Christine Talbot is the author of A Foreign Kingdom: Mormons and Polygamy in American Political Culture, 1852-1890 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013). We are delighted that she agreed to an interview with the JI about this important new book. Christine is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Gender Studies Program at the University of Northern Colorado.
Yours is the latest entry in a number of books on polygamy in the Utah territory. What makes yours distinct from, say, Sarah Barringer Gordon’s, or Kathryn Daynes’s?
I think my work builds on the previous work of Sarah Barringer Gordon, Kathryn Daynes, Terryl Givens, and others by bringing in a cultural perspective, especially in terms of anti-Mormon rhetoric. Cultural history led me to different conclusions about the nature of the Mormon question. A cultural history allows us to see what I think is one of the central roots of the Mormon question, issues of American national identity and citizenship. These issues were profoundly gendered in nineteenth century America; citizenship was built on the idea of a masculine public sphere where citizenship was enacted, juxtaposed to a feminine private sphere in the home where future citizens were trained. (However, married women’s property acts and the woman suffrage movement provided ample ammunition to contest the masculinity of citizenship). My book shows that the practice of polygamy upset the historical distinction between public and private in ways that many Americans found troubling precisely because it is a distinction that never held in the first place. Plural marriage denaturalized and deconstructed the distinction between public and private that upheld American ideals of citizenship. That, I think, is one of the things about plural marriage that so upset other Americans.
Having spent so much time with polygamy, what do you think are remaining areas that are worth exploring in relation to it?
One aspect of polygamy that I’d be interested in reading about is its relationship to Mormon ideals of manhood. To what extent did Mormons understand polygamy as a marker of manliness in the nineteenth century? How did monogamist Mormons, men and women, understand polygamy’s relationship to manhood?
Moreover, I’m always amazed at the ingenuity of scholarship. Just when I think there is nothing left to say on a topic, someone publishes a mind-blowing, paradigm shifting examination, challenging everything I thought I understood. I look forward to the next paradigm shift in the study of polygamy!
Tell us about the process of conceptualizing the project. What made you interested in the topic to begin with?
I found conceptualizing the project the most difficult part of the research process. This book began as a dissertation many years ago. Then, I knew I wanted to focus on nineteenth-century gender, family, and Mormon history, but beyond that, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do. So I did what any good historian does, I started reading. I read the work you allude to above by Kathryn Daynes, Sarah Gordon, as well as scholarship by Terryl Givens, Lawrence Foster, and others, and something kept nagging at me; I didn’t find any of the explanations of the virulence of anti-Mormonism satisfying. I began to wonder what exactly it was about the Mormons that provoked the kind of malice seen in nineteenth-century anti-Mormonism. So I started reading anti-Mormon rhetoric. The more I read, the more I came to believe that what upset Americans about polygamy had to do with the way plural marriage challenged and denaturalized the gendered spheres of public and private that many nineteenth-century Americans tried to hold in place.
What were the major challenges you faced while researching it?
Although there are many gaps, Mormon historians are blessed that the historical record is plentiful. However, that meant that the biggest challenge I faced researching was figuring out how to navigate the plethora of sources, both Mormon and anti-Mormon. There are just volumes and volumes available. I started with anti-Mormon sources, thinking they would lead me to the source of the conflict. I found as I read broadly from the anti-Mormon sources that looking at a particular genre, such as fiction, led scholars to a narrower and shallower view than could support the breadth and depth of the conflict. Once I was deep into the anti-Mormon sources, I began asking myself if there was something about the Mormons themselves, or something they were actually doing, that provoked such virulent rhetoric. Until that time, most historiography had argued that the Mormons were innocent misunderstood victims of inaccurate portrayals. I certainly would never argue that the Mormons were guilty of anything or that they deserved the condemnations they received, and I would agree that most nineteenth-century portrayals of the Mormons were far from accurate. But I don’t think anti-Mormon concern about the threat the Mormons posed to American national identity and citizenship ideals was entirely misplaced. With that in mind, I began to mine the abundant Mormon sources to see how Mormons conceptualized the role of polygamy in social structure. I found that plural marriage, as an ideal, and sometimes as a lived reality, really did upset the public/private divide in ways that challenged American notions of citizenship, and people found that to be really threatening.
Your book focuses on disputes over the relationship between gender and citizenship in the nineteenth century. How did Mormons conceptualize that relationship?
