This is the ninth 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.
In the previous chapter, we followed Mormon pioneers on the trail west. In Chapter Nine, Ulrich uses the theme of women using their pens as weapons, often aimed at their spouses, other times employed as a kind of self-defense. For example, Augusta Cobb longed to be independent, but found herself needing to defer to both her husband and his plural wives and failing at both. Ulrich weaves together Augusta’s personal circumstances with a larger reflection on the tensions caused by plural marriage in Utah and beyond. Not one to bow down and suffer in silence, her writings to her husband, Brigham Young, reflect either her inability or unwillingness to play by the rules that got things done in Zion–not only did she not submit silently to her husband, but as Ulrich writes, by refusing to participate in the sister-wife system, she took herself out of the political and economic flow, leaving her with few resources and an increasing frustration over the paradoxes and hardships of female independence and existence in Zion.
In the next section, Ulrich turns to Zina Jacobs, contrasting her approach to being one of Brigham Young’s wives to that of Augusta: fully prepared for pioneer life, “she took pride in being able to sustain herself, although she understood that, in a society that depended for its survival on common effort, no one was truly independent” (222). She taught school, attended family meetings, used her nursing skills to help others, and mourned with those who mourned even as she enjoyed life as it was.
In the third section, Ulrich juxtaposes Patty Sessions, Augusta Cobb, and Vilate Kimball to illustrate the different relationships and different expectations that existed between the genders in the Salt Lake Valley. Patty’s husband dies, leaving her to take care of his pregnant plural wife; she later marries a widower who “turned out to be good company until he, too, married a younger woman” (228). Augusta longs for love as well as security, “exposing” in her letters to Brigham “the marginal position of older women in a system that defined a woman’s worth by her reproductive potential and, by extension, her sexual attractiveness” (229). Vilate, too, begs her husband to not cast her aside for a younger, prettier, more fertile wife. She is later told that her sacrifices would be rewarded in heaven; that would have to be enough, as men’s and women’s roles were codified in the Mormon theological system. Men would give life to new spirits; women would receive, bear, and raise them.
In the fourth section, Ulrich discusses the particular twist Brigham Young and others put upon nineteenth-century ideas about gender. Building the Kingdom of God required men who were willing to leave their wives for missions and settlements, and women who were willing to be left behind and make do as best they could. Bathsheba Smith makes an appearance here; she and the other plural wives of George Smith were “unusually harmonious”–that may, as Ulrich notes, have to do with the fact that they never tried to live all in one house (234) and so managed to keep jealousy (more) at bay. The wives’ letters to Smith function as a coping strategy, in that within these letters, the only relationship that needed to be acknowledged and managed was that of the particular letter writer’s and George. In the world of these letters, plural wives did not complicate the picture and romance could briefly reign supreme.
Throughout the book, Ulrich has sprinkled wry observations with regard to gender relations, from the necessity of being able to circumvent male authority when needed (as many of us know, that particular skill is hard-earned and still rather useful today) to a reflection on the well-known Book of Mormon passage that “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” Here, she adds an “unspoken addendum: ‘And women are that they might provide it'” (224-225). Rather than distract readers from the narrative, these little caveats help anchor the chapter and keep it from a tone either too bitter or too sentimental. Ulrich is able to acknowledge both the faith that these women had as well as the suffering it produced; she sugarcoats neither and is careful to represent a variety of women’s writings and experiences in the Salt Lake Valley in order to give readers a taste of what life in Zion was like. Both the mundane and the holy appear here; both are taken seriously.