Wells, Emmeline B. (1828–1921)

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Wells, Emmeline B. (1828–1921)

American leader of Mormon women and suffragist. Name variations: E.W.; Blanche Beechwood; Aunt Em. Born Emmeline Blanche Woodward on February 29, 1828, in Petersham, Massachusetts; died of heart failure on April 25, 1921, in Salt Lake City, Utah; daughter of David Woodward and Deiadama (Hare) Woodward; educated in local grammar schools and the select school for girls in New Salem; married James Harvey Harris, in 1843 (deserted, 1844); married Newel K. Whitney (a Mormon bishop), in 1845 (died 1850); married Daniel Hanmer Wells, in 1852 (died 1891); children: (first marriage) Eugene Henri Harris (died in infancy, 1844); (second marriage) Isabel Modelena (b. 1848), Melvina Caroline (b. 1850); (third marriage) Emmeline (b. 1853), Elizabeth Ann (b. 1859), and Louisa Martha (b. 1862).

Emmeline B. Wells was born in 1828 in Petersham, Massachusetts, one of nine children of David and Deiadama Woodward . She was four when her father died. Her mother converted from Congregationalist to the Mormon faith in 1842, and Emmeline followed with baptism into the Mormon Church on March 1, 1842. Her education at the local grammar school and at a school for girls in New Salem resulted in Wells receiving her teaching certificate in 1843. That same year, she began teaching in a country school in Orange, Massachusetts, and married James Harvey Harris, the son of the presiding elder of the local Mormon church. In 1844, Emmeline traveled with her husband to the Mormon city of Nauvoo, Illinois, where she met the Prophet Joseph Smith. James' parents left the church and, in November 1844, he deserted his wife just after the death of their month-old son Eugene. In 1845, Emmeline became the plural wife of the presiding bishop of the Mormon Church, Newel K. Whitney, and in February of the following year she and her family joined the exodus of Mormons from Nauvoo and moved to Salt Lake City. In 1852, two years after the death of Bishop Whitney, Emmeline became the seventh wife of Daniel Hanmer Wells, a high officer in the Mormon Church.

Wells began to devote her time to the work of the church, journalism, and women's suffrage after the birth of her last child in 1862. Becoming a member of the Relief Society, the largest Mormon women's organization, she began contributing to its publication, the Woman's Exponent, in 1873. She rose through the ranks of the Exponent during the 1870s until she became full editor in 1877. Her lengthy tenure in this position, which lasted until the paper was superseded by the Relief Society Magazine in 1914, added to her already sizeable sphere of influence. In her articles, written under the names "Aunt Em," "E.W." or "Blanche Beechwood," she sought to present a balanced representation

of Mormonism and to promote the rights of women. She used the Exponent to argue the case for women's suffrage when Congress sought to repeal voting rights for women in the Utah Territory in the 1880s. Brigham Young had influenced the territory's legislature into granting women the right to vote as early as 1870 as a way of counteracting the growing non-Mormon influence, which consisted largely of single men. Wells even traveled to Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist for the cause in 1885.

Although Congress successfully repealed women's suffrage in the territory in 1887, Wells was recognized as a suffragist on a national level as vice-president of the Utah chapter of the National Women Suffrage Association. She was a personal friend of prominent women's rights advocates Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton , and joined Emily Sophia Richards in founding the Woman Suffrage Association of Utah in 1889 to demand the return of their right to vote. The group's lobbying at Utah's constitutional convention in 1895 achieved its aim when a woman suffrage clause became part of the state's constitution in 1896. A long-time attendee at women's conventions, in 1899 Wells was a delegate to the International Council of Women in London.

Known for her devotion to hard work, Wells managed to find time in the midst of the suffrage campaign to expand her role in the Relief Society. In 1876, Brigham Young made her the president of the Relief Society's Central Grain Committee, which oversaw the storage of grain against famine. She became general secretary of the Relief Society in 1892, and was its president in 1910. Influential outside the church as well as within it, Wells was a member of the Pacific Coast Women's Press Association, founded the Utah Women's Press Club in 1891, and was a charter member of the state's society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Brigham Young University awarded Wells an honorary degree in 1912, and she was held in high esteem as a valuable public figure until her death in 1921. In 1928, a marble bust of Emmeline B. Wells was placed in the rotunda of Utah's state capitol.

Wells' principal works include editorials and columns as the editor of the Woman's Exponent (1877–1914). She edited Charities and Philanthropies: Woman's Work in Utah (1893), as a contribution to the Chicago World's Fair. She also published a book of poetry, Musings and Memories (1896), and wrote the words for the Mormon song "Our Mountain Home So Dear."


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Amy Cooper , M.A., M.S.I., Ann Arbor, Michigan

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Wells, Emmeline B. (1828–1921)

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