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10 accomplishments of the Relief Society

By Jan Tolman

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, March 13 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

"The First Relief Society Meeting" a painting by Lynde Mott of Lehi. She has done a series of paintings of women in Nauvoo.

Deseret News archives

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.

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