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10 remarkable women in LDS Church history

Published: Wednesday, May 7 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

The Utah State Senate in 1897, Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon standing to the left of center. Cannon, a Democrat, defeated her husband, a Republican, to become the first woman State Senator in the United States. She served two terms in the state legislature.

Utah State Historical Society

When it comes to appreciating the women of our lives, late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley offered this advice in a 2003 general conference address: “Be kind to the women. They constitute half of the population and are mothers to the other half.”

President Hinckley went on to compliment Latter-day Saint women for gracefully managing their multiple roles, such as companion, home manager, nurse and family chauffeur, among others.

“My dear sisters, you marvelous women … I stand in great admiration for all you do,” President Hinckley said. “I see your hands in everything.”

In honor of "marvelous" mothers and women everywhere, here is a look at 10 remarkable women in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The list includes women of different cultures who endured difficult challenges. They are mothers, wives, activists, physicians, missionaries, professors, writers and politicians. Each one is distinguished in her own way.

“These women leave behind a legacy upon which we can draw inspiration and strength,” said Brittany A. Chapman, a historian in the LDS Church History Department. “When we remember their stories, they become part of our own and help us to live better lives.”

1. Mary Fielding Smith (1801-1852)

Mary Fielding Smith was greatly admired by many in her lifetime. Her son Joseph F. Smith, who became the sixth president of the church, held her in high esteem for all she accomplished amid hardships and trials.

“Do you not think that these things make an impression on my mind? Do you think I can forget the example of my mother? No; her faith and example will ever be bright in my mind,” he said, as recorded in "Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith." “Every breath I breathe, every feeling of my soul rises to God in thankfulness to him that my mother was a saint, that she was a woman of God, pure and faithful.”

Although reluctant to become a stepmother, Mary Fielding accepted the marriage proposal of Hyrum Smith after his first wife died giving birth to their fifth child. Less than a year had passed when Hyrum was arrested and imprisoned with church leaders in Liberty Jail. During his incarceration, she gave birth to Joseph F. and endured many months of poor health, according to a profile of her life in "Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Vol. 1."

Despite the tragedy of her husband’s death with his brother in Carthage Jail, Mary Fielding Smith and her children left Nauvoo in 1846. The captain of her wagon company said she would be a burden on the company. Smith responded to his criticism by vowing to beat him to the Salt Lake Valley, which she did.

Smith was a woman of meager means but raised her children on faith, courage, hard work and prayer. She also relied on the blessings of tithing. Her son related a story in the "Presidents of the Church" Institute of Religion manual that a tithing office clerk once suggested she keep her contributions because she had so little. She scolded the man, saying, “Would you deny me a blessing? If I did not pay my tithing I should expect the Lord to withhold his blessings from me.”

Smith died of pneumonia at the age of 51.

2. Jane Elizabeth Manning James (1822-1908)

Jane Elizabeth Manning James was among the first people of African descent to join the church. She was baptized in Connecticut in 1842. When denied passage on a ship, James and other family members walked more than 800 miles to Nauvoo.

The weary travelers were not well received in Nauvoo until they came to the Mansion House, where Joseph and Emma Smith welcomed them warmly. James lived in the Mansion House and was a household servant for the Smith family. The family invited her to be adopted, but James declined, according to a profile written by Margaret Blair Young in “Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Vol. 2.”

James was the only member of her family to go west with the Mormon pioneers after the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. She married Isaac James and had eight children.

Over the next several decades, James endured tremendous adversity in terms of divorce, poverty and the deaths of several children and grandchildren.

Young's narrative said that when James died in 1908, the Deseret News published this tribute: “Few persons were more noted for faith and faithfulness than was Jane Manning James, and though of the humble of earth numbered friends and acquaintances by the hundreds.”

3. Anstis Elmina Shepard Taylor (1830-1904)

Anstis Elmina Shepard Taylor was working as a schoolteacher at age 16 when she was introduced to the LDS Church. As she began to learn about the church, Taylor prayed she would be able to discern if it was true or false. Her prayer was answered as she studied the doctrine and felt it was true. Taylor knew her parents would not be happy if she joined the church, but she could not “silence her convictions” and was baptized, according to her profile on lds.org.

She soon married another convert, George Hamilton Taylor, and they moved from Omaha, Nebraska, to Salt Lake City. They had seven children, three of whom died in infancy or early childhood.

Taylor served in several church callings over the years, highlighted by her call as the first Young Women general president in 1880. She held this position until she died in 1904 at age 74. During those years, Taylor oversaw the publication of the first issue of the monthly Young Woman’s Journal, the organization of the first general Young Women conference and the designation of Tuesday as Mutual night, according to her profile.

Andrea G. Radke-Moss wrote this of Taylor in "Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Vol. 2": "She was remembered for her unselfish devotion, her zealous labors, her sweet disposition and her tender solicitude in young women’s behalf."

