Of her 1867 trek across the American plains as a 13-year-old, Ruth May wrote: “One crack of [the captain’s] whip on the tent or wagon cover, whether at 3 A.M. or 5 A.M. meant ‘roll out.’ Killing snakes, plodding through the burning sands, wading streams, climbing mountains with sometimes an Indian scare … were trifles. … But withal we could still sing:
For Ruth, the trek west was a great adventure. When she reached Independence Rock, a granite outcropping on which passersby in pioneer times often painted or chiseled their names, she eagerly climbed it and chiseled her name: RUTH MAY, 1867. 2
Sixty-four years later, in 1931, a still hearty 77-year-old Ruth climbed Independence Rock again. Now general president of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association (YLMIA), Ruth found her name still legible in the granite.
Like the Wyoming outcropping of solid granite into which she carved her name, Ruth maintained her faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and endured. She became the mother of 12 children, served in the YLMIA for four decades, and championed woman suffrage and Utah statehood. In the process, she overcame a troubled childhood and used those challenges to inspire youth. As both a pioneer and a modern woman, she serves as a remarkable example of faith and commitment.
Giving Hope and Courage
Ruth was 75 years old on 28 March 1929 when she was called to be the general president of the YLMIA. Though she had served for 24 years as first counselor, she was still surprised. When she mentioned her concerns about her age to President Heber J. Grant (1856–1945), he handed her a poem paying tribute to the idea that age was a quality of mind. Still strong and healthy, Ruth understood and accepted graciously. When President Grant set Ruth apart, he blessed her that she would have “the same vigor of body and of mind in the future” that she enjoyed in the past and “great joy, peace and happiness.”
At this time, America was enjoying a period of prosperity now known as the “Roaring Twenties.” But the stock market crash in October 1929 plunged the world into the Great Depression. This was a time when hope and courage were needed to buoy the human spirit.
During the months following the crash, the YLMIA and YMMIA (Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association) had to make plans for the June 1930 centennial celebration of the organization of the Church. They chose as their theme “Onward with Mormon Ideals,” suggesting that young people build on the foundations laid by their ancestors and carry on the work of the Church. That idea took root in Ruth’s mind, and she wrote the words to a new song titled “Carry On”:
The youth had their anthem. Hope and courage flooded the Sunday evening session of the conference held in the Tabernacle on 8 June 1930 as young people sang, “Carry on, carry on.” When they reached the climax of the chorus, they waved their gold and green programs. Tears flowed. Joy and resolve filled the hearts of those in attendance. Ruth commented, “I was thrilled to hear an army of young men and women vocalizing the pledge to continue the work of their noble fathers.”
Ruth May Fox knew firsthand the joy that comes from “carrying on.” In her own life, she had raised her “banner triumphant” as she overcame personal challenges through her “faith in the living God.”
She was born on 16 November 1853 in Wiltshire, England, to James and Mary Ann Harding May, who joined the Church a few months later. However, when Ruth was just 16 months old, her mother died in childbirth along with the baby. James could not care for Ruth by himself, so she stayed in numerous homes before she was eight years old. This frequent moving not only interrupted her schooling but also left her confused and frustrated. Her longest and last stay was with her Grandmother and Grandfather May.
“She’s a bad maid, she’s a bad maid,” Grandmother May said of Ruth, who had tried her grandmother’s patience by taking a bite out of a china saucer, catching her hair on fire with a candle, and stepping in front of an oncoming train.
But James loved eight-year-old Ruth, who could recite poetry and verses from the Bible. He wanted a better life for them, so in 1861 they moved to Yorkshire, where James could earn more money. The ultimate goal was to join the Saints in Zion.
Two Years to Zion
Peace and order returned to Ruth’s life when she and her father moved into a Yorkshire boarding house run by a kind Latter-day Saint woman, Mary Saxton. Here Ruth found more than room and board; she found family. Mary, who had divorced her abusive husband, had a daughter named Clara, who was the same age as Ruth. The two became friends. James and Mary fell in love and became engaged.
