"To Do Something Extraordinary": Mormon Women and the Creation of a Usable Past

Jennifer Reeder

Major Professor: Paula Petrik, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Sharon Leon, Alison Landsberg, Claudia Bushman

Johnson Center, B
April 22, 2013, 01:00 PM to 10:00 AM


On 17 March 1842, twenty-two women of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gathered in Nauvoo, Illinois, under the direction of their prophet, Joseph Smith, to organize a female counterpart to priesthood and patriarchal leadership. The women elected lady leaders and established a purpose: to save souls and provide relief to the poor. "We are going to do something extraordinary," said Emma Smith, first Relief Society president. "We expect pressing calls and extraordinary occasions." The Relief Society engaged in religious, charitable, economic, political, and cultural activity and initiated a new emphasis on recording, remembering, and retaining the authority of the past.

This dissertation examines the way Mormon women remembered and commemorated the Nauvoo Relief Society for the next fifty years through the lens of material culture. Hair wreaths, quilts, buildings, posters, and hand-painted poetry books illustrate the transition of Mormonism through isolation in Utah to acceptance by mainstream America, based on the way the women presented their identity and their heritage. They selected the pieces of the past that would appeal to their audience, always maintaining a memory of their Nauvoo roots.