Thursday, January 04, 2007

"I believe in women -- especially thinking women."

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.


Rachel said...

My dad worked in San Francisco for a number of years running the army base while it was in the process of being shut down. He use to get phone calls from Nancy P. She would try to tell him what to do and ask him to do stuff. He would just tell her that he didn't work for her and hang up. Basically he lost all respect for her through their interaction.

I am just pretty dissapointed that the Democrats are starting off by by being just as self-serving as Republicans were in their first 100 days. It just seems like politics as usual where everyone is serving up their own party's interests. It just seems to me that the Democrats are there to help the democrats. And if the Republicans were in charge, they would just there to help themselves too. It all makes me kinda jaded. So I have a hard time caring that the new speaker is a woman. Although, she is third in line which is kinda cool. For the sake of women's rights...

Rachel said...

I love the story about Emmeline Wells. Thanks for sharing that! Whether or not I like Nancy, I agree we benifit a lot from the work of those like Emmeline and it is something to celebrate!

Marie said...

I wasn't sulking because you threw water on Nancy Pelosi -- don't worry ;) Whether or not she makes a good leader (and I really don't know much about her), she's essentially symbolic to me -- even if she's a dragon lady, she's still a lady, and there's something exciting about her being the first, even if there were a man who could do the job better. Not a good way to operate in general, but I do like a good milestone every once in awhile. I think she's valuable even if she's nothing more than a foot in the door. Hopefully she's not wearing cleats.

While we're on the topic of the private dealings of public figures, the brand new Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, was the seminary teacher of one of the people who comments regularly on this blog (who shall remain nameless). She told me he was kind of jerky -- very self-consumed -- and she wasn't impressed with him at all. I was bummed to hear that. Here's hoping that he (and she) are better as Big Shot Politicians than they perhaps were in their former lives.

I agree with what you said about political cynicism. I feel the same way. I continue to hope that things will change after the Democrats take their retaliatory Republican "100 hours," but it's only a tiny hope. They know their election was just reactionary, so they don't have to do good things -- just different things.

As for Emmeline, I'm glad you liked hearing about her. I shouldn't make the blog into an encyclopedia, but I couldn't resist yammering about E for a bit under the circumstances. She's been neglected by history.

Now I have to stop blogging and watch Nanny 911. I'm so ashamed. But this poor woman has 6 children under age 5!! How will it end??? Can the British save us from our familial dysfunction??? Riveting television!

Joanne said...

I'm excited about Nancy Pelosi too. Did you know she bore 5 children in 6 years?! She was able to keep her foot in politics while raising children, which is amazing. Women really face an uphill battle in politics. Listen to the pundits sometime and notice how much more often they talk about a WOMAN's wardrobe, hair, etc. than about a MAN's appearance. Or how two female politicians who disagree are in a 'catfight.'

And Emmeline. I would like to read that book. I hear there's another book in the works (same author?) about her private life. I attended the BYU play devoted to her called "The Sixth Wife." I'm glad to hear it's available on DVD.

I love your blog, Marie. I'll be back soon!

Belladonna said...

VERY cool posting on Emmeline Wells. Females are half the population and mothers of the other half so it only makes sense that we participate in ALL levels of government.

Marie said...

Good point, Joanne. We think our society is so progressive, but our kids are going to cringe when they hear news commentary from our time. Speaking of cringing, "catfight" is one I've noticed, too. So derogatory, and only used by male Republicans, it seems. Sean Hannity, to name names. Where's my pepper spray?

I had no idea Nancy was a mother so many times over -- that makes it more of a real milestone somehow than if she'd been unmarried or married with no children or few children.

I'm glad there's a new Emmeline book in the hopper -- I heard the current one's a bit dry.

Thanks for stopping by, J -- come back soon!

Natalie said...

So I am still thinking we need to get her a bigger headstone. Honestly it is sad to see a huge contributor to woman's suffrage just has a little thing like that. What do you think? You game for getting out there and raising some funds?

Oh all this coverage of President Ford reminded me of all those hotel rooms and watching bios on Regan on CNN.

Marie said...

Are you serious about that, Nat? I'm pretty intrigued by the idea. It's definitely worth looking into (e.g., talk to the descendents, talk to the cemetery and see if they have room for a larger stone). It's not like she cares much, but I think the living need monuments to great souls to remind us to not stagnate.

Yeah, me too. I was amazed at how long it went on -- they were great men for sure, but I was surprised at how many hours and hours of news feed a dead president generates. I much preferred when we stumbled on Bridget Jones that one night.

Joanne said...

Re: a better headstone. Let me know if you move on this. I blog with some folks who might be interested in contributing. Since my dad's death, I've started to care more about cemetery issues! My mum's cousin is raising money for a better headstone for a long-lost-then-found relative who died a tragic and lonely death. It's a worthy enterprise.