4. Emily Sophia Tanner Richards (1850-1929)

The name of Emily Sophia Tanner Richards may not be as prominent in Latter-day Saint women circles, but her story is worth telling, Chapman said.

“She’s kind of an unsung hero,” Chapman said.

Emily Tanner married Franklin Snyder Richards in 1869. Franklin Richards worked for many years as legal counsel for the LDS Church.

In addition to serving for more than 30 years on the Relief Society General Board, Emily Richards proposed that Utah organize a suffrage group to be affiliated with the National Woman Suffrage Association. She formed friendships with such leaders as Susan B. Anthony, Anna Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt.

According to a profile written by Radke-Moss in "Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Vol. 3," one highlight of Richards' efforts on behalf of Utah women was her participation in the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. She went with the endorsement of the church's First Presidency. Richards was also involved in social and peace activism.

“She was a splash hit,” Chapman said. “She had a wonderful way of interacting with people.”

It is also said of Richards that she always remained a devoted wife, mother and grandmother, Radke-Moss wrote.

“She was someone who balanced her public and domestic life and who was a model of feminism and femininity. Her beliefs in change and charity fed into a vast movement of activism for peace and social justice, and she believed strongly in the restored gospel while also promoting progressive political views," Radke-Moss wrote. "Richards was well traveled and well spoken, the model wife, mother, friend, hostess and individual ... a Relief Society and YLMIA leader … and advocate for the helpless.”

5. Elizabeth Ann Claridge McCune (1852-1924)

In 1898, Joseph McMurrin of the European mission presidency wrote to the First Presidency that “if a number of bright and intelligent women were called on missions to England, the results would be excellent.”

As a result, the First Presidency decided to call and set apart single sister missionaries.

Elizabeth Ann Claridge McCune was instrumental in McMurrin’s decision to write the letter, according to "I Could Have Gone into Every House" on history.lds.org.

Raised in Utah and Nevada, McCune married her childhood sweetheart, successful businessman Alfred W. McCune.

In 1897, the McCunes embarked on a tour of Europe. While sightseeing, Elizabeth also planned to do some genealogical research. In preparation, she requested a priesthood blessing from LDS Church President Lorenzo Snow. During the blessing, he said, “Thy mind shall be as clear as an angel’s when explaining the principles of the gospel,” according to the lds.org history.

While in Europe, Elizabeth McCune accompanied the full-time missionaries to street meetings. She wanted to share the gospel like the elders.

After a former member of the church spread an anti-Mormon message in the community, McMurrin called on McCune to speak to a large crowd. Although nervous, her words helped to dispel the false message, and it became evident that women could reach hearts in a way the elders could not, according to the lds.org history.

“This incident opened my eyes as to the great work our sisters could do,” she wrote of the experience.

As a result of McCune's experience, Amanda Inez Knight and Lucy Jane Brimhall were set apart as the first single female proselytizing missionaries in LDS Church history on April 1, 1898. They were both assigned to the European Mission, according to the article.

6. Tsune Ishida Nachie (1856-1938)

When Tsune Ishida Nachie accepted a job to be the cook and housekeeper for the Japanese mission home in 1905, she didn’t know it would change her life.

According to a profile about Nachie written by Ardis E. Parshall in "Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Vol. 3," the new mission president, Alma O. Taylor, was 22 and unmarried. To avoid gossip, he hired the 49-year-old Nachie.

“President Taylor could not have known then that he found more than a cook and housekeeper,” Parshall wrote. “He had found a woman who would become a mother to a generation of missionaries, a tireless missionary herself and the first native Japanese temple worker.”

Nachie was a Christian for more than 20 years before working with the missionaries. She had also worked for several years as cook in the homes of Western businessmen and commanded a higher salary than the mission could pay, but she accepted because she was investigating the church, Parshall wrote. After a month, she approached one of the missionaries and requested baptism. The elder suggested she wait and learn more, but she was persistent and was eventually baptized.

She served as a faithful member of the LDS Church and mother for the missionaries for 18 years before a desire to go to the temple took her to Laie, Hawaii, in 1923, just ahead of an earthquake that devastated Tokyo in 1924. She was the first Japanese convert to enter the temple. In addition to doing temple work for the dead, she decided to personally proselyte among the Japanese of Hawaii. Eventually she was one of a small group of converts organized into the first Japanese branch of the church in Hawaii. She also lived to see the creation of a Japanese mission in Hawaii in 1937.

Nachie was later described as “a saint, if ever there was one, a wonderful woman,” Parshall wrote.

