One of the greatest advocates for Utah’s working women was the Woman’s Exponent magazine, started in Salt Lake City in 1872. While not an official publication of the LDS Church, it was closely tied through its editorial staff and wide readership. The magazine was a professional venture run by Utah women to speak for Utah women. It promoted women’s suffrage, plural marriage, and the right for women to work outside their homes.
When Church President Brigham Young took steps to make Utah independent from the national economy, he encouraged women to pursue an education, cultivate professional skills, and generate business opportunities. Many women responded by creating co-operative stores in their communities. The Woman’s Exponent encouraged its readers to frequent the stores and praised the women working there. For example, when one co-op opened in Salt Lake in 1890, the Exponent assured its readers that, “the management will be in the hands of women acquainted with business principles [and…] there is little need of uncertainty about its success as a safe investment...”
Church attention to these enterprises waned following Young’s death. But the Exponent remained passionate about women’s careers, noting that a woman could choose for herself whether she devoted her life to a profession or to motherhood, or to both if she desired. An 1877 editorial claimed that “every profession and avenue of labor that opens for [a] woman is a blessing.” An 1883 edition disputed the idea of exclusively male breadwinners by observing that, “Even women of refinement…do not feel quite satisfied to be dependent...upon…’men folks’” and that “intelligent, cultivated women step out into avenues of employment …[to] earn money of their own.”
By the early 1900s, the public mood grew more conservative. The Church emphasized women’s domestic responsibilities and the Exponent shifted its focus more toward traditional ideals of femininity and family. The Woman’s Exponent printed its final edition in 1914, but its “forceful voice” for working women remains relevant today.
Heidi Tak for Utah Humanities © 2017
Image: “Even women of refinement and possessed of superior attainments do not feel quite satisfied to be dependent altogether upon the exertions of the ‘men folks’ of the household, but intelligent cultivated women step out into avenues of employment and actually earn money of their own.” Woman’s Exponent, May 15, 1883. Image courtesy BYU Harold B. Lee Library Digital Collections.
See Eileen V. Wallis, “The Women’s Cooperative Movement in Utah, 1869-1915,” Utah Historical Quarterly, 71(4), 2003, pp. 315-331; Vella Neil Evans, “Mormon Women and the Right to Wage Work.” Dialogue Journal, 23(4), pp. 45-61; Shirley W. Thomas, “Woman’s Exponent,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1992; The Woman’s Exponent Digital Collection, online at BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library.
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