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Thursday, March 19, 2020

Utah Women of the 19th Amendment Series Part 6: Bathsheba Wilson Bigler Smith

Bathsheba Wilson Bigler Smith was born near Shinnston, West Virginia on May 3, 1822, the daughter of Mark Bigler and Susanna Ogden. Her middle name, Wilson, was not given to her at birth but was adopted by Bathsheba to honor her best friend, who took Bigler as her middle name. When Bathsheba was 15 she and her family were baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and moved to Far West, Missouri to gather to Zion. Shortly thereafter, due to mob unrest, the family was forced to leave their farm and hurriedly move to Quincy, Illinois where her father subsequently died. The following year, they moved to Nauvoo, Illinois. 
In Nauvoo in 1841, Bathsheba married George A. Smith who had been one of the missionaries that baptized her family. She was 19 and he, at 24, was the youngest member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Some months later, and while 6 months pregnant, Bathsheba attended the first meeting of the Relief Society. Bathsheba was among the youngest present at the organization of the Relief Society in March 1842. She also attended the laying of the cornerstone of the Nauvoo Temple, was one of the first to receive her temple endowments and be sealed to her husband, and along with Eliza R. Snow, designed the first temple garment. Temple service would dominate her days for the rest of her life.
Because George A. Smith was a first cousin and favorite relative of Joseph Smith and an apostle, George A. and Bathsheba and Joseph and Emma often visited in each other’s home. According to contemporary accounts, Bathsheba was “as much attracted by the unusual strength and brilliancy of Emma Hale Smith as she was by the majesty and power of the great prophet himself.” Her autobiography asserted “her great love and respect for Emma … which has never changed” and emphasized her listening to the prophet, the divine manifestations that came to her while testifying of the truths he taught, and her earnest desire to carry out his wishes. One of these was his teaching of the nobility and important role of women. These discussions forever marked Bathsheba’s thoughts with her desire to improve the lives of all women.
After the martyrdoms of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Bathsheba followed Brigham Young west. By then she had two children, George Albert and Bathsheba. She gave birth to a second son, John, at Winter Quarters but he did not survive the day. Arriving in Salt Lake City in 1849, Bathsheba’s husband was called to be Church Historian. She often traveled with her husband to various settlements and missions and spoke to the women while he spoke to the men. Her large home, built in 1858, also served as the Church Historian’s office and was across the street from Brigham Young’s home. Because of Bathsheba’s associations, her home became a central gathering place for women and young people.
She always declared that her quiet but persistent efforts to advance the position of women stemmed from her conversations with Joseph Smith and the charge he gave to women during the Nauvoo Relief Society meetings in 1842. As with Eliza Snow and Sarah Kimball, one of these efforts was devoted to promoting the cause of women suffrage. In January 1870 when Bathsheba and other women in Salt Lake City read the Cullum bill (federal legislation that proposed to deny U.S. citizenship to anyone practicing plural marriage), they were shocked and felt outrage both at its substance and at the insulting language used in referring to Mormon women. In a meeting held in Bathsheba’s home on January 6, 1870, they planned a public protest. Sarah Kimball opened the meeting by saying LDS women would be “unworthy of the names we bear or of the blood in our veins, should we longer remain silent.” Eliza Snow added that it was high time for the women to “rise up in the dignity of our calling and speak for ourselves.” A vote to hold a protest was approved unanimously and a committee appointed to draft resolutions. 
After the resolutions were read and approved, the meeting took an even more aggressive turn. After a short speech indicating her pleasure with the actions taken, Bathsheba then moved that “we demand of the Governor the right of franchise.” A vote was taken and the vote carried. Then Lucy Walker Kimball, said, “We have borne in silence as long as it is our duty to bear,” and made a motion that “we be represented in Washington.” Eliza Snow and Sarah Kimball were elected representatives.

After women gained the franchise in 1870, Bathsheba encouraged them to be active. With her encouragement, the General Relief Society sent representatives to meetings of the National Council of Women, the International Congress of Women, and the meetings of the national and international peace movement. At this time, George A. was serving as first counselor in the First Presidency under Brigham Young. After his death in 1875, Bathsheba became more active in civic affairs and increased her local involvement in the women's suffrage movement, primarily through articles she wrote for the Woman's Exponent. Bathsheba heavily influenced the suffrage movement in Utah. Along with being involved with other civic affairs, Bathsheba sat on the Deseret Hospital Board of Directors and served as the matron of the Salt Lake Temple. In 1876 Bathsheba was called as treasurer for the Women’s Commission Store, created for women to sell their home industries. After she was selected to be a member of the general presidency of the Relief Societies of the Church in 1888 she emphasized home production of clothing. 

A granddaughter, whom Bathsheba reared in her home and encouraged to become civically involved, ran for state representative from her Salt Lake district in 1896 and was elected by a substantial margin. She was the second woman in Utah to serve in the Utah House.
Bathsheba was called to be the general president of the Relief Society in 1901 and was the last Relief Society general president who was also a member of the Nauvoo Relief Society. During her administration, she helped introduce classes on childrearing, industry, and marriage, and developed a centralized educational program with lessons for the weekly meetings. In addition, under Bathsheba’s leadership, the General Relief Society established an employment bureau for young women, educational nursing and mother's courses, and food storage plans.

As the Relief Society general president, Bathsheba urged women to rise up from the past and embrace the future with responsibility and action. At the end of 1905 she gave a speech in which she counseled women to seek more education. She said, “…[I]t is plainly necessary that women, as well as men, cease not while life lasts to study diligently for the knowledge which is of greatest worth. …Let us open the books of life and salvation and study also the great authors, poets, and painters that our minds may be clothed with intelligence and our hearts abound with human feeling.”

Bathsheba lived until 1910 when she was eighty-six. She had accomplished much including always encouraging younger women – those who had not known Joseph Smith as she had – to seize further opportunities for advancement.

(Researched and written by Kathryn Latour, member of the JRCLS WIL and Media Committees.) 

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