James immigrated to America in March 1865, and by September he had earned enough money to send for Mary, Clara, and Ruth. James and Mary married as soon as they arrived in Pennsylvania. Eventually James was called to serve as branch president. Ruth said of her new mother, “She proved to be a good wife and mother, and my debt to her is great indeed.”
Ruth and Clara immediately went to work in the cotton mill where James was employed. All three saved their money for the trek west. In July 1867 the Mays started west. An unexpected day’s stay at Niagara Falls was “a glorious treat” for Ruth. That contrasted with the night they spent on the Missouri River on a cattle boat, about which Ruth commented, “You may be sure there was bellowing a plenty, but what did that matter? We were on our way to Zion.”
Ruth thrived in Deseret, the home of the Saints, though she still worked in the mills. Living the gospel among other Latter-day Saints was enough. By the time she was 19 and met Jesse W. Fox, she had had many friends and beaus.
Ruth and Jesse fell in love and married on 8 May 1873 at the Endowment House. Following the wedding, the newlyweds rode in an open carriage to Jesse’s parents’ home for a family celebration. Jesse had had a special three-tiered wedding cake made for the occasion; it was decorated with two adult foxes and six little foxes to represent him, Ruth, and their future children. His prediction was only half right, for they eventually had 12 children: six boys and six girls.
Learning Life’s Lessons
Ruth taught her children to work—the girls helped with housework, and the boys took care of the chickens, horses, and cows. “Our children were as good as most and better than some,” wrote Ruth of her family. “They had a normal dislike for home chores and an irrepressible fondness of play. They brought their friends to join in outdoor games and we often invited them to join us at the long table in our dining room, where there were places at first for eight and soon for twelve to fifteen. There was mischief always in process, and at times tempers flared. I can’t blame my children too much for their quarrels, as I was myself quick with sharp words and could not always count to ten when provoked. … I improved in self-restraint through the years.”
Jesse provided well for his large family, and during the first 20 years of their marriage the Foxes prospered. During the financial crisis known as the Panic of 1893, however, they lost their dry goods business but not their farm. Although Ruth’s heart was heavy, she tried to make the best of their circumstances and even hummed as she worked around the house. The Foxes dismissed their hired help, gave increased responsibilities to their children, and rented out rooms.
When son Fera became ill and could not do much physical labor, the Foxes bought a rooming house for him to manage. Ruth described purchasing “everything in the place, including bed-bugs, cockroaches, and roomers for less than $300.00.” Several family members, including Ruth, helped Fera by making beds, filling lamps, emptying slop jars, and sweeping.
In 1914 Ruth’s 14-year-old daughter, Emmeline, died of scarlet fever. Two years later, Ruth’s father suffered a debilitating stroke. So that she could be close to him during the day, she rented a home for him and for herself near the YLMIA offices, where she obtained work as a typist at age 63.
In 1928, three months before she was called as general president of the YLMIA, her husband, Jesse, died.
Illnesses and deaths in her family and financial losses and hardships caused Ruth to sum up her philosophy about adversity: “Life brings some hard lessons. The sturdiest plants are not grown under glass, and strength of character is not derived from the avoidance of problems.”
Personal Growth through Service
Acutely aware of her limited schooling, Ruth taught herself by reading, taking home-study courses, and observing the language spoken by educated people. By 1891 her poetry began appearing in print, making her eligible to join the Press Club, a women’s literary organization. She also became a member of the Reapers’ Club, organized by Emmeline B. Wells for the “social and intellectual development” of women. Sister Wells, editor of the Woman’s Exponent and general president of the Relief Society from 1910 to 1921, had an enormous effect on Ruth’s life. Of their relationship Ruth said, “I became her devoted disciple and she in turn loved me as a daughter.”
