“Young Women Organizations,” Church History Topics
“Young Women Organizations”
On May 25, 1870, Brigham Young met with his daughters and other members of his large family in the Lion House parlor in Salt Lake City. He told his family that the Saints had become too quick to follow the fashions of the world, and he wanted his daughters to set an example for other young women. Earlier that year, Mary Isabella Horne had accepted a call from President Young to organize a Ladies’ Cooperative Retrenchment Association for the purpose of reducing extravagance and fostering greater economic unity.1 Now, Brigham Young told his daughters he wanted them to organize a Young Ladies’ Department of the association. On May 27 Young’s daughters adopted formal resolutions establishing the new organization, and Ella Young Empey was named president of the first local group.2
The date traditionally celebrated as the founding date of the Young Ladies’ Department (and thus, the Church’s Young Women program) was November 28, 1869. This date was erroneously given in a history by Susa Young Gates that was published in 1911.3 Gates’s account, written many years after the events occurred, draws on the memory of Bathsheba W. Smith, who was present at the Young family meeting. It appears that either Gates or Smith conflated the May 1870 meeting with a different meeting held the previous November.4 In June 1870, just a few weeks after the Young Ladies’ Department was established, the Deseret News published the resolutions, confirming that the founding date was May 27, 1870.
The organization focused first on dress reform and economic solidarity, encouraging young women to adopt simpler, less expensive clothing styles made from locally produced materials. Soon, similar retrenchment societies were established for young women throughout Salt Lake City and other settlements in Utah.5 At first, the category of “young lady” carried no specific connotation of age, and the association included teenage girls as well as women in their early twenties, some of whom were married.
Emphasis on “retrenchment” quickly gave way to the more positive theme of “improvement,” encompassing spiritual, educational, cultural, and social development.6 In 1877 the associations adopted the name Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association (YLMIA), establishing a parallel identity with the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association (YMMIA) organized in 1875.7 In 1880 Elmina Shepherd Taylor was called as the first General President of the YLMIA, and in subsequent decades, the two associations collaborated on literary, dramatic, musical, and religious activities and held annual conjoint conferences each June.
From the 1890s to the 1920s, the YLMIA followed an expansive program affording young women opportunities for recreation, education, enjoyment of the cultural arts, and spiritual growth. The association adopted standardized lessons in 1893 and published the monthly Young Woman’s Journal beginning in 1889. In 1903 the YLMIA divided young women by age into junior and senior levels, and further divisions followed in subsequent decades.8 In 1934 the entry age was set at 12 (having previously been 14), with membership extending to women in their 30s. The name was also changed to the more modern-sounding Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Association.
During the 1910s, several stakes held the first summer camps for young women. In 1929 General President Ruth May Fox announced a Churchwide summer camping program, establishing a tradition that has become a hallmark of the young women’s programs. In 1915, during the presidency of Martha Horne Tingey, the YLMIA introduced the Bee-Hive Girls, the organization’s first achievement program. It was modeled after the national Camp Fire Girls organization and complemented the YMMIA’s adoption of the Boy Scouts of America program. In subsequent decades, other achievement programs were introduced for girls in all age groups. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the Mutual Improvement Association grew into a large-scale, vibrant program that attracted national attention. In an American culture focused more intently on teenagers, the Latter-day Saint youth programs offered a full slate of activities, including camps, dances, and festivals, as well as a large MIA conference each June.
As the Church grew globally, leaders noted that programs designed for middle-class North American youth did not always work well in other places. The cost of such programs and the need for many experienced leaders meant that new areas of the Church did not have the personnel or other resources to support the full MIA program. In 1971 Church leaders made significant changes to the MIA achievement programs to better meet the needs of young women around the world. The following year, the First Presidency announced that the young women’s organization would only have stewardship over girls ages 12 to 17. Then, in 1974, the young women’s organization was renamed simply Young Women, discontinuing the name MIA. Young women and their leaders held their last Church-wide June conference in 1975.
In 1977 Young Women leaders introduced My Personal Progress, an achievement program based on spiritual and personal development activities in six “areas of focus.” Young Women who completed the program received a Young Womanhood Recognition. In 1980, as part of a new consolidated Sunday meeting schedule, young women began receiving Sunday instruction, something for which Young Women leaders had advocated for many years.9 In 1985 Young Women General President Ardeth G. Kapp and her board restructured the Young Women program around a new theme and seven spiritual values.10 The new program centered on preparation for and worthiness to participate in temple ordinances, a signal focus that continues into the 21st century.