This is the fifteenth 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!
What did it mean for Mormon women to work “behind the throne” (372) but not as “pawns of the patriarchy”? (385) What did it mean for Mormon women to “speak for themselves,” (387) but in defense of polygamy? In what sense, in other words, were Mormon women free? Were they free?
By Ulrich’s lights, the Mormon men who worked from the throne were usually hovering around the real action, half aware, but rarely driving it. So, in chapter 15, instead of retelling how Brigham Young reorganized and instrumentalized the Relief Society toward his own ends in 1867 after its ten-year institutional hiatus, Ulrich recovers the work Mormon women were doing all along. The Relief Society itself, she argues, “was in some respects an epiphenomenon, a manifestation of a deeper and more pervasive female culture that existed with and without formal structure” (362). In their decade without formal meetings, Mormon women “had better things to do” (364). They sewed and weaved, planted and picked, bought and sold, managed and merchandised. They delivered an unprecedented number of babies. They organized informally on various projects, like making consecrated curtains and trimmings for meeting houses and contributing to funds for emigrants. They fasted and testified and spoke in tongues. They anointed and blessed and healed each other.
Before and after their reorganization, they had a broader vision for themselves than Brigham Young did. They derived their authority not only from Young and their husbands, but from their own “spiritual power” and from “the unfulfilled promises Joseph had made to them in Nauvoo,” (372) which they had, of course, carefully recorded and continued to cite and circulate. They constituted themselves and their offices and duties. They built buildings. They decried the indignities that structured their lives while declaring their independence from them. Those indignities and structures were internal to Mormonism. But they also came from outside. In the wake of new anti-polygamy legislation, Mormon women organized mass meetings in scores of Utah towns to loudly denounce the fake freedom and hypocritical moralism of their American oppressors.
A House Full of Females begins and ends with an all-female public indignation meeting at the Salt Lake Tabernacle in 1870, and a subsequent alliance with Eastern suffragists. At the meeting, Mormon women defended polygamy against the Cullom Bill, and in their alliance with suffragists they emerged as self-conscious “political actors” (xiii). This conjunction of submission and activism has seemed like a paradox to some. Ulrich’s explanation is that Mormon women had long cultivated a capacity to cut against the grain through their embrace and ongoing elaboration of Mormonism. Joan Iversen once argued that “the controversial nature of their marital system” appeared to have “politicized” Mormon women (1984: 518–19). Ulrich’s thesis is, rather, that even before the introduction of polygamy, the controversial nature of Mormonism had already politicized women who had been, in turn, already radical enough to embrace it.
So Mormon women became plural wives and political actors—according to Ulrich’s account, the major players in their own production, and in the production of Mormonism. In what sense can they be said to have been free? I don’t know. “Latter-day Saint women built the Church that claimed their loyalty,” Ulrich says (387). They built the tradition that summoned them to realize themselves in terms of its prophecy and praxis. But they built from behind the throne.