Mormon women today might be surprised to learn about their foremothers’ views on feminist theology and women’s issues, according to Maxine Hanks.
In 1842, founder Joseph Smith foresaw the LDS Women’s Relief Society as “a kingdom of Priests,” that he “would ordain them to preside over the society…just the Presidency preside over the church.” Originally, the LDS Women’s Relief Society paralleled the LDS men’s priesthood quorums. Women were “ordained” to various positions, as well as set apart to be healers “with power to rebuke diseases.”
In the 19th-century, Mormon theology also spoke of a Mother God, having “all power and glory” with the Father in Heaven. Mormon doctrine also hinted at the divine status of Eve, Mary, and Mary Magdalene.
The 19th-century Woman’s Exponent, published by the LDS Women’s Relief Society, editorialized in favor of “equal rights before the law, equal pay for equal work, equal political rights.” The magazine’s masthead read, “The Rights of the Women of Zion and the Rights of Women of All Nations.”
One Relief Society founder, Sarah Kimball, referred to herself as “a woman’s rights woman,” while another leader, Bathsheba Smith, was called on a Relief Society mission in 1870 to preach “woman’s rights” throughout southern Utah. According to the Woman’s Exponent, a woman’s place was not just “in the nursery” but “in the library, the laboratory, the observatory.”
Women were encouraged to pursue formal education and career opportunities, study medicine and involve themselves in politics. Mormon women were assured that “when men see that women can exist without them, it will perhaps take a little of the conceit out of some of them.”
Women who served inside LDS temples were termed “priestesses,” while LDS Women’s Relief Society president Eliza R. Snow was known as a “prophetess.” Snow discouraged women from confiding their personal issues to male bishops, saying that such matters “should be referred to the Relief Society president and her counselors.”
In 1875, LDS Women’s Relief Society president, Emmeline B. Wells, could say with confidence: “Let woman speak for herself; she has the right of freedom of speech. Women are too slow in moving forward, afraid of criticism, of being called unwomanly, of being thought masculine. What of it? If men are so much superior to women, the nearer we come up to the manly standard the higher we elevate ourselves.”