President Barack Obama met with LDS Church leaders on April 2, 2015, for a little under half an hour during a brief scheduled visit to Utah. In attendance were President Henry B. Eyring, Elder D. Todd Christofferson, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf and Elder L. Tom Perry here. President Thomas S. Monson was unable to attend the gathering due to health reasons, but online feedback also quickly picked up on the noticeable absence of any high-profile female leaders of the Church. Mormon women have not always been left out of presidential visits; in fact, various meetings between Relief Society leaders and American chief executives in the last 150 years are worth the retelling, and serve as a reminder of the stature and influence that elite Mormon women held in representing the Church to the nation. For those a little miffed about Mormon women’s absence from the April 2nd meeting, some well-intentioned indignation is justifiable, as this perhaps represented a missed opportunity for improving female visibility in the Church. Especially since the President’s topics of discussion included those of great import to female church leaders, like family and humanitarian service. Still, the Church has made important progress in this area in recent months. For example, Sister Neill F. Marriott, counselor in the Young Women’s General Presidency and member of the Church Public Affairs Committee, made a conspicuous appearance here, together with Elders Christofferson, Holland and Oaks, at the highly-publicized Religious Freedom and Nondiscrimination Press Conference held in January 2015, and even led out in her remarks.
A caution: it might be tempting to open this discussion to speculation about how this apparent slight represents our persistent marginalization of female leadership—a criticism which is not entirely misplaced. Perhaps no time would have been more appropriate for taking this step toward female inclusion than now, when so much of women’s participation, leadership, and representation in the Church is receiving public attention. But frankly, we don’t know the circumstances, timing, or availability for those included, or not included, in the presidential audience. So, I offer my critique with some caution, some candor, and also a healthy dose of optimism and hope.
This recent presidential visit—and the absence of Mormon women—invites some context and scrutiny about the history of Mormon women’s visits with American presidents. Male church leaders have a long history of meeting with presidents of the United States, whether in visits by chief executives to Utah, or by Church leaders to Washington, D.C. here, here, and here. Of course, the first and perhaps most (in)famous is the Prophet Joseph Smith’s visit to President Martin Van Buren in 1839 here, to ask for intervention on behalf of the Saints against the Missouri persecutions, a request which the President soundly turned down. While no women accompanied the Prophet’s entourage, Mormon women soon had the opportunity and forwardness to meet with their first “chief executive,” when they wrote and delivered a petition to the Governor of Illinois in 1843, again for redress against anti-Mormon actions in western Illinois.
The first real opportunity for Mormon women to meet formally with a sitting president came in the midst of escalating anti-polygamy legislation and agitation for protecting Utah’s woman suffrage in the 1870s. Brigham Young had long desired to send some of his daughters as emissaries to Washington, D.C., to put forth a positive image of the Church through the sympathetic representation of intelligent Mormon women who were also plural wives. The opportunity finally came in 1879 to one of Brigham’s daughters, Zina Young Williams, and Emmeline B. Wells, who were invited to appear at the National Woman Suffrage Association’s national convention in 1879. Traveling East in the spring, Zina and Emmeline also used their residence in the nation’s capital to meet with various Congressional leaders to argue for repeal of the 1862 Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act. Their timing was unfortunately ironic, for the Supreme Court issued the Reynolds decision upholding the federal ban on polygamy, just as they were arriving in Washington. But the pinnacle of their visit to the nation’s capital was their meeting with President Rutherford B. and First Lady Lucy Hayes at the White House, where they presented to him a statement of memorial for protecting the Mormon religion against federal persecution. The President showed “kindly sympathy” to the two Mormon women, and seemed genuinely “pained” when the women explained that anti-polygamy legislation would “make fifty thousand women outcasts and their children illegitimate.” (Van Wagenen, p. 78 and Madsen, 165-170). Mrs. Hayes likewise “heard the Mormon wives with such earnest sympathy as to completely win their hearts.” (Van Wagenen, p. 78 and Madsen, 165-170). While the President and Mrs. Hayes were civil to their Mormon visitors, the visit did little to dissuade them from their ardent anti-polygamy feelings, which were also shared by his successors James Garfield and Chester Arthur.
