Editor Emmeline Wells a voice for women’s suffrage

  • Emmeline Wells at her desk in this photo from the Church History Library in Salt Lake City. COURTESY THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS

  • Emmeline Wells, who was born in Petersham, was an editor and a spokesperson for women’s suffrage. COURTESY THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS

For the Recorder and Athol Daily News
Published: 7/4/2020 11:03:26 AM
Modified: 7/4/2020 11:03:25 AM

Emmeline Wells was always a woman of words. From her diaries to her journalism and editing career, she used her words often to advance the cause of suffrage.

Wells was born Emmeline Blanche Woodward in Petersham and educated in Hardwick and New Braintree, then eventually being enrolled at New Salem Academy. After graduating from the academy, Wells earned a teaching certificate and began working as an educator in Orange.

“Emmeline Blanche Woodward was a New England girl with talents in writing and teaching who joined a religious movement that took her west, first to Illinois and Nebraska, then to Utah, where she became a notable editor, women’s leader and spokesperson for woman suffrage,” according to Cherry Silver, co-editor of the Emmeline B. Wells Diaries.

When Wells converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she left New England with her first husband’s family for Nauvoo, Ill., known as the gathering place of the Saints. The town was established by Joseph Smith, founder of the church in the spring of 1844. While in Illinois, Wells lost an infant son and her husband left for the sea, effectively abandoning her, according to Silver. Wells stayed with the Whitney family and went back to teaching, eventually becoming a plural wife of Newell K. Whitney, Silver continued.

In February 1846, when the church people were driven out of Illinois, Wells crossed Iowa with the Whitney family and stayed in Nebraska for two years until moving farther west to the Salt Lake Valley in 1848, settling in Salt Lake City, where she lived until her death in April 1921, Silver said.

In 1850, she found herself a widow with two daughters. She married Daniel H. Wells in 1852 and had three more daughters. Wells was a businessman, church and civic leader, including head of the Nauvoo legion and mayor of Salt Lake City for 10 years, which gave her contact with prominent Utah citizens. She was invited into suffrage work as a result of her writing skills, keen intellect and sharp memory for people and details, Silver continued.

In 1872, after having earned the right to vote in state and city elections in 1870, women in Salt Lake City established the Woman’s Exponent, a semi-monthly newspaper that carried local and national news. Wells soon began writing articles for the paper, focusing on social issues, often writing under the pseudonym of Blanche Beechwood.

“That pen name combines her middle name Blanche with the beech trees she loved around her Massachusetts settings in Franklin and Worcester counties,” Silver said.

Another pen name Wells used was Aunt Em when she reminisced about good times in her childhood home and admiration for her mother, Diadama Hare Woodward, whom she labeled a “woman’s rights woman,” Silver continued.

Among her writings were many editorials defending the right to vote. Well’s newspaper work soon expanded beyond her writing when she began helping to publish “The Women’s Exponent” in 1874, later serving as both associate editor and editor over the next 37 years.

The topic of women’s suffrage became prominent in Utah when the Edmund-Tucker Act of 1887 passed, taking away the right to vote for all women as well as men who would not renounce their religious belief in plural marriage. In 1895, suffrage was finally guaranteed under the state’s constitution, Silver said.

Well’s work in Utah was extensive and included writing the constitution and by-laws for the Utah Territorial Woman Suffrage Association and serving as its president in October 1893. After suffrage passed, the Utah Woman’s Suffrage Association supported the national effort and encouraged women to run for office. Those running for office included Wells, who was nominated for state representative, then withdrew in November 1895 after a judge ruled offices would not be open to women until the constitution was officially ratified in 1895. She ran again in 1896 but her party’s candidates were all defeated.

“Emmeline spent six years organizing and bolstering suffrage associations in individual towns and counties throughout Utah. She was on the road by train and wagon nearly every week when weather permitted,” said Silver.

She traveled from town to town, from one church meeting house to another, sat in homes, talked with women on trains and trolleys, lobbied the men in power and organized constantly. Yellow ribbons, banners and pamphlets spread the message,” she continued.

Nationally, Wells exchanged ideas with other prominent women’s rights papers in the East including “The Women’s Journal,” edited by Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell. She corresponded with and assisted Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in their drives for a national suffrage amendment. Wells spoke directly to President Rutherford B. Hayes on suffrage issues. She later met with presidents Ulysses S. Grant, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, according to Silver.

When the 19th Amendment was finally passed, Wells posed with other suffragists for photos.

“One can say that, although Wells’ consciousness of suffrage arose when she was in her 40s, living in Utah, she continually drew on her Massachusetts background and nurtured relationships with suffrage leaders in the East and Northeast,” Silver said.

In 1928, the centenary of her birth, a statue of Wells carved by Cyrus Dallin was placed in the rotunda of the Utah State Capitol with the inscription, “A Fine Soul Who Served Us,” according to Silver.

“Emmeline’s picture and story are key parts of the Church History Museum display on suffrage. They have printed small trading cards available in their gift shop, and Wells is one of the few women they have featured,” Silver said.

Emmeline Wells kept diaries of her life from 1844 to 1874. Her first started in 1844. It contained a paragraph from 1844 saying that she left Massachusetts in April. She made a few entries in 1845 in Nauvoo, Ill., and in 1846 traveling across Iowa. Aside from a few genealogical notations written in the 1860s in the same little book, we have no diaries extant until August 1874. There are 47 volumes of diaries altogether, the last one written in 1920. By 1817, Emmeline’s eyesight had faded and her daughters wrote entries for her, usually in her voice as she directed,” said Silver.

Digitized versions of Emmeline’s diaries can be found at https://lib.byu.edu/collections/emmeline-wells-diaries/

Silver said diary transcripts with introductions and notes are available on the Church Historians Press website, www.churchhistorianspress.org

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