Throughout the world’s history, women have been some of the strongest and most overlooked foundational influences in society. Yet, whether their lives have been recorded and their names etched in history’s memory or not, from the time of Adam and Eve, women have had a significant role in our Heavenly Father’s plan. And in many ways, the Restoration of the Church also kickstarted a restoration of that noble view of womanhood that continues today. Here is a look back at the remarkable effects of women who know their individual and collective identities as daughters of Heavenly Parents.
Working Together for Good
The idea of companionship, partnership, and cooperation between men and women has been modeled by many throughout the history of the Church. It began with Emma Smith, who went with Joseph to retrieve the gold plates, sometimes acted as scribe while Joseph was translating, wrote letters to politicians in his defense, and was president of the Relief Society, which was “patterned after the priesthood.” But working together for good extends even beyond married couples and early pioneers, as men and women have joined forces in many capacities over the last two centuries to carry out of the work of Zion.
An article on the Church history website explains:
During the founding meeting of the Nauvoo Relief Society on March 17, 1842, Joseph Smith outlined the responsibilities of the organization and organized the women similar to a priesthood quorum. The sisters were charged with encouraging their male counterparts in doing good, caring for the poor, acting with charity, and promoting morality among female Latter-day Saints. The men in priesthood quorums had already been charged with visiting the homes of Church members and encouraging them to pray. Both men and women were to care for the spiritual welfare of their fellow Saints while encouraging them to do good works (“Woman’s Exponent—Acting with Authority,” history.ChurchofJesusChrist.org).
*Did you know: When Joseph Smith outlined the structure for the Relief Society, he used terms more familiar to the priesthood organization, “If any officers are wanted to carry out the designs of the Institution, let them be appointed and set apart, as Deacons, Teachers, etc.” (Eliza R. Snow, “The Female Relief Society,” 2).
Here are a few additional ways men and women have worked together to build Zion from Joseph Smith’s time to today.
The Woman’s Exponent, an early pioneer publication run by Latter-day Saint women including future Relief Society General President Emmeline B. Wells, shared opinions, ideas, and articles about a variety of topics, including shared gospel responsibilities of men and women.
Photo of Emmeline B Wells from the Utah State Historical Society.
One such shared responsibility the publication addressed was administering. In the early days of the Church, administering as sisters took a variety of forms, from performing blessings of healing to performing temple ordinances. In the early days of the Church, the healing of the sick was understood differently than it is today and was not just performed by priesthood-holding men. In fact, when asked if it was required for sisters to be set apart to administer to the sick, President Eliza R. Snow stated,
It certainly is not. Any and all sisters who honor their holy endowments, not only have the right, but should feel it a duty, whenever called upon to administer to our sisters in these ordinances, which God has graciously committed to His daughters as well as to His sons; and we testify that when administered and received in faith and humility they are accompanied with all mighty power (Eliza R. Snow, “To the Branches of the Relief Society,” Woman’s Exponent, Sept. 15, 1884, 61).
*Did you know: When Zina D.H. Young was set apart as a counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency in 1880, she was given the spiritual gift of healing the sick, which she utilized often.
Today, this belief of sharing the mandate to administer to those who are suffering still exists. Though women today may not exercise the same kind of physical healing power these early sisters did, they are still called upon to administer—or minister—to the needs of those around them. Combining “home teaching” and “visiting teaching” responsibilities into “ministering” reemphasizes this important way that God’s sons and daughters are both needed in efforts to comfort, heal, and shepherd His children back to Him.
Photo of Emmeline B. Wells from the Utah State Historical Society.
By a different definition of the word “administer,” the role of administering has also always been shared by brothers and sisters in the temple. Emma Smith was the first woman to receive temple ordinances and initiate them for other women, and she was also in charge of overseeing female temple workers. Today, temple matrons oversee the sister workers in the individual temples to which they are called, and sisters continue to remain a key part of temple work, coordinating with the brothers to perform sacred saving ordinances and helping those who come to the temple to feel God’s love.
