Women have been a part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since its beginning, though often not as visibly as their male counterparts.
Relief Society organization
Only a few months after organizing the church in 1830, Joseph Smith shared that he received a revelation from God specifically for his wife, Emma Smith. In it, she was given several responsibilities. One of those was unique to that historical time period. It told her that she would be ordained “to expound scriptures, and to exhort the church, according as it shall be given thee by my Spirit.”
Emma Smith was not the only woman of her time to have a significant role within the new church. Kate Holbrook, managing historian with the Church History Department and co-author of “The First 50 years of Relief Society,” explained that the organization of the Relief Society in 1842 “gave women their own organization, in some ways analogous to a priesthood quorum, in which they could receive collective doctrinal instruction and have new opportunities for service.”
At the time, many female leaders called it “the women’s quorum,” Holbrook explained.
“Years later, one member of the Nauvoo Relief Society compared the women’s group to the School of the Prophets, in which church elders assembled in the 1830s to receive ecclesiastical instruction and prepare for temple rituals,” Holbrook says in her book.
Administering to the sick
Early on, women gave blessings of healing by laying on of hands and praying for those who were sick, and Joseph Smith approved of this work, according to the April 28, 1842 minutes of Relief Society.
From that point on, women in Nauvoo were blessing the sick, building up their charitable caregiving, helping with the building of the temple and doing their part in moving the kingdom of God forward.
After Joseph Smith’s death in 1844, the saints moved west and policies changed. Now the church directs those blessings of healing to be done by men holding the priesthood. While women can pray using their faith, the hands-on blessings are only performed by male priesthood holders.
Halting the Relief Society
According to Holbrook’s book, Brigham Young halted the operations of the Relief Society after Joseph Smith’s death, declaring he would “get up Relief Society” again when he decided to “summon them [the women] to my aid.”
Women still organized to address issues of women’s health and other issues. In 1853, following several skirmishes and warring with local Native American tribes, 17 women organized a society to help make clothes for Native American women and children.
Young reestablished the Relief Society in 1867.
Early suffragists and Martha Hughes Cannon
Utah territory women were given the right to vote in 1870, but had that right taken away by the federal government in 1887 with the Edmunds-Tucker Act. That act took the vote away from the women, auspiciously based on the church’s practice of polygamy.
Martha Hughes Cannon, who had been in exile as a plural wife, retaliated and rallied women to fight for suffrage. She became the leader of the Utah Women’s Suffrage Association and traveled to many conferences. She had close associations with Susan B. Anthony and was the featured speaker at the Women’s Congress at the World’s Colombian Exhibition of 1893.
Cannon encouraged women to be educated.
“Somehow I know that women who stay home all the time have the most unpleasant homes there are. You give me a woman who thinks about something besides cook stoves and wash tubs and baby flannels, and I’ll show you, nine times out of ten, a successful mother,” Cannon said.
During this time, Young encouraged women, from the pulpit in a General Conference session, that women should enter the medical field and become doctors. Cannon went on to earn four degrees and set up a medical practice in Salt Lake City.
After women gained back the right to vote in 1896 as part of Utah becoming a state, Cannon ran for state senator on the Democratic ticket. Her husband Angus Cannon ran on the Republican ticket.
In the 1900s, women continued to have important roles in the church. Belle Smith Spafford, the longest serving general president of the Relief Society, was involved in many national and international women’s organizations.
“Never have women had greater influence than in today’s world. Never have the doors of opportunity opened wider for them,” Spafford said of the church during her service in the 1970s. “This is an inviting, exciting, challenging, and demanding period of time for women. It is a time rich in rewards if we keep our balance, learn the true values of life, and wisely determine priorities.”
At the same time, some women did not see these opportunities.
Sonia Johnson, a member of the church, was a vocal proponent for the Equal Rights Amendment and equal rights for women in the 1970s and 1980s. She disagreed publicly with the church’s official stance on the Equal Rights Amendment, and on one occasion she protested by chaining herself to the gates of the Seattle Washington Temple, a sacred place of worship for church members. Her open opposition to the church’s stand on the amendment lead to her excommunication.
While Johnson was taking her voice to the street, Barbara B. Smith, general president of the Relief Society was actively involved in not only asking the women of the church to oppose the amendment, but she was a voice for the church in opposing women in the military and abortion.
In 2013, Kate Kelly founded Ordain Women, an organization seeking priesthood ordination for women in the church. That organization continues today.
The Ordain Women campaign takes its greatest argument from what Christianity sees as the greatest witness of all — that it was women, not men, who were the first to witness Christ’s resurrection.
Kelly was eventually excommunicated. After two tries at getting her church membership reinstated, Kelly learned the First Presidency denied her third and final appeal for church membership.
Kelly made it a point of sharing her private church matters with the national and local media. In the end, she was excommunicated for apostasy and opposing church teachings in public forums, including promoting lessons online on how to agitate for change in getting women the priesthood.
During the same time, Sister Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the general presidency of the Relief Society, touts the church as “a woman’s church,” in her speaking travels throughout the world.
“The scope and the field that is open to me as a woman as revealed in LDS doctrine is more empowering than I can wrap my brain around. There is nothing else like it in any other faith tradition,” Eubank said in a 2014 FairMormon Conference address.
In recent years the church has focused a lot of energy on the women. Besides praying and speaking in General Conference and in ward meetings, general women leaders are now apart of the highest priesthood councils in the church.Younger sister missionaries can now wear pants, nearly shameful just a decade ago,and the General Women’s sessions now included girls as young as 8. Women and the wives of general authorities have been more visible and have addressed congregations more than ever before.
Many former and current church leaders encourage women to raise their voices and share their strengths, insights, education, empowerment and faith with others.
“Much of the major growth that is coming to the Church in the last days will come because many of the good women of the world … will be drawn to the Church in large numbers. This will happen to the degree that the women of the Church reflect righteousness and articulateness in their lives and to the degree that the women of the Church are seen as distinct and different-in happy ways-from the women of the world,” said former prophet and president, Spencer W. Kimball, in 1979.