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Women have always responded powerfully to a ‘tap on the shoulder’

Preparing and empowering women for such “tap on the shoulder” moments started well before Feb. 14, 1870, and continues with ever increasing importance today. 

A group portrait of Louie B. Felt, president of the Primary Association, Emmeline B. Wells, president of the Relief Society, and Martha H. Tingey, president of the YLMIA.
A group portrait of Louie B. Felt, president of the Primary Association, Emmeline B. Wells, president of the Relief Society, and Martha H. Tingey, president of the YLMIA of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Feb. 14, 2020, marks the 150th anniversary of Seraph Young being the first woman in America to vote under equal suffrage laws. The simple act of casting a ballot into a box opened the door for women to step more fully into the public square, respond more confidently to opportunities to serve and lead and more powerfully apply their gifts and talents to lift and strengthen their communities, families and country.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s inspirational call: “To every woman there comes that special moment when she is figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a special thing unique to her and fitted to her talent. What a tragedy if that moment finds her unprepared or unqualified for the work which would be her finest hour.”

Preparing and empowering women for such “tap on the shoulder” moments started well before Feb. 14, 1870, and continues with ever-increasing importance today.

Jean B. Bingham is president of the Relief Society for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Appropriately headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, not far from the place where that first vote by a woman was cast, the Relief Society is the largest women’s organization in the world.

President Bingham recently commented, “It is interesting to note that the history of women’s suffrage in the United States began just a few years after Joseph Smith — the founding leader of the Church of Jesus Christ — organized the Relief Society in 1842.” She continued, “In the church we say that Joseph ‘turned the key’ for the emancipation of women by establishing this extraordinary organization under the direction of Divine power. In many ways this was a ‘tap on the shoulder’ for women that would lead to the blessing of millions lives around the world and a multitude of ‘finest hours.’”

History has mostly ignored the extraordinary work accomplished by women in the western United States. The Relief Society organization made meaningful contributions in the fight for women’s suffrage on the national stage in those early days and continues a legacy of expanded opportunities and the protection of women’s civil and religious rights today.

An early “tap on the shoulder” came to Emmeline B. Wells, later the general president of the Relief Society, to address the national convention in 1879. Wells was prepared and had qualified herself for such a finest hour. She was so persuasive in both showing and telling the stories of what women were doing in the West that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton visited Utah that same year to address the largest body of enfranchised women then in the United States.

Women have always been a driving force in the United States of America. Some have toiled in obscurity while others have captured the attention and admiration of the nation. The year 2020 will rightly serve as a year to not only remember the landmark anniversary of women receiving the vote, but celebrating the extraordinary impact women have had, at critical times, to shape the soul and summon the strength of the country.

Forgotten to most citizens is the fact that following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, it was Eleanor Roosevelt who first addressed the nation. Her husband’s words about “a date which will live in infamy” are often quoted, but Mrs. Roosevelt may have had the better, more powerful and more applicable message for such a devastating day.

In her weekly radio program — yes Mrs. Roosevelt had a radio show — she acknowledged the tragic event and assured the nation that leaders in Washington were working on a strategy for national security. She revealingly and authentically shared her anxiety for her son, who was at sea, and her concern for her children who lived on the coast. She spoke to the military, to the women of the country and to the young people of the nation who would need to step up. It was a “tap on the shoulder” moment that blessed the American people.

President Bingham knows what addressing such a vast audience is like. During the church’s annual general conference she regularly speaks to the 7.4 million women of the Relief Society, residing in nearly 200 nations, through satellite, television and the internet. She noted this week how “Latter-day Saint women engage in and carry out countless united efforts to effect positive change throughout the world with faith and boldness to improve the lives of women wherever they live. Their Relief Society-developed skills foster leadership, strengthen families and bless local communities and prepare women for “tap on the shoulder” moments to make a difference.”

In an address from October 2018, President Bingham advised women, “Sometimes we think we have to do something grand and heroic to ‘count’ as serving our neighbors. Yet simple acts of service can have profound effects on others — as well as on ourselves.”

Another “tap on the shoulder” example of women making a difference came from a mother who was concerned one afternoon that her 16-year-old daughter was not home at the usual hour. President Bingham shared, “When the girl finally arrived, her mother quizzed her with some frustration about where she had been. The 16-year-old almost sheepishly replied that she had taken a flower to a widow who lived nearby. She had noticed the older woman looking lonely and felt prompted to visit her. ... The young girl and the widow became good friends, and their sweet association continued for years.”

Woman have broken barriers and changed the world at an ever-increasing rate. The capacity for women to respond to “tap on the shoulder” moments has broken the bounds of earth — literally. Astronaut Christina Koch recently returned to earth after setting the record for the longest stay by a female astronaut in space at an amazing 328 days. Koch and her fellow female astronaut, Jessica Meir, will also be known to history for their part in the first all-woman spacewalk. They were prepared and qualified for a most amazing “finest hour.”

The Relief Society has had “tap on the shoulder” moments that required individual women to step up and the organization to lead out. In 1876 then church President Brigham Young tried to create a wheat storage program. The efforts by the men had failed. He tapped Emmeline B. Wells and the Relief Society members to lead and organize the effort. They became so successful that they amassed enough wheat to donate significant amounts to the survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and to people in China who were suffering from a famine.

Ensuring that women’s rights are preserved, protected and expanded is still essential. Governments, businesses, organizations and individuals all play a part. For young women today education is key, role models are needed, religious liberties are vital, opportunities to develop advanced skills are important and economic upward mobility is essential.

Examples of women powerfully responding to “taps on the shoulder” echo down through history. Those stories must be told, celebrated and, above all, emulated. The world needs more women prepared, qualified and empowered to step up to what will be their “finest hour” while creating the future the world needs them to lead.