The Writings of Nature’s Fair Queens

By February 3, 2008

Admin: This post is authored by occasional guest blogger and friend to JI, Bored in Vernal.

I’ve enjoyed reading the Women’s Exponent since it became available online. I’m amazed at how political and liberated many of the articles are. Their interest in the world beyond their valley surprised me. It is fascinating to read the historical information:

“The last week of May, 1872, will be memorable in American annals as the first time since the first ordinance of secession was passed in the South, that both houses of Congress had their full list of members.” (1:1:1)

the fashion advice:

“News comes from France that trailing dresses for street wear are going out of fashion. So many absurd and ridiculous fashions come from Paris that the wonder is thinking American women do not, with honest republican spirit, reject them entirely. This latter one, however, is so sensible, that its immediate adoption will be an evidence of good sense wisely directed.” (1:1:1)

on Women’s Suffrage:

“Men are not usually frightened to let women carry about great bundles of sewing, for which, in many large cities, women only earn a bare pittance, scarcely enough to keep the wolf from the door–that is womanly work; but let her dare talk about voting, or securing equal wages with men for the same amount of work faithfully executed, and she must expect to be cried down as lacking in womanliness or propriety.” (8:13:100)

the pieces defending plural marriage as the solution for independent women,

“The world says Polygamy makes women inferior to men–we think differently. Polygamy, gives women more time for thought, for mental culture, more freedom of action, a broader field of labor, inculcates liberality and generosity, develops more fully the spiritual elements of life, fosters purity of thought and gives wider scope to benevolence, leads women more directly to God?” (5:6:44)

and then the tidbits giving moral direction!

“There are many parents who think they can bring up their children, and especially their daughters, in a large degree ignorant of the evil that is in the world. As the king in the fairy tale banished all spinning wheels from his dominions, that his daughter might not wound her fingers with a spindle, and realize the prophesy of the spiteful fairy at her christening, even so mothers withhold useful and necessary knowledge from their daughters, lest with it may be mingled something leading to harm.” (2:20:154)

A perusal of the writings of these transplanted Mormon women from 1872 to 1914 reveals great insight into the hopes and dreams they had for their lives.  It appears that Mormon women of the nineteenth century were as conflicted and diverse as those today. Compare these two pieces, both found in the same issue of the Women’s Exponent:

“It is a common saying, women talk too much; it may be that they do about that which is of no real importance, but upon subjects which should be well understood, by women possessing common intelligence, there are a vast majority who do not converse at all, to them it is all rubbish nonsense and unwomanly. They prefer to have a husband, father, or brother to think and act and speak for them; to attend to them, to support them. It is to educate this class of women upon such essential points, that it becomes more than ever necessary to speak, and write, and harangue”
“It is a well authenticated fact, and palpable to all the world, that there are thousands of women, who have no such substantial support to cling to, as an oak in the form of a husband, father, or brother, and those who have there are many who suffer more than those who have not, from intemperance and other causes, consequently it follows that as vines they would trail upon the earth, and very naturally be trod upon just as thousands of women are, who have been taught and encouraged in dependence instead of independence.” (The Women’s Exponent, 1876-08-15 vol. 5 no. 6 p. 44)

And here is the other:

Learn to Keep House

Beautiful maidens–aye nature’s fair queens,
Some in your twenties, and some in your teens,
Seeking accomplishments worthy your aim.
Striving for learning, thirsting for fame;
Taking such pains with the style of your hair,
Keeping your lily complexions so fair:
Miss not this item in all your gay lives,
Learn to keep house, you may one day be wives.
Learn to keep house.

Now your Adonis loves sweet moonlight walks,
Hand clasps, and kisses, and nice little talks.
Then, as plain Charlie, with burden of care,
He must subsist on more nourishing fare;
He’ll come home at the set of the sun,
Heart-sick and weary, his working day done,
Thence let his slippered feet ne’er wish to roam,
Learn to keep house that you may keep home.
Learn to keep house.

