The Young Women organization began as the Cooperative retrenchment association in November 1869. President Brigham Young organized the society in the Lion House, his official residence in Salt Lake City, with his daughters as charter members. He challenged them to grow spiritually, to resist idleness and gossip, to retrench from the styles of the world in dress and deportment, and thus to be proper examples of Latter-day Saints. They were not to give in to rude or harsh frontier ways. The poet and Relief Society President Eliza R. Snow became the supervisor of the new association, and Ella V. Empey, age twenty-three, was chosen as president.
By 1870 each ward in Salt Lake Valley had its own similar young women’s organization with its own stated resolutions. The “one central thought” in all resolutions was “electing a greater simplicity of dress and of living; and…cultivating the mind rather than ministering to the pleasure of the body”. For example, the Fourteenth Ward resolved: “Feeling that we have worshipped at the shrine of fashion too long [we] do solemnly pledge ourselves to retrench in our dress, and to wear only that which is becoming to women professing to be Saints”. And the Eighth Ward resolved: “Inasmuch as order is the first law of heaven, we will endeavor to learn the law by making ourselves acquainted with the principles of life and salvation. We will study the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and all works pertaining to our holy religion…. We will also study all literature that will qualify us to become ornaments in the kingdom of God, that we may merit the approbation of our brethren and sisters and of God…. We will not speak evil of anyone, but will be kind to all, especially the aged and infirm, the widow and orphan. We will endeavor to become acquainted with the laws of nature, that we may become strong, healthy and vigorous”.
In 1871 the leaders renamed the society “YL,” short for Young Ladies Retrenchment Association. They focused on the teenage girls by sponsoring weekly meetings, charitable deeds, instruction in public speaking, and lively discussions of the gospel and current events. A modest exercise program consisted of ball bouncing and throwing, knee bends, and side stretches. Later they introduced croquet.
In 1877 the YL name was changed to Young Ladies National Mutual Improvement Association. The first general conference for the YLNMIA was held April 4, 1880. Leaders admonished those attending to find new ways to teach girls how to develop every gift and grace of true womanhood.
Susa Young Gates had personally published a magazine called Young Woman’s Journal and now gave one-third of its space to the YL organization. A guide for all YL groups was printed, containing lessons and instructions for the girls and leaders and even ideas for beautifying the meeting places with pretty cloths and flowers. Typical lesson outlines included “What is the meaning of the word “Chastity’?” and “Why have you not the right to take the pin comb out of your sister’s drawer?” A favorite couplet became: “One cheerful face in a household will keep everything bright-put envy, selfishness, despondency to shame and flight.” Tuesday night became “Mutual” night for both boys and girls. The weekly talent programs, preceding separate lesson sessions for Young Ladies and Young Men, attracted large groups of young people, including many of other faiths.
In 1880 several prominent Utah women attended the first National Suffrage Convention in Washington, D.C. Church President John Taylor sent them with his blessing and the reminder that the Mormon women enjoyed voting and other rights afforded few other women in the country. Both the YL and Relief Society organizations became charter members of the National Council of Women of the United States and of the International Council of Women.
The Lion House, birthplace of the retrenchment association, became a cultural and social center for many young women. Young women received cultural enrichment through reviews and lessons in charm. Their service projects included wrapping bandages for soldiers and knitting baby clothing and shawls for the Primary Children’s Hospital.
In the 1930s, leaders gave new emphasis to music, dance, and the performing arts. They published a recreational song book, and sociable singing became popular. They sponsored ten-minute musical programs or “road shows” that were locally created and rehearsed and then presented in successive wards in each LDS stake. They sent instructions in music and dance from Church headquarters to all MIA units, many of which then participated in an annual June Conference dance festival, a spectacle of choreography with up to 2,000 participants each year. Social dancing was also featured in the ward and stake houses, and “Gold and Green Balls,” featuring the MIA colors, became popular events throughout the Church.
In this period the Young Men and Young Women leaders initiated stake youth conferences that grew into major events. They reinforced dress and dating standards and stressed morality. They generated a series of posters with full color illustrations called “Be Honest With Yourself.” These included such admonitions as “Virtue Is Its Own Reward,” “Great Men Pray,” and “Temple Marriage Is Forever.” They distributed wallet and purse-size reproductions to the Church youth.
Youth leaders sponsored the restoration and full renovation of the Lion House for the centennial celebration of the organization of the first Young Ladies’ group, November 18, 1869. The new Young Women general president, Florence Smith Jacobsen, placed a prayer bell in a niche in the front hall of the Lion House with a brass plaque describing how Brigham Young used it to call his daughters together to form the Retrenchment Association.
In 1978, Young women were encouraged to “prepare themselves to perform”: to develop a personal testimony of Jesus, study the scriptures, and share the truth. They were to keep personal diaries, gather family histories and genealogy, set educational goals, and strengthen their families.
In 1980, at the Church’s sesquicentennial celebration, a Days of ’47 parade opened with 1,500 Young Women in white dresses forming a phalanx a full city block long and marching to the beat of 100 young trumpet and drum instrumentalists. Each girl carried her own three-by-five-foot banner mounted on a tall staff. Each banner was embroidered, quilted, appliquéd, or painted to depict the girl’s personal goals. This activity was repeated by other young women across the world in local celebrations.
Over the years, whatever the variations in programs and organizational structure, the emphasis among young women on being true daughters of God in appearance, demeanor, and testimony has not changed. Young Women units worldwide welcome nonmembers to participate in the personal progress program, to draw closer to Jesus Christ, and to increase their knowledge of eternal principles and appreciation for the worth and potential of their own souls.
Written by Pres. Elaine A. Cannon for Encyclopedia of Mormonism