*Did you know: Relief Society general presidents oversaw all female temple work up until President Bathsheba Smith in 1901, when temple matrons began to take on that role.
Though some official adjustments have been made in recent years to further emphasize the importance of women’s perspectives in Church and home settings (such as adding sister leaders to key general Church and local ward councils), women have regularly been present and engaged in overseeing the growth of the Church.
Photo of Mary Isabella Horne from the Utah State Historical Society.
For example, the Relief Society was organized “after the pattern of the priesthood,” but it was still left in the charge of the sisters with Emma Smith as president. In addition, sisters like Mary Isabella Horne were called by Brigham Young to lead the women of the Church in reformations that reemphasized gospel learning over temporal extravagance (Saints, Vol. 2: No Unhallowed Hand, chapter 25, pg. 368). Aurelia Spencer Rogers voiced a concern about the education of youth, leading to the establishment of the Primary organization (“Aurelia Spencer Rogers,” history.ChurchofJesusChrist.org). And today, sister general presidents continue to work closely with the brother general presidents in developing programs and providing service to collectively bless the youth, children, and adults of the Church.
In the early days of the Church, false rumors, particularly those spread by a former member named William Jarman in Europe, led to widespread negative beliefs about Latter-day Saint women in Utah. But while wealthy Utah Latter-day Saint Elizabeth McCune was on a family pleasure trip in her home country of England in 1897, she boldly set the record straight after the local mission president asked her to share her experience as a woman in Utah. She testified,
Our husbands are proud of their wives and daughters; they do not consider that they were created solely to wash dishes and tend babies; but they give them every opportunity to attend meetings and lectures and to take up everything which will educate and develop them. Our religion teaches us that the wife stands shoulder to shoulder with the husband (“‘I Could Have Gone into Every House,’” history.ChurchofJesusChrist.org).
Photo of Elizabeth C. McCune from the Utah State Historical Society.
It wasn’t long after Sister McCune’s experience that Church leaders recognized the powerful potential of sisters’ testimonies, and single sisters soon began being called as missionaries along with elders—Amanda Inez Knight and Lucy Jane “Jennie” Brimhall paving the way in 1898 as the first. Even before single sisters were called on missions, however, women had served as mission companions with their husbands. For example, Louisa Pratt joined her husband, Addison, on one of his missions to Hawaii, where she taught school, the gospel, and English to the local Tubuaian Saints (Saints, Vol. 2: No Unhallowed Hand, chapter 10).
Today, that same spirit of cooperation in missionary work abounds as young sister missionaries serve and lead and teach alongside the elders, and even older single sisters and senior missionary couples work together to provide missionary service in a variety of ways and places.
*Did you know: Welsh convert Ann Sophia Jones Rosser was a prolific unofficial missionary. She once distributed 50 Church tracts and sold 7 copies of the Book of Mormon in one day, leading 12 people to join the Church.
As sisters of the Church have worked in tandem with prophetic revelation and their own personal revelation, they have accomplished innumerable remarkable acts. Here is just a sample of some of the—as Emma Smith called them during the first Relief Society meeting—“extraordinary occasions and pressing calls” that Latter-day Saint women have taken part in over the years.
Photo of women suffrage leaders from the Utah State Historical Society.
Latter-day Saint women have long been at the forefront of the fight for women’s suffrage. Women were given the right to vote in Utah Territory in February of 1870, and though they had to fight for enfranchisement a second time after the United States government disenfranchised Utah women a short while later, they continued to petition not only their own right to vote but also for the same right for women around the country.
They worked closely with leading suffragists in the country, such as Susan B. Anthony, and frequently shared opinions and thoughts on the topic in their Woman’s Exponent periodical, met with presidents of the United States, and attended national women’s organization meetings. When Utah applied for statehood yet again in 1895, the sisters made sure their voices would remain part of Utah state politics and decisions by successfully campaigning for their right to vote to be included in Utah’s new bid for statehood.