First in his eyes will be children and wife,
Joy of his joy, and life of his life,
Next his bright dwelling, his table, his meals–
Shrink not at what my pen trembling reveals,
Maidens romantic, the truth must be told.
Knowledge is better than silver or gold;
Then be prepared in the spring-time of health,
Learn to keep house, tho’ surrounded by wealth.
Learn to keep house.
(The Women’s Exponent, 1876-08-15 vol. 5 no. 6 p. 43)

Do you think the poem is satire?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. BiV: Thanks for these excerpts. I think that they do reveal the tensions surrounding life for women, perhaps both then and now. I’ve got to imagine that the poem is a satire, given that even if EBW did not author it, she at least approved it’s publication. I doubt that she’d be advising her readers to learn to keep house rather than seeking education and learning to have a voice of their own.

    Comment by David G. — February 4, 2008 @ 11:11 am

  2. Not a satire. There’s a large variety in the tone of the poems published. One, entitled, “Questionings,” by Lu Dalton includes this verse:

    May we no longer touch His garment?s hem
    Without a brother?s hand outstretched between?
    Will his life-giving voice but quicken them
    And leave us sleeping till THEY break our dream?
    Is servitude our everlasting doom?
    E?en high as man?s hopes may we not aspire?
    Because we sit here in the lowest room,
    Will Christ ne?er call us, ?Daughter, come up higher??

    Which seems to me more representative of the tone of the Women’s Exponent as a whole. But there are plenty of poems like the one in my post. I guess the editors were comfortable with a free representation of the different strains of thought among the sisters.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — February 4, 2008 @ 2:01 pm

  3. BiV: Thanks for opening up my view a bit. I’m aware of Claudia Bushman’s piece on the Exponent, but what else is there? Seems like a great topic for an article.

    Comment by David G. — February 4, 2008 @ 2:19 pm

  4. Hmm, there is a book edited by Carol Cornwall Madsen, _ Battle for the Ballot: Essays on Woman Suffrage in Utah, 1870-1896_ which contains essays by Madsen, Jill Mulvay Derr, Tom Alexander, Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Lola Van Wagenen, & others and often cites the Exponent.

    An essay by Tarla Rai Peterson “The Woman’s Exponent, 1872-1914 Champion for “The Rights of the Women of Zion, and the Rights of the Women of
    All Nations” in _A Voice of Their Own: The Woman Suffrage Press, 1840-1910_. I haven’t read this, but it looks interesting.

    There are other things related to Women’s Suffrage which deal with the Exponent. I’ll have to look them up.

    FYI–(from Wikipedia) The original editor was Louisa L. Greene, who accepted the position with the approval of her great uncle?Brigham Young. She was succeeded as chief editor by Emmeline B. Wells, later president of the Relief Society, in 1877. Wells served as the publication’s editor for 37 years. Facing increasing financial pressures in the early 1900s, Wells unsuccessfully lobbied the Relief Society General Board to adopt The Exponent as its official publication. With their rejection, the paper was forced to close in 1914. The Relief Society Magazine, a separate publication, began publication in January 1915.

    (so the “Learn to Keep House” poem got in under Greene 🙂 )

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — February 4, 2008 @ 2:53 pm

  5. Thanks for the clarification on Greene. So it seems that there is a lot of lit on women’s suffrage, which isn’t surprising. But I wonder how much there is on the Exponent in terms of gender roles, etc, outside of suffrage.

    Comment by David G. — February 4, 2008 @ 3:15 pm

  6. Thanks for this post, BiV. Even with the excellent work already done on Mormon women (including what you cite above), the subject is still one with much work to be done.

    Comment by Christopher — February 4, 2008 @ 3:15 pm

  7. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some work on the defense of plural marriage in connection with the Exponent. That is an aspect that quite interests me, as well as the gender roles David mentions. If anyone finds anything along these lines, let me know!

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — February 4, 2008 @ 10:43 pm

  8. Carol Cornwall Madsen’s bio on Emmeline B. Wells is one work that comes to mind here.

    Comment by Justin — February 5, 2008 @ 10:56 am


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