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Women of character: Looking back at the lives of the general Relief Society presidents of the church

By Mary Jane Woodger and Susan Eaton Black

For Mormon Times

Published: Saturday, July 9 2011 5:30 a.m. MDT

Though they lived during different time periods, the general presidents of the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints all have had similar goals to help build unity, provide watch care and service, and stand as advocates of the family.

And each president touched the lives of the sisters for whom they had stewardship. Below are stories about some of the remarkable women who led the Relief Society organization taken from the book "Women of Character: Profiles of 100 LDS Women."

Emma Hale Smith

Emma Hale Smith is arguably the most famous LDS woman of the 19th century, yet she did not leave a journal or an autobiography, but she did leave a few letters. Gratefully, contemporaries wrote of her life — none more so than her husband Joseph Smith.

To the Prophet Joseph, she was “My beloved Emma — she that was my wife, even the wife of my youth, and the choice of my heart . . . undaunted, firm, and unwavering — unchangeable, affectionate Emma!”

She was the only woman to serve as a scribe for the translation of the Book of Mormon. Of her role as scribe, Emma said, “My belief is that the Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity — I have not the slightest doubt of it. I am satisfied that no man could have dictated the writing of the manuscript unless he was inspired; for, when acting as his scribe, your father (this was said to Joseph Smith III) would dictate to me hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he could at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him.”

Emma graciously welcomed both the poor and the acclaimed into her home and was the president of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. Under her guidance, women searched out those in need and ministered to them. Through their service heavy burdens were lifted, sorrows too severe to be carried alone were shared, and necessities needed to sustain life were freely proffered.

Emma participated in temple ordinance work, acting as proxy for extended family members. She wrote letters in defense of Joseph Smith to the governor of Illinois, even traveling to Quincy, Ill., to meet with him on this important matter. She cared for Lucy Mack Smith for five years as Lucy suffered from crippling arthritis. Mother Smith said of Emma, “I have never seen a woman in my life, who would endure every species of fatigue and hardship, from month to month, and from year to year, with that unflinching courage, zeal and patience, which she has ever done.”

Barbara Bradshaw Smith

“This is a new era for women — a time of greater opportunities, of more choices for personal development and service, of more possibilities for expanding the reaches of the mind and the heart,” said Barbara Bradshaw Smith at a time when passage of the Equal Rights Amendment seemed imminent and many LDS women were questioning their role as women in the church. Barbara, Relief Society general president, assured a worldwide church that the most important role for a woman was to be an honorable daughter, wife and mother.

President Spencer W. Kimball extended the call to Barbara to be the Relief Society general president in October 1974. Barbara served as general president of the Relief Society from 1974 to 1984. During her presidency, she garnered much public attention for speaking out against the ERA. She said of this highly controversial subject:

“The blanket approach of the Equal Rights Amendment is, in my opinion, a confused step backward in time, instead of a clear stride forward into the future. It will create endless litigation in the courts in which legal decisions are made which might create circumstances harmful to the solidarity of the family and the optimum protection of children. And because it does not define some differences between men and women, I think it might be very destructive to families.”

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