Under the direction of Relief Society General President Emmeline B. Wells and the instruction of President Brigham Young, the Relief Society began working together to grow, buy, sell, and store grain that could be used to help those in need. While worldwide victims of disasters received needed assistance from this grain storage program, it was during World War I that the sisters’ hard work was utilized on a national level. With shortages and desperate times, the United States government was hard-pressed for many things during the first Great War, including wheat—that is, until the Relief Society sold over 200,000 bushels of their saved grain to the United States government in 1918 to help with the war efforts.
*Did you know: Latter-day Saint convert Eveline Marie Charlet Kleinert watched over the spiritual and physical needs of the only six sisters in the Paris branch while France was under Hitler’s restrictive and isolating rule.
Saving 500 Children
Not long after women received the right to vote, the sixth Relief Society general president, Clarissa Smith Williams, and the sisters of the Church eagerly began looking for ways to continue making a difference in their communities. Their first focus was women, girls, and children in need. Particularly concerning to President Williams was the high mortality rate of mothers and infants, so the Relief Society went to work using interest from the Relief Society wheat fund to improve the maternity resources in wards and stakes around the world. Funds were used to do a variety of things, including opening maternity hospitals. Two years after these efforts began, the Presiding Bishopric reported that an estimated 500 children had been saved in that time as a result.
Did you know: Church records reported 58 mothers and 751 infants who died in 1922.
Constructing the Relief Society Building
Though it may seem like just another beautiful office building on Temple Square, the Relief Society Building is actually a symbol of significant work and sacrifice.
As early as 1896, Sarah Granger Kimball proposed constructing a building for the Relief Society General Presidency and was supported unanimously by the other sister leaders—they even raised over $21,000 for the project. But when it was ultimately decided that the sisters would be given office space in the new Bishop’s Building instead, they (somewhat disappointedly) placed their vision on a shelf and settled into their new home.
Relief Society Building in 1954. Image from the Utah State Historical Society.
The Relief Society building today. Image from Wikimedia commons.
The sisters eventually outgrew their office space, and President George Albert Smith at last approved a new building, instructing the sisters to make it as beautiful as they wanted. The almost $1 million project would again require some fundraising efforts, however, and a plan was formulated to ask each sister in the Church to donate $5 (over $50 today) toward the building, which the First Presidency agreed to match. In some cases, ward fundraisers were held to help sisters who could not afford to donate, and sisters in war-ravaged Europe, who were not asked to donate due to their destitute condition, instead sent gifts to help furnish and decorate the special building. The building was finally completed in 1956 and continues to house the sister leaders of the Church today, not just as an office building but as “a place where the women of the Church can gather, work, and learn together and reflect on the sisterhood of the Relief Society” (“The Story of the Relief Society Building,” history.ChurchofJesusChrist.org).
Did you know: During the Great Depression, groups of Relief Society sisters around the world donned black skirts and white shirts as they formed “Singing Mothers” groups that allowed sisters to learn and practice music skills and perform uplifting music for their Church meetings. Sometimes their programs were even broadcast over KSL Radio.
Photo of Relief Society General President Jean B. Bingham. Image credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Continuing the tradition of pulling together and providing service in times of need, just this year the Relief Society undertook a monumental task to sew five million masks in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The masks, which were needed to protect frontline medical professionals, were sewn by sisters across the Wasatch Front and given to the charitable community initiative ProjectProtect, organized by University of Utah Health, Intermountain Healthcare, and Latter-day Saint Charities. In six weeks, nearly six million masks were completed.
But these acts of service weren’t limited to the Wasatch Front. Relief Society sisters—and their families—volunteered to help around the globe. For instance, families in a stake in Mozambique committed to hand sew 100 masks for local traders who were at high risk of infection.
Did you know: ProjectProtect isn’t the only recent Relief Society effort. The “I Was a Stranger” campaign was launched in 2016 by the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary General Presidencies. The campaign called for sisters to minister to others one by one by engaging in service projects that would aid over 60 million refugees worldwide.
