Lesser-known but influential Mormon women in church history

Published: Tuesday, June 11 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

LAYTON — Emma Smith, Eliza R. Snow, Lucy Mack Smith and Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner are famous women in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but what about those whose names and accomplishments are not as well-known?

Scholars at the Mormon History Association conference on June 7 and 8 spotlighted various women throughout church history and their contributions to education, family life, women’s rights, Relief Society, medicine and missionary work.

Sarah Melissa Granger Kimball

There was “no stronger minded woman in Israel,” declared contemporary Emmeline B. Wells about early LDS Church Relief Society leader and women’s rights advocate Sarah Granger Kimball. Scholar Janelle Higbee detailed the life of this “self-proclaimed ‘women’s rights woman’ who stood at the forefront of Utah’s early suffrage movement” and who was only one of a few women who attended Joseph Smith’s School of the Prophets.

In early Utah history, Kimball used her talents as a speaker to rally both spiritual and secular causes through Relief Society events and women’s rights meetings. She connected the two, believing that women in the church, with their privileges and knowledge, should be heading the cause to make the world more equitable everywhere, according to Higbee. Kimball served for more than 40 years (1857-1898) as president of the 15th Ward Relief Society, which became a “model of Relief Societies throughout the church," Higbee said.

Kimball also attended suffrage meetings in the East with famous suffragettes and continued to use her influence for, what Kimball termed, “the cause of universal good.”

Emma Liljenquist

Emma Liljenquist of Hyrum, Utah, was called by her bishop to study obstetrics and nursing in 1887. Scholar Kate Holbrook described how Liljenquist left her young family and traveled to Salt Lake City for six months to complete her schooling.

Holbrook explained that once Liljenquist finished her education, “She was set apart by several apostles as a midwife.” And this blessing influenced the way she approached her work, believing it to be directed by divine guidance, according to Holbrook. Liljenquist wrote, “Many times when one of my patients was seriously ill, I would ask my Heavenly Father for assistance, and every time it was given to me.”

With friends and family helping, Liljenquist was able to both take care of her family as well as provide necessary midwife services for her community. She recorded late in her life, “I have brought over one thousand babies to Hyrum. It was not always maternity cases which I attended. Sometimes an anxious mother called to see if I could treat one of her children, or someone else might have a nervous spell and would ask me if I would just come and sit by their bed and assure them that they were alright and all was well.”

Amelia Telle Cannon

Scholar Andrea Ventilla spoke on “The Educational Opportunities of a Teenage Girl in the 1880s” and introduced Amelia Cannon, a 16-year-old woman who was taught to value education as she attended the University of Deseret, now the University of Utah. She wrote in her diary, “Study, study, study all the time! That’s what Hester and I have! We studied steadily all day yesterday on our geography and we have to study even on Sundays.” This study paid off, Ventilla explained, as Amelia passed her exams and continued to pursue educational opportunities throughout her life.

But it was not all study time. Amelia wrote in her diary, “I feel so cross and sleepy. I fear I shall be more dead than alive by the end of this week. Tomorrow night, party; Wednesday evening, party; Thursday night, party; Friday night Student Society or Theatre.”

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