As the first Relief Society president born in the twentieth century, Barbara Bradshaw Smith found her ten year term filled with unrest as the proposed Equal Rights Amendment was discussed and finally defeated. Her time as President was marked by her determination to stand for women’s rights, albeit not in the same manner viewed by the world.
Born on January 26, 1922 in Salt Lake City, Utah, Barbara’s attending physician was her maternal grandmother, a woman whose example highly influenced her granddaughter. She was the third of six children born to Dorothy Mills and Dan Delos Bradshaw, parents who taught her optimism and faith throughout her life. While in high school, she met Douglas Hill Smith, a student at the University of Utah who was asked to judge a debate meet Barbara took part in. The two dated for two years, and were married on June 16, 1941 in the Salt Lake Temple. They had seven children.
Barbara’s testimony of Relief Society came early in her married life. Called as a teacher, she prayed for and received a strong testimony of the organization, and committed her heart to serving in it.
Barbara was called as the tenth Relief Society president in October of 1974. Almost immediately, she was plunged into the controversy of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). After much study and prayer, Barbara gained an understanding of its positive and negative aspects. She determined to stand against it, noting that “it would bring us much more trouble than has been envisioned by even the most pessimistic of its opponents.” She feared it would “cause women to lose previously hard-won rights” and “lock us into a system that did not provide for the emotional, physical, or biological difference between the sexes.” The ERA and other women’s issues addressed during the late seventies became Barbara’s greatest challenge as president.
Another issue that she took a stand on was the idea of young women in the military. Recruiters were urging more and more young women to sign up. While acknowledging the good accomplished by the military, Barbara spoke out against this tactic and urged women to “do in the future as they have done over and over again in the past: save families!” Not surprisingly, Barbara also spoke out against abortion, for which she received a great deal of worldly criticism. She recalls one instance where an entire group raised their signs and marched around her as she spoke on the subject.
Political issues were not the only things to receive her attention as Relief Society President. She helped organize the Relief Society’s Nauvoo Monument to Women, uniting Latter-day Saint women in a common cause. During her tenure, the presidency of the Relief Society was invited to participate in Church area conferences throughout the world, and Barbara became the most widely traveled Relief Society president. As a result of what she observed throughout the world, the Relief Society began providing training for health and welfare missionaries and for the wives of mission presidents. When the Relief Society wheat storage program ended in 1978, Barbara asked for and received the sustaining vote of the sisters to give the Relief Society wheat and wheat trust funds to the Church, concluding a “sacred trust” given to the sisters nearly a century before. Also, the establishment of a consolidated meeting schedule in 1980 required simplification of the Relief Society curriculum.
Barbara B. Smith was released as general president of the Relief Society on April 7, 1984, after a decade of service. She spent much of that time in the public eye, speaking out for the godly rights of women, as well as serving in various less prominent ways. She served as a model and an example to women throughout those turbulent years.