Emmeline B. Wells, “A Glimpse of Washington,” March 1, 1891

[Emmeline B. Wells], “A Glimpse of Washington. The Woman’s National Council,” Woman’s Exponent (Salt Lake City, UT), Mar. 1, 1891, vol. 19, no. 17, pp. 132–133.

See images of the original document at lib.byu.edu, courtesy of Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.

To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the foundational women’s rights convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, officers of the National Woman Suffrage Association, invited women’s associations from around the world to a March 1888 commemorative meeting in Washington DC.1 The delegates, including three Latter-day Saint women from Utah,2 agreed to the proposition that an International Council of Women be organized to coordinate the efforts of all the associations dedicated to advancing the status of women politically, economically, socially, and educationally. The delegates were advised to organize national councils in their respective countries, with the United States being the first to do so.3

In January 1891, a few weeks before the first triennial convention of the National Council of Women was scheduled to begin, general Relief Society president Zina D. H. Young sent letters to the church’s stake Relief Society presidents asking them to collect donations to help cover the costs of sending delegates. Emmeline B. Wells, who was corresponding secretary for the general presidency, immediately thought first counselor Jane S. Richards the best-qualified woman to speak at the convention as a delegate, but Wells consented to attend also.4 On January 23, Wells, Richards, Sarah M. Kimball, Phebe Y. Beatie, and Caroline S. Thomas were set apart by the church’s First Presidency to represent the Relief Society and Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association (Y.L.M.I.A.).5 At this first triennial meeting, which officially opened in Washington DC on February 23, 1891, the Relief Society and Y.L.M.I.A. joined the council as two of the original ten member organizations.6 By joining the council, the Relief Society moved into a new cooperative mode with national and international women’s organizations.

Receipt for payment of dues

Receipt for payment of dues, February 28, 1891. This receipt, issued by M. Louise Thomas, treasurer of the National Council of Women, acknowledges payment of a $100 membership fee by the “Young Woman’s Mutual Improvement Association.” The Relief Society and the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association were two of the original ten charter member organizations of the council. (Church History Library, Salt Lake City.)

The following article is Wells’s account of this initial meeting as published in the March 1, 1891, issue of the Woman’s Exponent, of which Wells was the editor.7 Wells led the delegation that successfully applied for membership in the national council. When the delegation of Mormon women submitted their credentials to the National Council of Women they were uncertain if they would be acknowledged. Susan B. Anthony informed the delegation herself of “the good news that we were admitted without a dissenting vote.”8 The Utah delegates spoke on the last day of the convention, Wednesday, February 25. Thomas read a paper about the Y.L.M.I.A., Richards spoke extemporaneously about the Relief Society, and Wells read prepared remarks about the society.9

The strength of the longstanding personal relationships that had developed through two decades of shared work in the national suffrage movement kept Mormon women active, contributing members to the National Council of Women and the International Council of Women.10 Both of the Latter-day Saint organizations that joined that year retained membership in these councils for more than eighty years.


the woman’s national council.

We had a pleasant journey to this city.11 Leaving Salt Lake City, Monday, 7 a. m, Feb. 16, and arriving in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 19, at 10 p. m., our train was delayed a short time at Baltimore, or we would have reached here at 8:15 p. m. Mr. and Mrs. F. S. Richards [Franklin S. Richards and Emily Tanner Richards]12 met us at the depot and accompanied our party to the Riggs House, where we registered and obtained such rooms as we could get, the house being already pretty well filled. Before we had been in the house an hour we were delighted to meet in the hallway, just for a moment, the dear friend of woman, Susan B. Anthony, and she expressed her pleasure at our coming, and gave us two or three good words of welcome and of cheer that we can never forget.

It was arranged before separating for the night that the following morning, Mr. and Mrs. Richards would call (they are at the Randall) and take those who wished to go to the White House and the Capitol Buildings, etc.

The next morning we went first to the White House, then to the War, State and Navy Buildings, and in the afternoon to the Senate and House of Representatives. It is impossible to tell you what we saw and heard, we would want time and space for that, but Mr. Richards told us all he could in the short space of time that we were together, and it was all most interesting, especially so to Mrs. Beattie [Phebe Beatie], Mrs. [Electa] Bullock and Miss Katie Thomas who had never been in Washington before.

