inequities women faced at that time and provided Emmeline with an unusually fine education for a girl in the early 1800s. Emmeline listened to her advice as words of wisdom.

Belief in herself

And finally, Emmeline believed in herself and the task she had committed to taking on. Surrounded by supportive women, she found great strength in keeping faith with that commitment.

What did Emmeline Wells think Joseph Smith meant when he “turned the key to (the Relief Society) in the name of God”?

I haven’t been able to find documentation—even in the Emmeline B. Wells diaries—in which Emmeline expounded on that significant statement. In the absence of her own words, I’ve concluded that Emmeline’s response was both universal and personal.

For Emmeline, the power thus bestowed by “turning the key” to the Relief Society was a bestowal of authority that gave the Relief Society not just a religious but a sacred, eternal role to play in the salvation of humanity.

The women viewed their organization as partnering with the priesthood quorums, all working towards preparing the world for the second coming of the Savior and the possibility of exaltation. Joseph Smith desired to make of the men and women the Church “a kingdom of priests as in ancient days.”

Thus, with the “turning of the key” to women, the Relief Society had the authority to fulfill its designated place in this supernal enterprise. Joseph counseled the Relief Society that it existed not only to “relieve the poor but to save souls.”

Joseph also explained that the keys related to the temple and that they were instrumental in receiving the knowledge imparted within its sacred walls. For Emmeline, the promise of “knowledge and intelligence” that would accompany the key was a personal bestowal as well. And though generally unexpressed, it seamlessly joined her belief that the exigencies of Providence could be a source of enlightenment and truth.

The investiture of the key to women through the Relief Society raised its status far beyond that of the benevolent societies organized by women during the same time.

Combining the secular and the religious, Emmeline believed it was “providential” that Joseph Smith organized the Relief Society just six years before the first woman’s rights convention—further erasing a differentiation between the secular and religious motives in Emmeline’s work.

How did Emmeline B. Wells feel about Emma Smith?

Emmeline B. Wells never met Emma Smith when she lived in Nauvoo after the Prophet Joseph’s death. But a visit to Nauvoo later in life brought Emmeline only sadness and a sense of regret for the bereaved widow.

Emmeline felt sad at her fate, “separated from those who were her best and truest friends” and remembered her as “once the Elect Lady” (President of the Nauvoo Relief Society), and “honored wife of the great leader of this dispensation.”

A visit to Emma’s gravesite further saddened Emmeline when she saw that nothing of her eventful life was recorded there, “no, not even her name.”

Emmeline never passed judgment as many of her friends did, perhaps because she remembered Nauvoo as a scene of her own first great sorrow and loss.

How did Emmeline B. Wells’s outside associations influence her views?

Emmeline B. Wells seemed to have a charismatic aura about her that drew people—both Latter-day Saints and non-Latter-day Saints into her orbit—despite her marital status as a plural wife (which many of her non-Latter-day Saint associates disdained).

She was tiny in stature but large in self-assurance and urbanity. Her intelligence and capabilities were quickly recognized by national women’s leaders, headed by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, May Wright Sewall, of the National Council of Women, and the Reverent Anna Howard Shaw. Others found Emmeline Wells not only extremely devoted to the cause of women’s advancement but also eager to promote the commonality of women and the National Council of Women, organized to achieve that kind of female unity.

Overall, Emmeline felt that the Church offered women far more individual opportunities than women generally experienced. Occasionally she expressed a desire that more of her Latter-day Saint sisters would take an interest in national women’s affairs and become active in the movement for women’s rights—or at least aware of it.

But she often found her Latter-day Saint co-workers far more capable, learned, and dedicated than the nationally-known women’s leaders. On one occasion (noted above) she found that the only difference between Latter-day Saint women and their cohorts from other faiths was money.

Because of her travels and contacts, as well as her knowledge and ability with people, Emmeline became an unofficial VIP greeter in Salt Lake City. She loved meeting people from various locations, including Europe, and felt fully capable of entertaining them as their guide to the city and exponent of Mormonism.

Emmeline seemed to long for the kind of notoriety that women in various fields had made for themselves—and she sought their company when they visited Utah. Her diary shows the bit of envy that some of these visitors created in her, but she always seemed content with the choices she had made for her own life and success as a woman.

Where did Emmeline Wells find her passion for equal rights for women?

The woman’s rights crusade and its eastern setting were not unfamiliar to Latter-day Saint women in far-off Utah. Some progressive women in Utah subscribed to the suffrage paper, The Revolution—a radical suffrage paper edited by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the key players in the suffrage movement.

