JI Summer Book Club: A House Full of Females Chapter 12

By August 20, 2017

This is the twelfth entry 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 (Knopf, 2017). Check back every Sunday for the week’s installment! Please follow the book club and JI on Facebook.

Chapter 12, “we now must look after the poor,” examines the intersectionality of the reemergence of the Relief Society in the 1850s. The chapter raises intriguing questions regarding gender, class, race, and settler colonialism in the Great Basin. How did gendered assumptions regarding medicine and health care shape female organization in the early 1850s? How did gendered assumptions shape how Latter-day Saints provided for the poor? How did female initiative interplay with male priesthood authority? How did racial and gendered views of Native peoples shape the formation of at first independent, and then church-sponsored, relief societies? What role did (white) women play in the development of Mormon settler colonialism, and how did clothing function as a marker between “civilization” and “savagery”? Ulrich answers all of these questions with her trademark engaging prose, rooting what other scholars might have treated in highly theoretical and abstract terms in the highly personal experiences and writings of Patty Sessions, Amanda Barnes Smith, Eliza R. Snow, as well as missionaries such as Thomas Brown.

Ulrich begins with the Council of Health, a mixed-gender organization of doctors and midwives that began meeting in 1849. Concerned that the presence of male doctors was discouraging many women from attending the meetings, women such as Phoebe Angel and Patty Sessions created the Female Council, which as the name implies was for women only. Using Sessions’s diary, Ulrich explores the “system of cooperative care” that focused “on female responsibility for women’s and children’s bodies. Recognizing that poverty or lack of help in the home sometimes made recovery from illness impossible, the Female Council began to act more and more in the spirit of the Nauvoo Relief Society, collecting funds for the poor, and carrying medicines and food to those they knew were in need” (295). Meetings of the Female Council also served as sites for female spiritual expression, with healing blessings and glossolalia. Ulrich profitably combines sympathetic sources with the more critical account by non-Mormon Elizabeth Ferris, a source highlighted by the JI’s J. Stapley a few years ago.

The Female Council laid the foundation for the re-emergence of the Relief Society in 1854 in the context of the Walker War and sustained Mormon proselytizing of Paiutes. Although apostle Parley P. Pratt first suggested that white Mormon women provide clothing to Native women and children, the women themselves independently organized the first Indian Relief Society under the leadership of Matilda Dudley. Remarkably, minutes of this organization have survived and were published in The First Fifty Years of Relief Society. This independent organization met for a few months, working to make clothing for Paiute women and children, but it was eventually discontinued when Brigham Young called for the creation of Indian Relief Societies within wards under the direction of the bishops. At least twenty-four wards answered the call. For Ulrich, Young’s “genius lay in an ability to embrace what he could not command” (290).

Building on the pioneering Dialogue article on “forgotten Relief Societies” by historian Richard Jensen, Ulrich reconstructs the process that began with white women sewing clothing items, to the distribution of those items to Indians through missionaries and church leaders, and the anticipated adoption of the clothing by Natives as part of the Saints’ “civilizing” program.  Ulrich is not blind to the racial and colonial dynamics at play here. She acknowledges that “Mormons shared many racial assumptions with other Americans,” while arguing that the Saints’ “reading of the Book of Mormon nourished compassion” (300). She complicates “stealing” by Indians by portraying it as “a way of pushing back against the incursion of alien animals on land the Indians depended on for the wild grains and berries they had so generously shared [with white Mormons]. It was also a way of compensating for loss of their own corn patches and watering places as whites moved onto fertile areas in the arid Great Basin” (303). Whites believed that convincing Indians to adopt Euro-American clothing would be a significant step in extending Latter-day Saint control over the Great Basin through peaceful, rather than violent, means.

Using her keen eye for detail, Ulrich analyzes two William Major portraits, one of Pahvant chief Kanosh and Ute leader Wakara, showing how some Indians by 1852 had begun to adopt Euro-American style clothing. She is quick to note, however, the perils of generalizing from the elite chiefs. Using missionary Thomas Brown’s record, which I highlighted on the blog a few years back, Ulrich also demonstrates that with few exceptions, Paiutes did not embrace Euro-American style clothing. Although Ulrich’s handling of these issues is quite good, I would have enjoyed seeing more contextualization here, drawing upon such works as Sophie White’s Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians, a fantastic study of clothing as racialized material culture in colonial Louisiana. Finally, Ulrich shows how some of the clothing intended for Indians was actually distributed among white settlers, and that once it became apparent that the Relief Societies were producing more clothing than necessary, the women refocused their efforts on providing for poor whites rather than Indians. In this, Ulrich seems to be mirroring a central argument in emeritus JIer (and former Ulrich student) Max Mueller’s forthcoming book, Race and the Making of the Mormon People, which contends, in part, that when white Mormon proselytizing endeavors among “Lamanites” faltered periodically, missionizing was refocused toward Europeans.

At the end of the chapter, Ulrich returns to the textual realm—and textual politics. She first introduces a new genre, the album, which she defines as “a repository of precious fragments—often autographs, drawings, and poems,” using the albums of Sarah Kimball and Eliza Snow as examples. As this review is already running long, I won’t go into much detail here, but I hope someone brings up Ulrich’s discussion of albums in the comments. Ulrich concludes by looking at the Historian’s Office publication of Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo Relief Society discourses, in redacted form, in the “History of Joseph Smith” in 1855. This is a fascinating window into gendered assumptions surrounding texts. For most of the nineteenth century, the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes were kept by Eliza R. Snow and other women’s leaders, rather than in the Historian’s Office. When the clerks in that office wanted to publish Smith’s discourses, they had to see Snow to access the minutes. As they prepared the discourses for publication, the (male) clerks removed some of Smith’s specific comments “from their immediate context of the 1842 Nauvoo Relief Society—and the imminent introduction of temple ordinances—and appl[ied] them more broadly to the church as a whole. These edits,” note the editors of The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, “appear to be an attempt by church leaders to emphasize priesthood authority and order” (see here for specific examples of changes).

Ulrich likely ends on this note to register this ironic character of Mormon women’s history in the 1850s. Although the decade witnessed the reemergence of female organization among the Latter-day Saints, their organizational efforts were never fully autonomous, at least not for long. Even the words of Joseph Smith, as recorded in the 1840s by a female scribe, were subject to the oversight of male scribes in the 1850s. Yet Ulrich concludes that “the assault on the Relief Society minutes did nothing to impede female participation in the practical work of relieving the poor” (311), returning to the title of the chapter and the loose theme that unites its disparate parts. Even with constraints, the women of Mormondom continued their work.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Race Summer Book Club


  1. Excellent write-up, David. Thanks.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 21, 2017 @ 10:40 am

  2. Thinking about the women making clothing for Paiutes, then for poor whites, I think of how women today long to be making or doing something for the needy. Sometimes that “making” becomes a burden to agencies providing services for the poor, distressed and oppressed of our communities. Too many crocheted baby hats or blankets; a surplus of used clothing; food past its expiration date. What these agencies need is cash! But so many of us want to give stuff. It feels good to knit or crochet something soft and cozy. Writing a check feels like a cop out even though it is a very welcome gift.

    Comment by Mary Lou — August 29, 2017 @ 8:42 am

  3. Thanks for this, David. Nice work. Just as a side note on albums, they can supply important source material in a number of ways. They can help map out both emotional and physical journeys, identify where people were (he/she was in Philadelphia in June 1855?!), supply sometimes rare/important handwriting samples, and provide important glimpses of opinion by the obscure and the great. One such album helped immensely in a recent paper.

    Comment by wvs — August 30, 2017 @ 8:28 am


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