In 1870 — a time of general misunderstanding about members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and their beliefs — a group of LDS women in Utah called a press conference and addressed newspaper reporters from across the country.
"It was high time (to) rise up in the dignity of our calling and speak for ourselves," said Eliza R. Snow, the LDS Church's second Relief Society general president. "The world does not know us, and truth and justice to our brethren and to ourselves demand us to speak. .... We are not inferior to the ladies of the world, and we do not want to appear so."
Reporters in attendance called the meeting remarkable. "In logic and in rhetoric the so-called degraded ladies of Mormondom are quite equal to the ... women of the East," wrote one reporter ("Daughters in my Kingdom," pp. 46-47).
More than 140 years later, much has changed for LDS women. Today they live in more than 170 countries and speak more than 80 languages; the Relief Society has become the largest organization for women in the world.
Still, said Sister Julie B. Beck, Relief Society general president, some misunderstandings remain. As did the press conference in 1870, a new book titled "Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society" will correct many false ideas about LDS women, she said.
The book, which in coming months will be distributed to adult Latter-day Saint women across the globe, was announced by the LDS Church's First Presidency in August.
Sister Beck said the book is remarkable because it was "written by women and it is about women." It also was a theme of the just-concluded general Relief Society meeting preceding this weekend's semiannnual general conference sessions.
The 208-page book is not a comprehensive history of the church, nor is it an LDS manual. It is intended as a personal and family resource to strengthen women and their families in their responsibilities, she said.
"It is an epic story and it is a record of the spiritual legacy of the women of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," she said. "I believe it is a witness of women's divine roles and it confirms an immovable standard of what we believe and what we defend."
In addition, the book addresses some of the misperceptions about LDS women.
"Women have always carried an important and influential leadership role in Heavenly Father's plan and in his restored gospel," she said.
Women need "just a little taste" of their history and heritage to realize "what an important part we have as women in the Lord's kingdom," said Sister Barbara Thompson, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency.
Susan W. Tanner, the former Young Women general president for the LDS Church who is now serving a mission in Brazil with her husband, was asked to work with the Relief Society presidency to write the book.
She said while working on the project she came to believe the history is needed "to lift women, to inspire women, to help women know who they are, what their purposes are."
The book, she said, has the potential to "get the women of the world and the women of the church from where they are to where they need to be."
Karen Del Priore, an attorney, wife and mother from Salt Lake City, said being a Latter-day Saint woman can sometimes present conflicting feelings. "There are a lot of voices around either in the world, or even sometimes within the church, that characterize a woman's place in the church a certain way," she said.
The history of Relief Society provided her "definition" on her role in the church.
"I think what this book did more than anything was put my membership in Relief Society in context," she said. "I really felt a much stronger connection to the women who went before me."
Robin Pedersen, a member of the Relief Society from Centerville, agreed. Diagnosed with colon cancer in 2002, Pedersen is now battling stage-four, inoperable cancer and has learned much about service.
"For me it is much easier to serve than to be the one on the other end," she said. "But that is not the gospel to just give and give and give. The gospel is that we take care of each other. "
While reading in "Daughters in My Kingdom," she learned of the efforts of early Latter-day Saint women to help build the Nauvoo Temple.
Touched by their sacrifice, she wrote in the margin of her book: "So much work went into the Nauvoo Temple. The Lord knew it would not last. But strength and sacrifice were built."
Now Pedersen applies the lesson to her life. "That is what I kind of think about this time of my life.
"It is building strength and it is building sacrifice. We all have trials."
Other women confirmed feelings they always knew about Relief Society as they read the new book.
As a new convert to the LDS Church, Cecilia Plas-cencia of Kaysville, saw Relief Society as "something extraordinary." The women in Relief Society, she recalled, taught her she "could choose to live a better life."
Julene Butler, BYU librarian, said Relief Society connects women from every culture and circumstance. "We have a lot in common even though it appears on the surface that we are very, very different," she said.
And Vilma Sagebin of Sandy joined the church as a 16-year-old living in Brazil when she watched the example of a Latter-day Saint teenager. Immediately, she felt like she had "found where I belong."
Through the years, that feeling has never left her. Speaking of Relief Society today, she said, "This is not an ordinary association."