This is one of the most interesting aspects I discovered in my research. Nineteenth-century Mormons, while holding tight to a kind of ecclesiastical inequality between men and women, were quite friendly to the idea of women’s citizenship. As Lola Van Wagenen and others have pointed out, Mormon women were active in seeking American citizenship, but their opponent was not the patriarchal church. Rather, Mormon woman suffrage was opposed by anti-Mormons who feared that Mormon woman suffrage would simply multiply Mormon votes in a society they considered politically theocratic. In the book I argue that Mormons sustained ecclesiastical inequality right alongside civic equality. Because of the ways that plural marriage deconstructed the public/private divide, Mormons were perhaps more prepared than other Americans to embrace women in the public political sphere.
Who were the Mormons’ primary opponents in this debate? Evangelical ministers? Politicians? Women?
I see this as a bit of a trick question—I think the answer is all of the above and more, though the three populations you mention had different reasons and different agendas for their anti-Mormon rhetoric. While there was certainly much cross over between the three groups, evangelical ministers often took the position that Mormonism wasn’t properly Christian and that polygamy was a backward practice more characteristic of “Oriental” religions. Politicians tended to focus more on the ways they thought plural marriage led to “polygamic theocracy,” entangling family structure with political structure. This is perhaps most clearly illustrated in the Reynolds decision, where chief justice Morrison R. Waite argued that polygamy “fetters the people in stationary despotism.” Women reformers more often worried about the ways that plural marriage endangered Mormon women, enslaving them in marriages more like prostitution than companionate marriage. Joan Smyth Iversen has, shown that women in Utah led the charge when it came to anti-polygamy activism on the ground in Utah.
In my view, what brings these disparate groups together is that, although they emphasize different elements, they all seemed to be circulating around a central theme—national identity and citizenship. Most anti-Mormons agreed in some sense that Mormon polygamy threatened the premises upon which the American nation was built and that Mormon citizenship posed a great threat to American politics.
Do you conceive of this book as primarily a work of Mormon history, gender history, or something else?
Do I really have to choose one or the other? I see the book at the intersection of both gender and Mormon history because it deals with national questions about marriage and its relationship to citizenship through the lens of the Mormon question. However, I do think that different parts of the book emphasize different angles. The first three chapters, I think, are probably more about Mormon history. They look at how ideas about and lived experiences of polygamy did, in fact, challenge some fundamental American ideas about the political role of marriage in structuring citizenship. The latter four chapters are more gender history, examining the ways a variety of other Americans perceived, discussed, and eventually legislated against plural marriage.
One of the strengths of your book was adding women’s voices to political debates in the nineteenth century. How else can Mormon historians be more gender inclusive in their broader narratives of the faith?
Thanks! This is a really interesting question. It seems to me that Mormon women’s history, with a few exceptions, has been pretty ghettoized in Mormon history. That needs to change. It’s not enough to simply do more women’s history. Rather, the field and the people in it need to be solicitous of the ways that listening to women’s voices can and should shift those broader narratives and how they are told. In 1994, Roger D. Launius published an essay in Dialogue (Spring 1994) titled “The ‘New Social History’ and the ‘New Mormon History’: Reflections on Recent Trends.” There, he claimed (among other things) that Mormon women’s history has largely remained impervious to the challenges and potential of the concept of gender. I think his critique is largely still true; Mormon history has yet to become “gendered.” Examinations of the meaning of manhood and womanhood in Mormon history and culture are few and far between, though the latter are more available than the former. Most of our women’s history still focuses on what women did, rather than what women and men were, how manhood and womanhood were constructed and understood, and how those constructions played out and became significant in the broader narratives of Mormon history.
Why did you choose to publish with University of Illinois? How has that experience been?
I chose to publish with the University of Illinois Press because they have a strong Mormon Studies list and they accepted the manuscript! The experience has been wonderful. The editors are really supportive and helpful, and the process was relatively quick and as painless as I think it can be. I have nothing but wonderful things to say about University of Illinois Press.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently finishing an article-length side project on Mormonism’s response to new commercial entertainments—dance halls, theaters, amusement halls and parks, saloons, and the like—in the early twentieth century. That project has been great fun! More broadly, I’m becoming very interested in Mormon ideas about sex, sexuality, and the body across the span of Mormon history. While I’m not sure exactly what form it will take yet, I’m working on a project or a series of projects that examines these themes. I’m excited to see what I find and I hope you are too!