During the day Mrs. Richards [Jane Snyder Richards] and the writer, also Mrs. [Caroline] Thomas, succeeded in obtaining an appointment for an interview the next morning at nine a. m. with Mrs. [May] Sewall, the Committee on Credentials for the Council. This was very satisfactory to all concerned, though we were somewhat in doubt as to how the general officers might vote upon our admission to the Council, and here let it be understood that there are certain articles in the Constitution that have to be complied with, etc., and several organizations who came expecting to join the Council are going back without doing so, because of this and that.13

On Saturday morning the Utah Delegation presented their credentials, and had an interview with Mrs. Sewall, the Cor. Sec’y. of the Woman’s National Council as well as Committee on Credentials. Mrs. [Sarah] Kimball and Mrs. E. S. Richards, of Salt Lake City, were also with us. Our interview was satisfactory, as we were then informed exactly what was expected of us.

The Executive Committee14 held a meeting in the afternoon, and after its close we were notified that the Relief Society and Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Associations were admitted to the Woman’s National Council and the delegates entitled to representation.15

Saturday evening Mrs. [Jane] Spofford, the hostess here, and a most magnificent woman in heart as well as in appearance, gave a reception to the ladies of the Woman’s Council and Convention. Many celebrated ladies were present besides those who live in the house.16 The large dining room was handsomely decorated with stars and stripes; at one end there was an elevated platform for the musicians, and in a conspicuous place, at the end of the room, there was a large flag hung with one lone star on it representing Wyoming.17 At the other end of the room stood the ladies who were receiving with Mrs. Spofford; Miss Frances E. Willard, President of the W. N. C.,18 and N. W. C. Y. U.,19 she has a lovely face and most genial expression, a smile and pleasant word for everybody. Miss Susan B. Anthony, Vice-President at large, etc., etc., and large she is in every way as well as liberal, she is certainly one of the grandest women of her time, or any other time; Mrs. May Wright Sewall, the Cor. Sec’y. of the W. N. C., and one of the ablest and brightest women of the day. She has excellent executive ability, and is exceedingly helpful with suggestions and ideas in all the work of the two great bodies of women, who are now holding sessions in this city, the Woman’s Council and the Suffrage Convention. Mrs. Ella Dietz Clymer, the President of Sorosis,20 of New York City, was one of the most attractive women leaders; she is very much complimented in the papers and by the people, not only on account of her beauty, but style and elegance in dress. Mrs. Sara Andrews Spencer was in line with those who were receiving; and the heart of the writer gave a great bound at sight of her intelligent and smiling face, remembering all her help and kindness on our first visit to this wonderful city, and how she had aided us with advice, and who will never be forgotten.21

The reception was a brilliant affair, not so much in the way of dress as in the brilliant eyes and faces of the beautiful and celebrated women assembled to greet the hostess and her co-workers. There were, however, some very elegant costumes, some artistic and Parisian. Mrs. Rachel Foster-Avery, whom Miss Anthony declares to be the best cor. sec’y. in the world, wore a very heavy white brocaded silk with an immense train, and she looked charming. She has one of the sweetest faces and most fascinating manners. There are many we would like to mention by name, but cannot do the subject justice, and so will only say there were women lawyers, doctors, ministers, artists, editors, correspondents and reporters.22

The ladies (for there were very few gentlemen) congregated in groups chatting for a few minutes in a friendly way, and later on a part of the company (for many had already retired) went up to Mrs. Spofford’s apartments, and were ushered into a room profusely decorated with flowers, where lunch was served in the most delightful way. Icecream, cakes, dainties and salads, and the most delicious coffee; but the greatest attraction there was the presence of such women as Susan B. Anthony, Isabella Beecher Hooker, Clara Barton and others known to fame, whose noble works are of themselves a living and lasting monument. But we must pass on, and only give them brief recognition now.

Sunday there were services in Albaugh’s Opera House, as had been previously announced,23 and in the evening an entertainment was given to raise funds for a Mary Washington monument, although as Miss Anthony said throughout the whole affair, “they never even mentioned that Washington had a mother.”

Monday morning the Woman’s National Council was formally opened. Miss Willard in the chair, and by her side then and throughout the entire Council, Miss Susan B. Anthony. Mrs. Sewall, the Cor. Sec’y., was the right hand director and manager. She seemed to be the chief person on the staff to assist the President. Rev. Anna Shaw was one of the most efficient helps, and is a most eloquent speaker, as well as being very executive in all her work. She had charge of the bell and was the time-keeper, so much time being allotted to each speaker, and it was her duty to give the signal, even if in the middle of a sentence.

Miss Anthony would almost invariably arise and say in her conciliatory manner, it will all be given in the official report of the Council.