Read more about the conclusion of ProjectProtect on Church Newsroom.
Fulfilling roles as wives, mothers, and nurturers has not discouraged Latter-day Saint women from also pursuing a variety of paths and interests from medicine and politics to theater, sports, farm work, and writing. In fact, the first president of Deseret Hospital was Eliza R. Snow, who was also a poet and wrote several hymns we still sing today in addition to serving as a Relief Society General President.
Did you know: Without Primary General President Adele Cannon Howells, there would be no beloved and familiar Arnold Friberg paintings? The iconic Book of Mormon pictures painted by Friberg were commissioned by President Howells.
Photo of Deseret Hospital board of directors from the Utah State Historical Society.
Even in the early days of the Church, women organized events and celebrations, such as the first Pioneer Day in 1849. Since then, they have played basketball on college teams, run for political offices, and served as department heads and leaders in the business world. Over the years, Latter-day Saint women like Gladys Knight, Cécile Pelous, Noelle Pikus Pace, and so many others have shared the gospel as musicians, renowned clothing designers, humanitarians, Olympic athletes, mothers, chefs, actors, and so much more.
Did you know: Latter-day Saint women liked to prepare elaborate meals for President Brigham Young when he came to visit. He became concerned that many women were missing Church meetings because they were preparing or cleaning up from these meals and asked Sister Mary Isabella Horne to lead the sisters in efforts to simplify and refocus on their spiritual nourishment.
If Latter-day Saint women have learned one thing over the years, it is that their unique talents and interests can serve them, their families, and the Church. Opportunities to gain education, raise children, and/or pursue a career have, if anything, expanded over the years both inside and outside the Church and around the world as women continue to reach their divine potential and recognize their valuable contribution in God’s kingdom.
Photo of an early 1930s Relief Society in Riverton, Utah, from the Utah State Historical Society.
Some Things Stay the Same
The world continues to change, and so do the women who live in it. But no matter the time or the new situations that arise, women of the Church are always ready to answer the call to serve others.
Many of us still like to make over-the-top Sunday dinners for our families (see Saints, Vol. 2: No Unhallowed Hand chapter 25). We still like to gather together and socialize, we still strive to minister
and fulfill our callings in better and holier ways, we still worry about the needs of others, and we still love to do temple work.
Even for those who don’t feel like these descriptions fit their experience, there is one thing that every woman past and present in the Church has in common—as we live righteously, we will always have access to personal revelation as beloved daughters of God. Armed with that knowledge, sisters in Zion in all parts of the earth and from all walks of life will continue to do remarkable things.
A Worldwide Sisterhood
Sisters around the world have made significant contributions to the gospel and the world. Here are a few of their stories.
Judy Patricia Bestor (Brummer)
As the daughter of a white Methodist family living in Grahamstown, South Africa, Bestor grew up speaking Xhosa and English. After joining the Church, Bestor was instrumental in translating the Church’s name, the sacrament prayers, the baptismal ordinances, and eventually the Book of Mormon into Xhosa—something that still blesses the lives of Xhosa speakers today.
Wynetta Willis Martin Clark
Clark was a convert to the Church and one of the first African Americans to sing with the Tabernacle Choir. Though she faced racism from both inside and outside the Church, her membership in the Choir was a dream come true as she toured with them for two years, sharing her testimony through song and example.
Image found on www.christopherrandallnicholson.com
Latter-day Saint women have long enjoyed participating in theatrical productions. Laraine Day was an actress born in the 1920s. She acted across from leading men such as Ronald Reagan, Cary Grant, and John Wayne in the course of her career. She passed away in 2007 in Ivins, Utah.
Rose Marie Reid
Born in Canada, Reid became famous in the mid-1950s for designing more functional and fashionable swimming suits. As bikinis rose in popularity, Reid continued to advocate for one-piece swimsuits and ultimately left her company. Later, she was recruited to help redesign women’s temple garments to be more comfortable.