“Look at those hands”—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich on Emma Smith

07.11.2017 | The Maxwell Institute

Yesterday, June 10, marked another anniversary of Emma Smith’s 1804 birth. More than a year older than her husband and Latter-day Saint prophet Joseph Smith, she died at Nauvoo, Illinois in 1879. Renowned historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich took a moment in her recent lecture at Brigham Young University to reflect on Emma’s hands as seen in this captivating photograph from 1845. ((Unknown photographer, 1845. Courtesy Community of Christ Library-Archives, Independence, MO; from the Joseph Smith Papers website.)) With characteristic attention to detail that has become a hallmark of Ulrich’s craft, she explained:
This is an amazing photograph of Emma Smith with her son David Hyrum, who was born—I think—four months after her husband’s murder [in 1844]. Between 1828 and 1844 Emma had given birth to nine children, five of whom had died in infancy. She also lost one of the twins she adopted when her own twins died. While this photograph is less flattering than her portrait [painted in 1842 by Sutcliffe Maudsley], I think it nevertheless portrays both her strength and her suffering. My eye is immediately drawn to her hands. She was quite an elegant woman—tall and straight and good looking. Look at those hands. Those are working women’s hands. They have been in washtubs and they’ve been in dirt. And they have been trying to hold a family together. 
Ulrich spoke about the experiences and hardships endured by early Latter-day Saint women—including the practice of polygamy—throughout her lecture, “Huddling Together: Rethinking the Position of Women in Early Mormonism.” You can hear and watch Ulrich’s complete lecture here.