The President’s address to the Council was the leading feature of the opening and was immediately printed in pamphlet form and circulated free. It opened with these significant words o[f]24 Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s, “A difference of opinion on one question must not prevent us from working unitedly on those on which we can agree.”25

After Miss Willard’s speech, which was a grand one in every sense of the word, came Anna Garlin Spencer, who spoke upon “State Control and Social Care of Dependent Classes;” then “The Care of Defective Children;” Fanny B. Ames [Julia Frances Ames]; “The Need of Women in Public Institutions,” Dr. Rose Wright Bryan; “Our Duty to Dependent Races,” Alice C. Fletcher; “Women as Police Matrons,” Lillie Devereux Blake.26

It is not the intention to go into details in this article, but give the opening of the great National Council of Women, to which several great organizations of women have been admitted. Perhaps it will convey but little of the true idea after all, but it shall be the pleasure of the writer to explain and make clear, to as many as possible, this federation of womens’ organizations after her return home.

In regard to the Delegates from the Relief Society and Y. L. M. I. A., in which the members of these organizations are more specially interested, it will perhaps do as well to give you the newspaper reports, until you get it officially from the regular report of the Woman’s National Council which is to be published. Here is the statement of the Washington Post, the reporter of that paper sitting in the Council during the several sessions of that body:

Miss Willard then introduced Mrs. Caroline St. Thomas, the delegate from the Young Ladies’ National Improvement Association, who read an interesting paper descriptive of the work of the young ladies’ organization, which had done a great deal for its members.27

Mrs. Jane S. Richards, delegate from the National Women’s Relief Society, in a few words expressed the pleasure she had experienced on her attendance on the council.28 She gave way to Mrs. Emily Wells,29 of Utah, who told something of the Relief Society, which had its headquarters in New York, and had been in existence over half a century.30 There were branch societies all over the country and in some foreign lands. It had over 400 branches, 25,000 members, $100,000 worth of real estate, a hospital managed solely by women, and published a paper, the Woman’s Exponent.

It was an uncompromising enemy of the dram shop,31 and when women had the right of suffrage in Utah,32 the society furnished a rallying point for the women of the State. The society had done a world of good works of charity, and was one of the most benevolent organizations of women extant.33

The Womans Tribune of Feb. 28, gives, in the report of the Council, the following concerning our delegation:34

Next on the list, The National Improvement Society,35 was represented by Mrs. Thomas, who spoke briefly on and told in an interesting manner [p. 132] of the benefit young ladies were deriving from it.

The next speaker introduced to the audience was Mrs. Richards, of the National Woman’s Relief Society, who began her brief address by saying: “I have the honor to represent Utah. The 25,000 women whom I represent are seeking to have love and peace and goodwill extended to all. On account of the length of the programme I will not speak longer, except to say that I am stopping at the Riggs House, and will be pleased to answer questions there. I will now give way to Mrs. Emmeline B. Wells.”

Mrs. Wells is editor of the Woman’s Exponent, of Salt Lake City, and one of the most interesting women at the Council. She has been chastened and spiritualized by suffering into a sympathy with woman that truly represents the spirit of Him whom those of her faith call Master, as well as those of Christian denominations. Mrs. Wells gave a short account of the Relief Society. Its headquarters are in New York; but it has branch societies all over the country, a hospital managed entirely by women, and has its own organ—The Woman’s Exponent.

The three days’ sessions of the Woman’s National Council were of an exceedingly interesting character. In fact so much has been crowded into the minds and hearts of the people who have been listening through these three days that it will take weeks of thought to digest the whole matter, and sufficient material has been furnished to occupy the next four years in developing; the seed which has been planted will surely bring in a rich, a golden and abundant harvest that will bless and comfort the world of humanity.

Grand, noble, yea queenly, are the women who are laboring to unite, in a great band of sisterhood, the several great organizations and bring them in loving unison and fellowship one with another and blessed mutual helpfulness. That the Lord is working through His Holy Spirit upon the women of this nation, and other nations, must be apparent to all who have eyes to see, and ears to hear.36 That this is woman’s era who can longer doubt? Among the foremost of the women of the world, who are actively engaged in the great questions that are being agitated for the benefit of the women of our own and other lands (and what uplifts women, elevates the whole human family), are the very women who have planned and carried into effect this union of organizations, this great federation of associations. One very pleasing and promising feature of the Council is the great number of bright, intelligent, attractive young women that have come forward and taken an active part in the work. This is specially gratifying, for it is and must necessarily be the young women of the present century upon whom the great burden of responsibility will fall and who are to work out the lines of progression that will ensure the victory desired for those who have toiled, lo, these many years.

Cite this page

Emmeline B. Wells, “A Glimpse of Washington,” March 1, 1891, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, accessed May 27, 2024 https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/the-first-fifty-years-of-relief-society/part-4/4-27