But Emmeline’s consciousness of the disadvantages of being female began with her mother’s plight in becoming a widow. Diadama Woodward, had no training to become a teacher nor medical experience to become a midwife, Though no record remains of how she managed her family during the early years after David’s death, Emmeline remembered her as “the matriarch of the family,” as “capable of managing an estate as most men.”

She had lost not only a newspaper—but part of her soul.

The second marriage of Emmeline’s mother, to Samuel Clark, Jr., a house painter, appears to have dissolved. Except for a record of their marriage and the birth of a son, Hiram (whom Emmeline adored), no record of Clark remains in any of Emmeline’s writing, except for a brief reference to Clark “as a cruel guardian. Nor are references made to him in any of the other children’s family accounts.

Emmeline’s high regard for her mother and her recognition of the constraints on women’s public lives—as she observed them restricting her mother’s attempts to provide for her family—were clearly the feminist seeds that grew into the strong equal rights woman that Emmeline became.

She was very pleased when appointed editor of The Woman’s Exponent, which had already shown signs of becoming a voice for the burgeoning woman’s movement in Utah. Emmeline now had a public platform in which to express the thoughts that had been fomented in her Massachusetts childhood.

How close was Emmeline B. Wells to the leading suffragists of the 19th century?

One of Emmeline’s choicest possessions was a gold ring that Susan B. Anthony bequeathed to Emmeline upon Anthony’s death. Anthony always acknowledged Emmeline’s presence at the annual suffrage conventions, had Emmeline sit on the dais with her, and never criticized her for her marital choice.

Emmeline B. Wells and Susan B. Anthony, seated together in this 1895 photograph, were two leaders of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
Emmeline B. Wells treasured a gold ring given to her by Susan B. Anthony. Anthony is pictured seated in a chair on the front row (third from the right) in this May 1895 photograph, and Wells is standing behind Anthony’s left shoulder wearing a white scarf. Credit: Church Historian’s Press.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a partner with Anthony in leading the movement for women’s rights, was not as openly friendly, but supported Emmeline’s efforts in gaining the vote in Utah—and recognized her abilities in leading the movement there.

Not all leading suffragists were willing to accept Emmeline’s participation in the national movement because of her religion and her polygamous marriages. The collegiality that resulted among those who saw Emmeline B. Wells merely as a co-worker whom they respected, opened the door to many friendships, particularly with the editor of Woman’s Words, who was also secretary of the National Woman Suffrage Association, Sara Andrews Spencer. She was an early and consistent defender of Emmeline and Latter-day Saint women generally. Emmeline received many accolades from her national co-workers.

How did Emmeline B. Wells avoid bitter feelings as she regularly rubbed shoulders with wealthy individuals despite being poor herself?

Emmeline’s impecunious situation, which developed in the 1880s when Daniel Wells’ investments began to falter and he was left heavily in debt, gnawed at her constantly. She earned money from subscriptions to her newspaper. And Emmeline was not only the editor but also the primary solicitor for subscriptions. She did not like asking for money to attend suffrage conventions but found friends and others knowledgeable of her financial constraints who helped her meet the expenses.

Her children turned Christmas giving into a re-outfitting for Emmeline. And her daughter Melvina, who lived in Idaho, paid Emmeline’s way to visit Idaho at least once a year.

The saddest incident relating to Emmeline’s financial situation was that no one offered to pay her way to the national convention the year Utah became a state (1896) with woman suffrage in its state constitution. Though she was then still President of Utah’s Woman Suffrage Association, and plans were made to honor her and her co-workers at the convention, she was unable to attend—one of the great disappointments of her life.

Several times the church offered to relieve her of editing The Woman’s Exponent but she did not accept. Years later, when the Relief Society board decided that the secretary and president of the Relief Society should be paid, she was remunerated substantially enough to be independent financially.

It was not easy for a single woman to maintain herself in the 19th century.

What was The Woman’s Exponent—and why was it important to Emmeline?

Today, The Woman’s Exponent is one of our most valuable sources of Latter-day Saint women’s history. It was founded in 1872 by Edward Sloan, editor of the Salt Lake Herald, deeming the necessity of women having a publication of their own.

Louisa Greene Richards was the first editor. But in 1878, Emmeline, who had been submitting articles since its founding, became editor and served in that capacity until the demise of the paper in 1914—a remarkable example of longevity for a woman’s paper at that time.

For Emmeline B. Wells, it became her public voice. It gave her stature as it was exchanged with other women’s papers, for whom she wrote articles extolling the life and works of the women of her church. It connected her with some of the most influential women of her day. And her articulate and informative editorials were reprinted in some of the papers with which she corresponded.

It was her alter-ego who occupied the majority of each day’s allotted hours. It was a companion to Emmeline’s diary and helped to show the connection between the public and private Emmeline—though the diary always remained private.

