On Thursday, October 25, Janet Bennion, Professor of Anthropology at Lyndon State College in Vermont, delivered a lecture, “The Faces of Eve: Varieties of Mormon Feminism,” at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University. Professor Bennion is an expert on the contemporary practice of polygamy among Mormon fundamentalists, and the author of several books on the subject. Bennion’s lecture focused on her most recent book, Polygamy in Primetime: Media, Gender, and Politics in Mormon Fundamentalism, which she presented as a synthesis of her more than twenty years of research among polygamous groups in North America. Her goal, she said, was to produce a readable work that would educate the general public about these groups, as well as better preparing law enforcement officials to deal with them—and thus to avoid another event like the ill-managed 2008 raid on the FLDS Yearning for Zion ranch in Texas.
First and foremost, I want to say that Bennion’s talk made me want to read her book. She was engaging, interesting, and informative, especially when talking about the myriad ways of being fundamentalist—particularly the many ways of being a fundamentalist woman. Her work is based on more than two decades of research on fundamentalist groups, including time spent living and working in several communities throughout North America. It is also, as she made a point of noting at the outset of her talk, informed by her own experiences as an LDS woman.
Bennion’s most basic points were that there are “various feminisms” in LDS culture stemming from the many possible ways to be an LDS woman or a fundamentalist woman and polygamous wife, as well as the many ways for women to find empowerment in both the mainstream LDS Church and in fundamentalist groups. It might seem like a simplistic message, but those of us who study representations of Mormonism in the media and popular culture know that it is a desperately needed one. As Bennion noted, some key texts in the study of Mormonism—she singled out Thomas O’Dea’s seminal 1957 study—virtually ignore women’s experiences and roles in Mormon life and religion. It is particularly important, she argued, not just to acknowledge Mormon women in good standing or self-declared former Mormon women, but also the different kinds of “Jill” (as opposed to Jack) Mormons who still embrace some part of Mormonism but who actively shape the religion to meet their needs rather than accepting institutional definitions of the religion and their roles in it.
Her comments on contemporary polygamy focused primarily on two groups who she sees occupying opposite ends of the spectrum of female empowerment among fundamentalists. The most well-functioning environment for sister wives that she described was in the Allred group, among whom she lived for a time. According to Bennion, “this was not a community of oppressed women.” Among the Allreds women were acknowledged for their myriad contributions to the community, which included teaching and healing (which women and men alike often acknowledged to be a priesthood function), and were granted a significant amount of power over their marriages and their sex lives. In fact, these women actively engaged in sexual scheduling within their marriages—they did not cede the power of choice to their husbands. Wives in the Allred community also had the power to request a divorce for any number of reasons, and those who divorced generally experienced little stigma and had no trouble remarrying. Women were also educated and frequently held jobs outside the community, and they told Bennion that they were better able to do these things because of the support of their sister wives. They found empowerment in a system that created an interdependent community of supportive women, as well as providing a “respite from the men.”
The FLDS, famously led by Warren Jeffs, stands in sharp contrast to the personal, sexual, and ritual empowerment of women in the Allred community. Bennion cited the FLDS as the most prominent poor-functioning polygamous community, where women have virtually no power and are at high risk of abuse. They are, Bennion argued, also a primary example of why polygamy should be legalized. The abuse of women and children in groups like the FLDS, she argued, is nurtured by factors born of legal prohibitions. First and foremost, women don’t seek medical help for illness or legal help in cases of abuses because they fear punishment under the law. Geographic and social isolation both separate the community from outside influences and prevent members from leaving the system because they have nowhere to go and no way to get there. Extreme male domination has flourished in this absence of outside influences and escape routes. And women lack the kind of female support network that wives in the Allred community enjoy, because poverty and overcrowding often cause families to split up between numerous homes, thus isolating the wives from one another, and the women are forced to compete with each other for scarce resources. Legalization and subsequent regulation, Bennion argued, would end the isolation that breeds poverty and abuse, and would protect the women who freely choose polygamy—many of whom, she noted, choose polygamy because they feel isolated or excluded in mainstream LDS culture, often because they are regarded for various reasons as “unmarriageable.”
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, 300th Anniversary University Professor in the Department of History at Harvard University and a noted scholar of American women’s history, provided comment on Bennion’s lecture. Ulrich is currently working on a study of Mormon women in 19th-century Utah, and she compared the contemporary polygamists Bennion described with their 19th-century counterparts. According to Ulrich’s description, 19th-century Mormon polygamy looked much more like the contemporary Allreds than like the FLDS. First and foremost, at least in principle women had the power to enter or leave polygamous marriages—Brigham Young didn’t generally grant divorce requests from men, but he almost always granted such requests from women (including some of his own wives). Further, women who chose to leave a polygamous marriages in 19th-century Utah generally had no trouble remarrying. The evidence, she argues, is that 19th-century Mormon women experienced a great deal of fluidity and choice in marriage, and not a lot of coercion.
Ulrich also noted that, as among well-functioning contemporary fundamentalists, polygamy nourished women’s independence by providing them with a network of female support to share in the work of caring for home, husband, and children, freeing many women to pursue education, careers outside the home, and active political and social roles in the community. Thus, contrary to our modern expectations (and to the claim of many non-Mormon critics in the period), polygamy provided the environment in which 19th-century Mormon women gained the vote long before most of America’s women, left husbands and families behind to study at colleges throughout the United States, and successfully pursued professional careers and even political office. Thus, in direct contradiction to the stereotypes, Mormon polygamy actually in many ways empowered women.
Finally, Ulrich argued that 19th-century polygamy required a “spiritual base”—it was not something that most would have assented to had they not believed it was a theological imperative. Women (and men) were willing to accept the trials of polygamy because of their belief in Mormonism’s greater benefits and the role they believed polygamy played in gaining those benefits. In particular, according to Ulrich, many 19th-century Mormon women believed that they had been promised priesthood authority by Joseph Smith at Nauvoo, and their faith they would one day hold the priesthood supported them in the difficult practice of polygamy. It also nurtured their feminism, she argued, as they worked to earn the priesthood they believed they had been promised.Among contemporary polygamists, Bennion responded, some women in well-functioning polygamous communities like the Allreds hold some forms of priesthood authority that are acknowledged by the community. It seems that just as women are cut off from religious authority in poor-functioning groups like the FLDS, where they are devalued and disempowered in most other realms of the community’s life as well, contemporary fundamentalist communities that value and empower women also grant them significant religious and ritual authority. While neither Bennion nor Ulrich advocated the practice of polygamy—as they each explicitly assured the audience—both women admired the modes of sexual, social, political, and even ritual empowerment they saw among well-functioning polygamous groups in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. According to Ulrich, despite their many differences Mormon feminists of all varieties are united in their desire for the kind of ritual empowerment practiced by their 19th-century ancestors and, as Bennion showed, by some contemporary fundamentalist women as well.
I’d like to end this with a question. I attended this lecture as someone who knows the basic parameters of the history of polygamy among the Latter-day Saints, but I’m an expert on how polygamy gets depicted in American popular culture–not a scholar of the practice itself. I’m particularly intrigued by Bennion’s and Ulrich’s assessments of the possibilities for real female empowerment among contemporary polygamists, and by the claim that Mormon feminism is driven by women’s desire to (re)gain the priesthood. So… what do you think?