Sister Silvia H. Allred, first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, said wherever she has lived Relief Society women have become her friends and family. "I have always felt Relief Society was a place for me to learn and use my gifts to bless others," she said.
By the end of January 2012, "Daughters in My Kingdom" will have been translated into 24 different languages and sent across the globe.
It reaffirms the message Latter-day Saints sent the world from a press conference in Utah in 1870 — that LDS women are part of a long legacy of strength.
"The Lord organized the sisters into a discipleship," said Sister Beck. Relief Society helps women share and align themselves with the sacred ministry of Jesus Christ.
"We call it a sisterhood — a great worldwide sisterhood," she said. "It connects us heart to heart."
The example of Relief Society presidents
"Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society" highlights a legacy of strength shared by LDS women. Following are three examples of strong Relief Society presidents from the book:
Lucy Meserve Smith was a Relief Society president in 1856 in Provo. She received word at the October general conference that there were two stranded handcart companies, destitute in the snow in Wyoming, needing all the supplies that could be provided.
"We did all we could, with the aid of the good brethren and sisters, to comfort the needy as they came in with Hand-carts late in the Fall," she wrote in her journal. "As our Society was short of funds then we could not do much, but the four Bishops could hardly carry the bedding and other clothing we got together the first time we met. We did not cease our exersions til all were made comfortable. When the hand Cart Companies arrived, the Desks of the Seminary were loaded with provisions for them" ("Daughters in My Kindgom," p. 37).
During World War II in Holland, District Relief Society President Gertrude Zippro visited other Latter-day Saint women on a dangerous road at night during the five-year occupation.
"It became necessary for my mother to have identification in order for her to safely visit the various branches of the Relief Societies," wrote her son, John. "Curfew was imposed and many guards or sentries were posted on major thoroughfares. If you had no business in a particular area, you were stopped and searched, and many times your possessions were taken from you — such as bicycles. ... Can you imagine my mother braving those circumstances and going out at night on her bike many times, to visit another branch? No matter how she felt or what the circumstances, she would take care of her obligation" (Daughters in My Kingdom, p. 76-77).
Rolie Ding, a Relief Society president serving in Taiwan in 1999, rode her bike through the rubble after a huge earthquake. Within hours of the disaster, she visited Bobbie Sandberg, a young mother. Thousands of miles from home, Bobbie had moved to Taiwan with her husband to teach English and was grateful beyond words to see her Relief Society president ("Daughters in My Kingdom," p. 86-87).
Misperceptions about LDS women
"Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society" will correct many false ideas about LDS women, said Sister Julie B. Beck, Relief Society general president. Some include:
Misperception: Relief Society is a Sunday class.
Truth: Relief Society is a way of life.
"It is the way the Lord organizes his daughters as unified disciples," said Sister Beck.
Misperception: Relief Society is not for me.
Truth: Relief Society is a place of influence, a worldwide sisterhood. Sister Beck said some women mistakenly think Relief Society is a place filled with "old ladies and knitting and clichés." In reality, she said, Relief Society "is where we can, together, have a greater influence than doing things alone."
Misperception: Relief Society sisters are "sweet but uninformed."
Truth: History confirms the members of the Relief Society have always cared about significant issues. "The Lord has always expected his daughters to lead and influence for good to make significant contributions to home and family, their communities and to further his work," said Sister Beck.
Misperception: The contributions of women are not enough.
Truth: The Lord values the contributions of women. "To the Lord we are enough," said Sister Beck, noting that if any woman in the LDS Church feels that she does not measure up to what is expected of her this book will help her remember that "righteous offerings are acceptable to God. ... Busyness and competition are not the same as consecration and your best efforts," she said.
Misperception: It's all about me.
Truth: Relief Society provides a way for women to fulfill the Lord's plan. Sister Beck said the world teaches women that everything is about them. "Through Relief Society we learn the Lord has expectations and responsibilities that are eternal and not negotiable."
Misperception: Women don't have a visible role in the church.
Truth: Women have always had an important role in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "History shows that stories about women are as powerful as the stories about men," said Sister Beck, noting that women are not a footnote in the Lord's plan. "They have always been there since the beginning."
— Sarah Jane Weaver
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company