This month marks the birthday of the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As President Gordon B. Hinckley once said at a National Press Club appearance, “People wonder what we do for our women. I’ll tell you what we do. We get out of their way and look with wonder at what they’re accomplishing.”
Following are some of the many accomplishments made by Relief Society sisters during the years since they were organized on March 17, 1842.
1. Many of the early Mormon women were suffragists. Through their efforts, the women in the state of Utah fought for the right to vote. Utah and Wyoming were the first states to allow women to do so (see "Battle for the Ballot: Essays on Woman Suffrage in Utah Paperback" by Carol Cornwall Madsen). When Sister Zina D.H. Young was general president, the Relief Society joined the National Council of Women, which still exists today and is the oldest nonsectarian organization of women in America, organized in 1888. Many sisters were invited to speak on suffrage at conventions all over the world in places such as London, Copenhagen and Washington, D.C. Young, Susa Young Gates and Sarah Kimball served as vice presidents of the National Council of Women. Sister Belle S. Spafford was elected president of the national organization while simultaneously serving as the ninth general Relief Society president. Today, the Relief Society is no longer affiliated with this organization.
2. In the middle of the Great Depression, under the direction of Relief Society General President Louise Y. Robison, the famous Relief Society Singing Mothers groups were organized, according to "Faith, Hope and Charity: Inspiration from the Lives of General Relief Society Presidents" by Janet Peterson and LaRene Gaunt. Every ward had its own singing group. Because the uniform was a simple black skirt and white shirt, various Relief Societies could gather as wards, stakes or regions singing for the congregations. The Singing Mothers would broadcast their programs over KSL Radio. There were Singing Mothers groups all over the world — from Stuttgart, Germany, to Argentina. Many European sisters expressed how singing helped them get through the war.
3. In the late 1800s, Relief Society sisters were sending women to medical schools in the eastern U.S., as well as donating money toward their tuition, the Relief Society Magazine reported. These female students were some of the first women in the country to graduate as medical doctors. They returned to Utah to train additional women as nurses. Deseret Hospital was run by the first all-female board of directors in the United States. Dr. W. H. Groves donated money so that Groves LDS Hospital could open its doors. The leaders in the Primary Association became concerned for the medical care of children and created a wing at the hospital called Primary Children’s. The Cottonwood Stake Relief Society established its own maternity hospital. (One was also set up by the Snowflake Arizona Stake Relief Society.)
4. Brigham Young asked Sister Emmeline B. Wells to organize the sisters in gathering, growing and collecting wheat. "The Wheat Project," as it was called, involved gathering and storing wheat for the poor and needy (see "Women of Covenant: The Story of the Relief Society" by Janeth Russell Cannon, Jill Mulvay Derr and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher). This wheat was used to feed survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, World War I and World War II, as well as the poor and needy. With the money from selling the wheat, the women built Relief Society meeting halls, bought and sold on the stock market and helped kickstart several LDS Church programs, including medical, social and welfare services. It was the largest project undertaken by the Relief Society, earning its symbolic placement of bronze sheaves of wheat on the outside walls of the Relief Society Building in Salt Lake City.
5. Under Brigham Young’s direction, Louisa Lula Greene started the Woman’s Exponent magazine, one of the first newspapers in the country written and published by women. Although it was never an official LDS Church publication, it was the voice of the Relief Society for 50 years with the masthead bearing the subtitle "Organ of the Relief Society." Wells succeeded Greene and edited the newspaper for 39 years. Wells and her contributors used this publication as a forum to teach, motivate and advertise items of interest to the local women, such as gatherings for woman's suffrage, minutes from the Retrenchment meetings, that focused on spiritual cultivation, "Wheat Project" information, medical classes, obituaries and life histories of many beloved sisters.
When Wells was called as Relief Society general president, the magazine was closed down and the church began publishing The Relief Society Magazine, with Gates as its first editor. For another 50 years, lessons, stories and instruction were published each month.
6. As soon as Joseph Smith began teaching about doing the work of salvation for the dead, women traveled back East, visiting family and collecting information on their relatives in order to do temple work in the Endowment House in Salt Lake City, and later in dedicated temples (see “Provoking the Brethren to Good Works,” by James B. Allen and Jessie L. Embry, BYU Studies). In 1894, the Genealogical Society of Utah was formed. Gates began working exclusively on genealogy, and by 1912, she was writing lessons and weekly newspaper articles, and had organized the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. When the World's Fair in San Francisco opened in 1915, hundreds of Relief Society sisters, who saved up money for an entire year, attended just to visit the International Congress of Genealogy exhibit and see Wells, the Relief Society president, receive a bronze medal for efforts made by the Relief Society in genealogy work. Wells said, “The work of the Relief Society is so closely connected with that of the Genealogical Society that membership in the one practically implies interest in the other.”
7. Sister Amy Lyman, the eighth Relief Society general president, once said, “Relief Society should work for the abolishment of poverty.” The purpose of the Relief Society Social Services Department was to restore the individual, or family, to a self-sufficient life (see "This Decade was Different: RS Social Services Department, 1919-1929," by Loretta L. Hefner, Dialogue Magazine, September 1982). Women were sent to New York, Chicago and Denver for training in social work, and a social services lesson was given every month. Topics included health and sanitation, child welfare and family life.
8. When the women complained about wanting finer clothing items, Brigham Young came up with the idea of growing silk worms and manufacturing the fine fabric themselves. Zina D.H. Young became the first and only president of the 50-year Deseret Silk Association. The women raised the worms, fed them mulberry leaves, spun the silk and weaved the cloth. It was such a distateful and intensive project, the next generation refused to continue the labor (see "Finest of Fabrics: Mormon Women and the Silk Industry," by Chris Rigby Arrington, Utah Historical Quarterly, Fall 1978).
9. Humanitarian hygiene, school and newborn kits were developed in 1990 by Rose Ann Gunther, a stake Young Women president in American Fork, Utah, and her committee that wanted young women to learn how to serve. They arranged to have the church building open once a week so ward members could come and help them with their projects (see “Service Project for a Small Community Grows into Relief for the World” on mormonnewsroom.org). This now has became a church-wide effort.
10. In 1937, Robison, the seventh Relief Society president, promoted self-sufficiency in the sisters by opening the first Mormon Handicraft store (see "Mormon Handicraft,” by Carol L. Clark, "Encyclopedia of Mormonism"). Women were able to sell handmade items to provide extra money for their families. Later, this store became a valued resource center for the Homemaking Department Work Day.
Jan Tolman writes about the Relief Society, its history, purpose and destiny at www.ldswomenofgod.com.