As Mormonism’s most recognized suffrage leader, editor of the Woman’s Exponent, and the high-profile polygamist wife of Apostle Daniel H. Wells, Wells had other opportunities to represent Mormon women, suffrage and defense of the Church to presidents and first ladies. She was personally invited to President William McKinley’s inauguration, and maintained correspondence with President Grover Cleveland’s sister, Rose, who acted as White House Hostess during part of her brother’s tenure. Emmeline’s most famous audience with a sitting president came in 1919 when President Woodrow Wilson included Utah on his national tour to gain Americans’ support for the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. Due to his worsening illness, Wilson was unable to participate in most of the official activities planned for him in Salt Lake City. And yet, he had one visit that he insisted upon. In 2008, Ardis Parshall documented this important event here at Keepapitchin:
He and Mrs. Wilson rose in time to dress in evening clothes for his speech. A knock came, and an aide opened the door to admit the one person the president had wanted to meet in Salt Lake City. It was a woman – a tiny woman, 92 years old, dressed in her best clothes and decked out with an accumulation of the scarves, laces and bows she favored, despite their never having been in fashion in quite the way she wore them. It was Emmeline B. Wells, president of the LDS Relief Society.
President Wilson wanted particularly to know about the Relief Society’s long project of wheat cultivation and storage, much of which had been donated to the United States during World War I, an offering of which he was grateful. Later, at the end of their meeting, and as the ailing president prepared to leave for his speech at the Tabernacle, “the two presidents rose from the couch. ‘Mrs. Wells,’ Wilson said, ‘I thank you for permitting me to have this interview. I consider it one of the greatest privileges and honors of my life.’”
Once the early generation of 19th-century Mormon women suffragists were gone, the opportunities for and era of great presidential meetings came to end. Emily S. Richards–Utah suffragist, General Relief Society board member, and monogamist wife of church attorney Franklin S. Richards– enjoyed one of the last presidential visits for a high-profile Mormon woman, in her capacity as a leader in suffrage and peace activism. That these great women of Mormondom enjoyed audience with American presidents should be remembered as one more indicator of the status that Relief Society leaders held in 19th-century America, representing themselves independently to the nation at large, to suffrage organizations, and to the country’s highest political leadership.
The Church’s presidential meetings of the second half of the 20th century have taken on an overtly male-dominated character. Notable exceptions here and here were the visits of General Relief Society President Barbara B. Smith, to Washington, D.C. on separate visits to two presidents: Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Her visits served a significant purpose for the Church and for Mormon women, poised as they were during a time of great contention over the Equal Rights Amendment. Representing the Church in its anti-ERA stance, Smith could cast herself as an empowered and independent female leader while also supporting the church’s official position against federal equality legislation and in favor of traditional womanhood. And being received at the White House cemented her feminine authority on behalf of the Church’s male leadership.
So now we find ourselves once again at a place of tension regarding LDS women, in which opportunities for defending the Church and presenting visible examples of empowered women abound. And yet, like the polygamist-suffragists of the 19th century and the anti-ERA Relief Society leadership of the 20th, we also find ourselves in a moment where Mormon women are at once pushing back against public accusations of oppression, while also simultaneously trying to celebrate their own agency and strong leadership. And so, the absence of female leaders in the recent presidential visit serves as a reminder about the vulnerable place of Mormon women, both for the Church that might have benefited from some very pronounced feminine representation of the world’s largest religious organization for women, and for the women whose visibility and presence is not always realistically expected, or who are sometimes an afterthought. Maybe next time, we won’t miss a great opportunity to remind the nation and ourselves of the stature and importance of Mormon women.