I'm excited about Nancy Pelosi's swearing in as House Speaker today. Not because women necessarily do things better than men, but because women are half of the human race and so need to participate in running the world on all levels. And while I'm not well educated on Hilary Clinton's platform, the idea of a woman President is pretty exciting as well. I wouldn't vote for her just because she's a woman, but I definitely will give her campaign my extra careful consideration just because she's a woman.
The current fervor surrounding these new milestones in women's lib brings me back to one of my favorite historical figures, Emmeline B. Wells. She lived in my neighborhood a hundred years ago and now lies buried a few blocks away from my apartment, in the Salt Lake City cemetery, under a tiny low-lying gravestone overshadowed by the massive pillar that honors her third husband, Daniel H. Wells (another of my favorite historical figures, but irrelevant to the present topic :) Daniel was prominent in Utah politics and Mormon church leadership and his name is well known locally to this day. Emmeline, despite what her insignificant gravestone would suggest, was far more widely known than was her husband: in addition to serving as president of the LDS Women's Relief Society, she was a local and national women's suffrage leader and close friend and advisor of Susan B. Anthony. Her efforts to expand women's rights and her organization of a wheat storage program that saved thousands of lives in post-WWI Europe brought her wide renown in her time, including an invitation from Queen Victoria and a house call from President Woodrow Wilson. But curiously she is largely unknown to modern day Utahns. I was excited to learn from Natalie, my fellow Utah history buff, that a full-length biography has finally been devoted to Emmeline. And for those who aren't interested in tackling a whole book, there is also a DVD recording of a recent stage play about Emmeline's remarkable journey from abandoned child bride to literary, political, and religious leader and one of the most important players in making Utah the second state* to give women the vote. She was also the longtime editor of the early LDS women's journal, The Women's Exponent. In it she wrote
Millions of intelligent women are deprived of the vote simply because nature qualified them to become mothers and not fathers of men. They may own property, pay taxes, assist in supporting the government, rend their heart-strings in giving for its aid the children of their affections, but they are denied all right to say who shall disburse those taxes, how that government shall be conducted, or who shall decide on a question of peace or war which may involve the lives of their sons, brothers, fathers, and husbands.
Despite her difficult marriage situation as an emotionally unsatisfied plural wife, she remained a staunch defender of Mormons' rights to practice polygamy, and on more than one occasion had to be rescued publicly by Susan B. Anthony for holding this unpopular conviction, which many thought was incompatible with thinking, educated, independent women. She had experienced firsthand the ways that polygamy allowed women both the essential Victorian social standing of wife and mother and the freedom to focus on developing their strengths in the broader world by outsourcing some of their housekeeping and childcare tasks to "sister wives" when necessary. Ironically, she discovered, polygamy was creating a culture of remarkably progressive women who were no longer enslaved to every whim of their husbands and as a result could focus more on participating in the workings of the outside world. A funny quote from her on this topic:
All honor and reverence to good men; but they and their attentions are not the only source of happiness on the earth and need not fill up every thought of woman. And when men see that women can exist without their being constantly at hand... it will perhaps take a little of the conceit out of some of them.
As an obscure teenage convert to the LDS church she received a blessing that said she would live to do a work that had not been done by any woman since the beginning of the world. Her story is really that remarkable.
In the modern age I can vote and be treated equally in the work place and get a superior education and travel wherever I want without a chaperone. I don't need to be attached to a husband to be taken seriously. And today the Speaker of the House is a woman.
What next, Emmeline?
* 4/6/11 CORRECTION: This mistake has been bugging me for awhile, so I'm fixing it. Emmeline Wells was a key player in making Utah the third state to give women the vote. The Utah Territory had been the second state-like entity (after Wyoming Territory) in giving women voting rights in 1870, but those rights were repealed by the federal government as part of its anti-polygamy legislation. Wells was not involved in the initial 1870 Utah Territory suffrage debate, but was part of the push to reinstate women's voting rights as part of Utah's constitution in 1896. By that point, Wyoming and Colorado had given women the vote.