Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Emmeline Blanche Woodward Harris Whitney Wells, 1828-1921
By Dr. Kathryn Mackay, Professor of History and Public History Program Director, Weber State University, Ogden, Utah.
For WASM subscribers, see also the bio sketch in Notable American Women, vol. 3.
Writer, editor, and woman's rights activist.
President, Relief Society.
Emmeline Blanche Woodward Harris Whitney Wells was the most prominent if not the most significant of the Utah woman suffrage leaders. She was part of the circle of women who led ecclesiastical, cultural, and social activities in Utah. She was the editor (1877-1914) of the Woman's Exponent, an influential newspaper which printed women's writings, notices of church meetings, and advocated for women suffrage. Wells was also an admired friend of national suffrage leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Wells was born in Petersham, Massachusetts. Graduating from the New Salem Academy, she taught school briefly before marrying James Harris in 1843. The couple were recent converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and moved with his parents to the headquarters of the church, Nauvoo, Illinois. However, Wells was stranded after Harris left looking for work and never returned. She was taken into the home of Newel K. Whitney (1795-1850) who was a prominent businessman and church leader. She became the third of his eight wives in 1845, committing to the LDS practice of plural marriage. Three years later, the Whitney family, which included Emmeline and her two children, migrated to Utah.
After being widowed, Emmeline worked as a teacher. However, she petitioned for support from another leading member of the LDS church, Daniel Wells (1814-1891), who eventually served as mayor of Salt Lake City. She became the seventh of his eight wives in 1852. They had three daughters, one of whom, Elizabeth Anne Wells Cannon (1859-1942), eventually joined her mother in promoting woman suffrage and served in the Utah House of Representatives, 1913-1915 and 1921.
By the 1860s, Emmeline was involved in church and public service. However, it was her skill as a writer that brought her notice. She wrote articles defending plural marriage and women's rights for the Woman's Exponent and the Woman's Journal, a national suffrage paper. For Wells, women's rights and plural marriage were complementary. She argued that in plural marriage a woman found the personal freedom and independence to exercise her rights as a member of society.
Emmeline began to take an active role in the national suffrage movement after 1879 when LDS church president John Taylor appointed her and Zina Young Card (1850-1931) as delegates to represent Mormon women at the national suffrage convention in Washington, D.C. The invitation had been extended to Utah women by national suffrage leaders since Utah women had been voting in 1870.
After the U.S. Congress rescinded Utah women's voting rights through the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, Emmeline became even more vigorous in her fight for suffrage. For thirty years, she represented Utah women in the National Woman Suffrage Association and the National and International Councils of Women. She regularly traveled to Washington to confer with congressional leaders. In 1899, Wells was invited by the International Council of Women to speak in London as a representative of the United States.
Emmeline lived to see the ratification of the nineteenth amendment. She spent the years between that event and her work making certain the 1895 Utah state constitutional included woman suffrage writing articles and poetry and using her enormous energy to remain active in family and church affairs. She served as the General President of the LDS church Relief Society from 1910 until shortly before her death. On 29 February 1928, the one hundredth anniversary of her birth, several religious and community organizations representing the women of Utah commissioned a marble bust of her to be sculpted and placed in the rotunda of the State Capitol. It was inscribed: "A Fine Soul Who Served Us."
Bennion, Sherilyn Cox. "The Woman's Exponent: Forty-Two Years of Speaking for Women," Utah Historical Quarterly, vol. 44 ((1976): 222-239.
James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607-1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971. [LINK]
Madsen, Carol Cornwall. An Advocate for Women: The Public Life of Emmeline B. Well, 1820-1920. Salt Lake City: Deseret Books, 2006.
Madsen, Carol Cornwall. Emmeline B. Wells: An Intimate History. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2017.
Madsen, Carol Cornwall, "Emmeline B. Wells: Romantic Rebel," Supporting Saints: Life Stories of Nineteenth-Century Mormons, ed. Donald Q. Cannon and David J. Whittaker. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, Religious Studies Center, 1985: 305-41.
Van Wagenen, Lola. Sister-Wives and Suffragists: Polygamy and the Politics of Woman Suffrage, 1870-1896. Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 2012.