Emmeline Blanche Woodward (Harris Whitney) Wells was born Emmeline Blanche Woodward in 1828 in Petersham, Massachusetts. A precocious child, she acquired an exceptional education for her time and place, graduating at age fourteen from the New Salem Academy and teaching school briefly thereafter. Converting to the Mormon Church in 1842, she married James Harris the next year, and in 1844 they migrated to Nauvoo, Illinois, then Church headquarters. After the death of her son Eugene Henri and the desertion of her husband, she married Newel K. Whitney as a plural wife, traveling to Utah with the Whitney family in 1848. Whitney's death in 1850 left her with two young daughters whom she supported by teaching school.
Emmeline became the seventh wife of Daniel H. Wells in 1852, bearing three more daughters. Her marital experiences taught her the need to be self-reliant and she became an early advocate of women's rights, writing under the nom de plume, Blanche Beechwood, for the Woman's Exponent, a semi-monthly periodical established in 1872 for Mormon women. "I believe in women, especially thinking women," she wrote, and dedicated her energies to working in their behalf.
Becoming editor of the Exponent in 1877, she used the publication for the next thirty-seven years to support woman suffrage and educational and economic opportunities for women as well as to report news of the Mormon Women's Relief Society, which she served as general secretary for twenty-two years before becoming general president in 1910 at the age of 82. Appointed by Brigham Young in 1876 to head a grain-saving program, she received personal commendation in 1919 from President Woodrow Wilson for selling the wheat to the government during World War I. A strong supporter of polygamy, Emmeline defended the practice before numerous congressional committees and in audiences with three United States Presidents.
For nearly thirty years she represented Utah women in the National Woman's Suffrage Association and the National and International Councils of Women, while spearheading the successful effort to include woman suffrage in the state constitution. She wrote numerous short stories and poems, most published in the Woman's Exponent, later compiling her poetry, her favorite literary medium, into a single volume, Musings and Memories. In 1912 she became the first Utah woman to receive an honorary degree, awarded her by Brigham Young University.
Known for her executive talents, her superb memory, and her indefatigable energy, she served as liaison between Mormon and non-Mormon women and helped dispel much of the hostile criticism of her people. At her death in 1921 she was eulogized as the state's "foremost woman," as "unyielding as her native granite in her devotion to duty." On her hundredth birthday, representative Utah women of all faiths and political persuasions posthumously recognized her achievements by placing a bust of her in the rotunda of the state capitol building, the only woman so honored. The inscribed tribute is simple but apt: "A Fine Soul Who Served Us."
See: Augusta Joyce Crocheron, Representative Women of Deseret (1884); Orson F. Whitney, History of Utah, vol. 4 (1904); Andrew Jenson, L.D.S. Biographical Encyclopedia, vol. 2 (1914).
Carol Cornwall Madsen