JI Summer Book Club, Year 3: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism

By May 7, 2017

This is the first in a series of sixteen posts in the Third Annual Summer Book Club at Juvenile Instructor. This year we are reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism. Check back every Sunday for the week’s installment! Please follow the book club and JI on Facebook

Cover (Knopf)

“Light snow obscured the view of the mountains on January 13, 1870 as masses of Mormon women crowded in to the old peaked-roof Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. The pine benches were hard, the potbellied stoves inadequate against the cold. No matter. They would warm themselves with indignation.”

So begins Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s latest book, A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, in which she analyzes the twin growth of the institution of polygamy within the LDS Church and the place of Mormon women in the broader struggle for women’s rights.[i] Many readers, like the newspaper writers that wrote about Mormonism, may be skeptical that plural marriage created and fostered women-centric organizations and social networks. Ulrich acknowledges their skepticism and asks, “How could women simultaneously support a national campaign for political and economic rights while defending marital practices that to most people seemed relentlessly patriarchal?”

Although the actual process by which Mormon women came to support political and economic campaigns while living under patriarchal plural marriage are unfolded slowly throughout the book, Ulrich introduces readers in her introduction to many of the themes that will inform her analysis. She hints at the ways that women worked through both official and unofficial channels to win the support of Mormon men and to enlist them in their causes. That Mormon women led the charge for the vote is a crucial point. Indeed, Ulrich stresses that the gendered theological and social connections between women tethered to one another by plural marriage and the “Female Relief Society” created the conditions by which women sought for their political and economic liberation, despite their place below men in the logic of plural marriage.

Ulrich stitches together entries from a number of diaries to tell the story of Mormon women throughout the first thirty-five years of Mormonism. Although she uses dozens of sources, the diaries of Wilford Woodruff and Phebe Carter Woodruff organize the book. Those that are familiar with Mormon history will understand the reason for her framing. Wilford was an avid diary keeper, and both he and Phebe were at the center of many of Mormonism’s most important events from 1835-1870. Woodruff’s diary is also among the most important in all of Mormon history, both for its completeness and for its accounting of both extraordinary and mundane. Woodruff recounts visions, sermons, and meetings, but also reveals his love of fishing, his clumsiness, and his penchant for doodling his daily surrounding or rendering visual representations of Mormon theology. While the Woodruffs can hardly be counted as “ordinary,” Ulrich expertly employs their lives as a means of framing early Mormonism from 1835-1870.

Ulrich’s warmth, humor, and eye for detail shine through from the first sentence of her book (see above). I hope that you enjoy reading A House Full of Females as much as I do.


  • Ulrich has repeatedly stated to local audiences that this is a Mormon women’s story, not only a Mormon narrative. How effective is her demarcation between Mormon women and the sum total of the Mormon experience? It seems to me that she effectively makes a case that Mormon women’s history is Mormon history, paraphrasing Anne Braude’s famous statement.
  • Ulrich is speaking to American historians, women’s historians, and Mormon historians in her work. In what ways does she balance her three audiences? What can historians learn about her ability to engage multiple audiences simultaneously?
  • I think that one of Ulrich’s greatest strengths is that she captures the melancholy of Mormon women, in addition to their triumphs and joys. In what way does this enhance her narrative? Or, if it doesn’t work for you, why is it a detraction?


[i] Ulrich’s historical career in both the broader field of American history and the subfield of Mormon history are well known (you can read more about her life here).

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Miscellaneous Summer Book Club


  1. Thanks for kicking things off, Joey. Perhaps now is a good time to discuss Ulrich’s framing. I admit I was a bit surprised that, given the book’s title and prologue, the book isn’t really about “women’s rights.” At least in the narrow sense, anyway. Nor is it solely about women or even polygamy. As I read the text, I saw it as a revisionist social history of the first forty years of Mormonism. There’s plenty of male voices, institutional angst, and monogamous tensions that transcend the title and prologue’s vision. It makes me think the title was really Knopf’s idea–nothing like “Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights” to grab a reader’s attention. But as a result, I think that framing undersells what the book is really accomplishing.

    Comment by Ben P — May 8, 2017 @ 7:29 am

  2. You’re absolutely right, Ben, about the titling. Ulrich mentioned the title being Knopf’s idea on the Maxwell Institute Podcast (which all our readers should listen to). In many ways, I think that writing a revisionist history of early Mormonism is a much bigger and more impressive task.

    However, I think that highlighting as many women’s voices as she did makes this different than a standard revisionist history. I think in many ways it’s a way of recovering women’s actions, thoughts, and experiences in a way that identifies it with women’s history. A lot of the narrative has to do with how women negotiated and assumed power within a patriarchal framework–you need men to highlight the male-centric power structures that Mormon women subverted.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 8, 2017 @ 9:19 am

  3. […] and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism. (The first two posts of the series can be found here and […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » JI Summer Book Club: Update — May 19, 2017 @ 9:04 am


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