Giving up the Exponent in favor of a newly published Relief Society Magazine, published and edited by the Relief Society Board, with Susa Young Gates as editor, was an enormous loss to Emmeline. She wrote extensively in her diary about it and seemed to feel she had lost not only a newspaper—but part of her soul.

How did Latter-day Saint and suffragist leaders view Emmeline B. Wells?

Almost anyone in a leading public role will have detractors with real or illusory opinions of her or her work. Emmeline could be imperious, impatient, opinionated, and ambitious—and sometimes these qualities asserted themselves among contending leaders both in the woman’s movement and in Relief Society Board meetings.

Emmeline B. Wells, however, did not seem to expect any kind of leadership role in the national movement. However, she was always pleased to be added to the Press committee and other subcommittees in the organization.

At home, in the various meetings she attended, Emmeline often chaffed at chit-chat and other wasted time, since every minute was vital to keeping her many responsibilities afloat.

Her knowledge, persuasiveness, and natural authority were always in demand, and Emmeline was appointed to every kind of local committee. She also became a lobbyist petitioning the legislature to put women on various committees.

Emmeline Wells experienced unwanted difficulties with much concern when they arose during Relief Society Board meetings when she was President. Generational differences plagued the younger and older women on the Board.

Emmeline B. Wells as Relief Society President alongside the Relief Society general presidency and board.
Emmeline B. Wells (standing center) sometimes experienced tension in Relief Society Board meetings due to generational differences, according to historian Carol Cornwall Madsen. Credit: Church Historians Press.

Board members usually found favor with the older members, mainly in deference to their experience. The Relief Society General Board Minutes show that Emmeline B. Wells did not take part in most of the “debates” and allowed the Board to reach its own decision.

As she reached her nineties, her Board felt that Emmeline’s usefulness— even as a symbol—had lost its luster. With most of her fellow workers in both the woman’s rights movement and the Relief Society now off-stage, Emmeline became an anachronist.

However, on the hundredth anniversary of her birth, representative women from all women’s associations in Utah commissioned Cyrus Dallin to sculpt a bust of Emmeline to be placed in one of the niches of the Rotunda of the Capitol.

It simply read, “A Fine Soul Who Served Us.”

How important are the diaries of Emmeline B. Wells?

Emmeline B. Wells’s diaries have been considered the finest of all Latter-day Saint women’s known diaries of the past. They are deeply personal, revealing the thoughts and emotions of the most prominent LDS woman of her generation. But they also give us insight into the private world of a very public woman.

The diaries provide extensive inside information about various policies, practices, and events relating not only to church history but also to the times in which Emmeline B. Wells lived. They do not match the pattern of most women’s diaries of that time, relating domestic activities and familial events.

In fact, we can glean only tidbits of Emmeline’s domestic life from the diaries and occasional reminiscences published in The Exponent. She lived during a volatile time for both Latter-day Saint and women’s history—and served as a connection between the two, vividly expressed in her diaries. Combined with her editorials in The Woman’s Exponent, the diaries provide a comprehensive view of what it was like to be a Latter-day Saint and a dedicated, active public woman during her lifetime.

What single accomplishment does Carol Cornwall Madsen think gave Emmeline B. Wells the greatest satisfaction?

Without question, Emmeline B. Wells prized her election by the entire Relief Society board—and subsequent appointment by Church President Joseph Smith Smith to the office of General Relief Society President in 1910, when she was eighty-two.

This was a form of validation from the people who meant most to her—a recognition by her own people of all her years of work on their behalf, as women and as Latter-day Saints.

Emmeline B. Wells brought her broad experience with women from all walks of life along with the skills of the women leaders she had met and acquired as friends to this new calling. After more than 20 years as General Secretary, she was also intimately acquainted with the interests and leadership style of her predecessors, as well as the issues of most concern to the members of the Relief Society.

Emmeline was well equipped, even at age eighty-two, to assume leadership of what had become a worldwide organization of women.

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About the author

Carol Cornwall Madsen is an emeritus professor of history at Brigham Young University. She is married to Gordon Axel Madsen (the brother of Truman Madsen) and has written dozens of scholarly works, including two biographies of Emmeline B. Wells. Madsen has also given a BYU Devotional entitled, “History: A Journey of Discovery.” You can learn more about Carol Madsen in this chapter of Conversations with Mormon Historians.

Carol Cornwall Madsen is a Latter-day Saint historian with dozens of scholarly works to her name, including two biographies of Emmeline B. Wells.
Carol Cornwall Madsen has produced dozens of scholarly works, including The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, Journey to Zion, Essays on Woman Suffrage in Utah, and two biographies of Emmeline B. Wells.

Further reading

Emmeline B. Wells resources

By Jerry Winder

History geek. Seeker of truth. Believer.

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