Following Emmeline’s example, Ruth became active in the woman suffrage movement. Although women in Utah had had the right to vote since 1870, the passage of the Edmunds-Tucker law by the U.S. Congress in 1887 rescinded those rights. When the Utah Territorial Woman Suffrage Association was organized in 1893, Emmeline became president and Ruth, treasurer. The peak of Ruth’s political activity was the year 1895, when she helped campaign for the ratification of the Utah state constitution.
In 1895 she was called as president of her ward YLMIA and to the YLMIA general board in 1898. In 1923 the YLMIA general board published May Blossoms, a volume of her poems.
After she was called to serve as general president of the YLMIA in 1929, she continued to educate herself and to encourage personal growth among the young women of the Church. The Lion House was turned over to the YLMIA as a social and learning center where young women could hear book reviews and attend classes in writing, speech, charm, and religion. Also, a summer camping program for all MIA girls was announced soon after Ruth became president.
Ruth visited “most, if not all, of the stakes of Zion, including those in Canada, Mexico, and Hawaii.” After a lengthy and arduous trip to visit stakes, one of Ruth’s coworkers rested in bed for a day. Ruth, who was 27 years older than her colleague, said, “Well, maybe someday I’ll come to that.”
Ruth’s creativity and keen memory remained strong as she grew older. On one occasion when the combined YWMIA and YMMIA presidencies hosted a dinner honoring Mutual workers, she recited a lengthy poem. After she sat down, a man sitting next to her said, “I would like a copy of that poem.” She responded, “I’m sorry I don’t have a copy I can give you; I made it up just now.” 4
In 1934 the YLMIA was renamed the Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Association (YWMIA) to parallel the name of the young men’s organization, the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association.
As Ruth’s 84th birthday approached she thought, “It seems hardly appropriate for a woman in her 80s to be head of an organization emphasizing the word young in its title.” She wrote to President Heber J. Grant, not asking for a release but indicating she would accept whatever decision the Brethren made. On 3 November 1937, when President Grant extended a release to her, there were 70,000 YWMIA members in 1,000 wards.
Enjoying Learning and Family
Ruth’s patriarchal blessing promised her that her last days would be her best days. Continuing her desire to learn and serve, she became more involved in Relief Society and Gospel Doctrine classes, attended the temple regularly, and frequently spoke to MIA groups. She claimed she read more after she turned 84 than she had before.
When Ruth consulted a doctor about what she described as an “occasional feeling of faintness,” he suggested that she drink a cup of coffee every morning. “I was ninety-two years of age,” she said. “I decided that living a few more years was not nearly as important as my example to posterity.”
Ruth’s last years revolved around her posterity. She gave a family dinner for each of her children when they reached the age of 50. In turn, Ruth’s family and friends celebrated her birthdays enthusiastically. Her 85th, 90th, 95th, and 100th birthday parties were held in the Beehive House and were attended by members of the First Presidency, the Council of the Twelve Apostles, and other Church leaders, and city and state officials.
Of the gospel, she said, “It has been my very breath, my mantle of protection against temptation, my consolation in sorrow, my joy and glory throughout all my days, and my hope of eternal life.”
Ruth died on 12 April 1958, at the age of 104. At her funeral, 75 of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren sang “Carry On.”
Like her name chiseled in Independence Rock, Ruth May Fox survived well the challenges of life. With her testimony firmly anchored in the gospel of Jesus Christ, Ruth was an example of one who did “carry on.”
She credited her life experiences, which she said were “far beyond my fondest dreams,” and her youth and vigor to the Lord, who, she said, “has always done better for me than I could have done for myself.” 5
Indeed, Ruth’s life left a mark on more than a granite outcropping on the American plains. She was a Latter-day Saint pioneer and a modern woman whose long life made a difference.
Ruth May Fox, “My Story” (typescript, 1953), Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from this document.
See Lucile C. Reading, “Ruth’s Hikes,” Children’s Friend, Nov. 1969, 23.
Hymns, no. 255.
Personal interview with Jean Cannon Willis, 21 Nov. 1990.
Elsie T. Brandley, “Ruth May Fox,” Young Woman’s Journal, May 1929, 313.