Wells, Emmeline (Blanche) Woodward
WELLS, Emmeline (Blanche) Woodward
Born 29 February 1828, Petersham, Massachusetts; died 25 April 1921, Salt Lake City, Utah
Wrote under: Amethyst, "Aunt Em," Blanche Beechwood, E.B.W., Emmeline B. Wells
Daughter of David and Deiadama Hare Woodward; married James H. Harris, 1843 (deserted); Newell K. Whitney, 1845 (died 1850); Daniel H. Wells, 1852; children: five daughters
Emmeline Woodward Wells converted to Mormonism when she was fourteen, married James Harris at fifteen, and moved the following year to Nauvoo, Illinois, then the Mormon headquarters. Deserted by Harris, Wells married Newell K. Whitney and joined the exodus of Mormons to Salt Lake City. After Whitney's death in 1850 she married Wells. Five daughters were born of Wells' last two marriages.
An ardent suffragist and women's rights advocate, Wells was a member of numerous national and state woman suffrage and other (especially literary) organizations. As president of the Utah Woman's Suffrage Association, she successfully lobbied for the inclusion of woman suffrage in Utah's constitution in 1895. In 1910, at age eighty-two, Wells was appointed general president of the Mormon woman's Relief Society, serving until three weeks before her death in 1921. The Woman's Exponent, a Mormon women's journal Wells edited from 1877 to 1914, gave her an influential voice in women's affairs. She used its editorial page to promote equal rights for women, and also to defend the Mormon practice of plural marriage.
Wells' only collection of poetry, Musings and Memories, (1896), is aptly named. The poems are reflective and personal, most of them a sentimental backward look at a past both pleasant and painful. "A Glance Backward" illustrates the portentous mood pervading much of her retrospective verse. The festive celebration in honor of two young lovers who "plighted their troth" is underscored by ominous intimations. Shadows of a fire creep "like spectres," trees stand "phantom-like," and laughter echoes "in a hollow sound." The lovers are doomed, yet choose to shun the "potent sway of dread" and exchange their vows in "fond expectancy." Wells subtly sustains the fateful mood, which she delicately balances on a thin narrative thread that gives the piece its unity.
"Memory of the Sea" evokes the same mood, heightened by the mournful cadence associated with Poe's "The Raven." Wells uses the sea as metaphor: it holds the answer to life's mysteries, but recklessly drives human hopes to and fro. Unyielding, it keeps its secrets "sleeping in its surging bosom," and frail humanity must find its answer elsewhere. One of the author's most effective poems, "Memory of the Sea" is persistently but restrainedly emotional.
As a poet, Wells fits comfortably under Hawthorne's rubric of "scribbling women." While much of her poetry has definite merit, it occasionally demonstrates the stilted manner and excessive sentiment typical of the period. Poetry, she said, was "a history of the heart." She wrote for a receptive local audience appreciative of her style; a second edition of her poems was published in 1915. Wells did not use poetry as a medium for polemics, reserving her feminist arguments for the editorial page. She left a collection of diaries spanning nearly half a century. A prominent figure in the Mormon female hierarchy, she wrote perceptively and intelligently, if not always disinterestedly, of events in Mormon history, especially during the critical period of 1876 to 1896. She is often frustratingly elusive in her references to personal affairs but remarkably informative in her observations of the effect on women of a changing Mormon society.
It is as a journalist that Wells is most noted. The majority of her editorials for the Woman's Exponent responded to the "woman question" of her century, her rhetoric often echoing the polemics of other feminists. In them she exercised both logic and analysis, sometimes interlacing her premises with poetic imagery. Other editorials dealt with local issues, particularly those centering on the religious and political tensions polarizing Utah and the rest of the nation. Writing initially as a contributor to the Exponent under the name of Blanche Beechwood, Wells dropped the pseudonym soon after becoming editor. She created another literary identity, however, "Aunt Em," who wrote 87 articles and stories incorporating traditional Victorian values and sentiments. Wells, the editor, and "Aunt Em," the contributor, symbolize the different views of woman battling for women's allegiance and formed the double dimension of Wells' literary personality.
Wells was a woman of her time, her literary products felicitously harmonizing with its concerns and values. While her poetry was addressed to another audience, her editorials are relevant to the contemporary woman's movement. One of the most influential of 19th-century Mormon women, Wells made a literary impact both substantial and effective.
Memorial of the Mormon Women of Utah to the President and Congress of the United States, April 6, 1886 (1886). Charities and Philanthropies: Women's Work in Utah (1893). Songs and Flowers of the Wasatch (edited by Wells, 1893).
Anderson, R., "Emmeline B. Wells: Her Life and Thought" (thesis, 1975). Burgess-Olson, V., Sister Saints (1978). Crocheron, A. J., Representative Women of Deseret (1884). Gates, S. Y., History of the Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association, 1869-1910 (1911). Madsen, C. C., "'Remember the Women of Zion': A Study of the Editorial Content of the Woman's Exponent, A Mormon Woman's Journal" (thesis, 1977). Whitney, O.F., History of Utah, Vol. 4 (1904).
Latter-Day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia (1914). NAW (1971).
Improvement Era (June 1921). NYT (27 April 1921). Relief Society Magazine (Feb. 1915, Feb. 1916). Sunset (May 1916). Utah Historical Quarterly (Fall 1974). Young Woman's Journal (April 1908).
—CAROL CORNWALL MADSEN