7. Susa Amelia Young Dunford Gates (1856-1933)

Susa Amelia Young Dunford Gates, the second daughter of Brigham Young and Lucy Bigelow Young, was an outgoing and talented woman. Among other things, she was a writer, publisher, advocate for women’s achievements, educator, missionary, genealogist, temple worker, wife and mother of 13, according to a profile written by Lisa Olsen Tait in "Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Vol. 3."

“She was everywhere, had a hand in everything, a human dynamo,” Chapman said. “She was extremely prolific.”

Susa married Dr. Alma Bailey Dunford at age 16 and had two children before the marriage ended in a painful divorce. Three years later, she married Jacob F. Gates, and they had 11 children with only four surviving to adulthood.

After serving a mission with her husband to the Sandwich Islands in 1889, she founded the Young Woman’s Journal, which was adopted as the official magazine of the Young Ladies' Mutual Improvement Association in 1897, Tait wrote.

She founded the Utah Women’s Press Club and was named chairman of the National Council of Women. She also founded the Relief Society magazine. She authored novels and biographies, including one of her father, Brigham Young.

During the 1890s, she traveled around the world advocating for women’s advancements.

Near the end of her life, she focused her energy on genealogy and temple work. She died in 1933.

8. Martha Maria Hughes Cannon (1857-1932)

In 1896, Martha Hughes Cannon, a Democrat, defeated her own husband, a Republican, to become the first female state senator in the United States of America.

“Mattie,” as she was called, was also a physician, trained lecturer, women’s rights advocate and suffragist, a wife, mother and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to a history co-written by Jonathan A. Stapley and Constance L. Lieber in “Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Vol 3.”

As a teenager, Cannon worked as a typesetter for the Deseret News and worked for the Woman’s Exponent, a women’s newspaper. In time she enrolled at the University of Michigan School of Medicine and graduated in 1881. Then she moved to Philadelphia to attend the University of Pennsylvania Auxiliary School of Medicine and was the only woman in her class. She graduated in 1882 with a degree in pharmacy. She also attended the National School of Elocution and Oratory in Philadelphia.

She returned to Utah and married Angus M. Cannon to become the fourth of his six plural wives. She had three children with him.

Cannon took an interest in local politics and women's suffrage, which led her to run as one of five Democrats for state senator. As mentioned, she won, and she served two terms in the legislature with a specific interest in issues related to public health.

After leaving politics, she served as a member of the Utah Board of Health and as a member of the board for the Utah State School for the Deaf and Dumb.

After her husband’s death in 1915, she settled in California and continued to practice medicine. She died in Los Angeles in 1932.

“Beyond her legacy as the first woman to hold the office of state senator … she must also be remembered as an activist for the cause of women, a mother, a physician and a devoted Latter-day Saint,” wrote Stapley and Lieber.

9. Maud May Babcock (1867-1954)

Maud May Babcock’s life changed in 1891 when she met Susa Young Gates.

Babcock, “a petite young woman with a resounding voice,” was studying and teaching at Harvard when Gates persuaded her to visit Utah, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote in “Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Vol 3.”

Within four months of coming to Utah, Babcock joined the LDS Church. As the first woman on faculty, “Miss B,” as she was called, went on to write several books in the fields of speech and elocution, founded the University of Utah departments of speech and physical education, produced more than 300 plays and earned the title “the first lady of Utah drama.”

In addition to her university and theatrical contributions, Babcock served for two decades on the board of the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind, including 12 as president. She had a hand in planning and building the Deseret Gym. She was the first woman to hold the position of chaplain of the Utah Senate.

In LDS Church-related activity, Babcock was an avid genealogist. She served for many years on the general board of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association and “by her own count, performed 21,234 vicarious temple endowments,” Ulrich wrote.

10. Mary Elizabeth Woolley Chamberlain (1870-1953)

In 1911, the southern Utah town of Kanab made national headlines when Mary Elizabeth Woolley Chamberlain became one of the first women in the U.S. to be elected as president of a town board, accompanied by an all-woman board that served for two years.

“Our election was intended as a joke and no one thought seriously of it at the time. When election day dawned, there was no ticket in the field; no one seemed interested in the supervision of the town, so the loafers on the ditchbank proceeded to make up the above ticket as a burlesque, but there was no other ticket in opposition, so, of course, we were elected,” Chamberlain wrote in a life sketch published in “Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Vol. 3.” “As soon as our election was published, we were besieged with letters from all over the country wanting to know all about it, how we managed, what we were doing, etc. and etc.”

Chamberlain, the last of Thomas Chamberlain’s six plural wives, also served as the first female clerk of Kane County and was the mother of two sons.

After her husband died in 1918, she supported herself by selling baked goods and later as a traveling sales representative of a line of silk knitwear. She was also active in the church and the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, according to her profile in “Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Vol. 3,” written by Janelle M. Higbee.

Chamberlain died in 1953 at age 84.

Email: ttoone@deseretnews.com Twitter: tbtoone

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