Natalie Rose is a doctoral candidate in America history at Michigan State University. She also holds a M.A. degree in women’s history from Sarah Lawrence College. She is currently researching and writing her dissertation on how adolescent Mormon women reacted to larger changes in the religion and culture from the 1870s to 1920s. ” Her dissertation adds a lot to discussions of women in Mormon history and the transition from polygamy to monogamy. We are excited to have her guest at JI.
In an interview from the World War One era with Emma Lucy Gates, daughter of Susa Young Gates and an acclaimed opera singer born in 1882, she commented that polygamy could help women in the “war-drained” European nations. She claimed: “Many girls in the old world have told me that they would much prefer being a plural mate of a man who could give them a pleasant home, where they could live a useful life, to being an old maid.” When asked about eugenics and Mormonism, Emma Lucy Gates stated that the current “Mormon standard of purity” rendered the practice of Eugenics unnecessary amongst Mormon men and women. Emma Lucy Gates’ commentary was not uncommon but actually part of a developing discourse that aimed to situate the legacy of polygamy within the early twentieth century.
Last summer while I was conducting research at the Utah State Archives in Salt Lake City, I came upon published writings by both Susa Young Gates and Juanita Brooks that dealt with the legacy of polygamy in the 1920s and 1930s. Susa Young Gates wrote a two part series in 1925 entitled “A Physical Culture Race” and “How Brigham Young Brought Up His Fifty-Six Children” for Physical Culture, a magazine published between 1899 and 1955, which focused on health and fitness. While the purpose of Gates’ articles was not to explicitly discuss polygamy, references to her father Brigham Young’s practice of plural marriage occur throughout her writing. Juanita Brooks penned “A Close-Up of Polygamy” for Harper’s Magazine in February of 1934. Both women drew upon their personal experiences as direct descendants of practicing polygamists to offer an insider’s view of the unique marital practice. Despite being born forty years apart, Gates and Brooks, born respectively in 1856 and 1898, shared many similarities. They were industrious and dynamic writers, deeply interested and invested in church history, and undeniably influenced by plural marriage in their families. Gates, the daughter of Brigham Young, never married into polygamy herself whereas some of her siblings did. Juanita Brooks’ parents who were both born in polygamist families remained monogamists throughout their lives. For Brooks as a young woman, polygamy was not a totally peculiar practice but something that the older generations of her family practiced.
At first glance, the aim of these published pieces seems to merely explain the legacy of polygamy. Foremost, Brooks and Gates attempted to negate any misconceptions that Mormon families produced unhealthy and subnormal children. In her Harper’s Weekly piece, Brooks recounts how she overheard a young woman discussing her impression of a young Mormon man she had met: “Her attitude expressed what appears to be a popular belief. She marveled at the young man’s size, because, she said, ‘I had always had an idea that in those big families that the stock ran out, or something, and the children were under-sized and—you know—anemic.” In her article “A Physical Culture Race,” Susa Young Gates wrote “When youths who were the product of ‘Mormonism’ were examined by Army surgeons with a view to enlistment during the World War, the medical men expressed astonishment at the excellence of their physical condition with that of ordinary American youth.” These writings were partly intended to celebrate the health, vigor, and other accomplishments of the youngest generations of Latter-day Saints. However, on a more complex level, these writings served a method for women like Gates and Brooks to justify and explain the practice of polygamy to non-Mormon Americans and younger Mormons who were growing up during a period that was even further removed by time from the unique marital practice. To borrow Lisa Olsen Tait’s helpful terminology, Susa Young Gates and Juanita Brooks were acting as “representatives” of the last generations of Mormons who understood the practice of plural marriage from the inside.
The timing of these articles in the 1920s and 1930s, at the tail end of the Eugenics movement, conveys that these women were also influenced by society’s preoccupation with producing strong, healthy, and intelligent children. In her 1925 articles, Susa Young Gates downplayed the practice of polygamy and peppered her writing with assertions that Mormons held the highest birth rate, lowest death rate for babies, and high literacy rates compared to the national averages. She considered it a rare feat that only ten of her father’s fifty-six children died as infants especially compared to the concurrent mortality rates for children. Brooks asserts that her aunts and uncles were a “remarkable group physically, all being large and well-formed, without a deformity among them.” Both women proudly comment that they and their siblings while growing up were regularly healthy aside from rare illnesses here and there. These comments coupled with Emma Lucy Gates’ provocative statements reveal how some Mormons used the current fascination and practice of eugenics as a tool to explain plural marriage to non-Mormons and—even celebrate—the unique marital practice.
The notion that polygamy could serve as a method to curb problems throughout early twentieth-century American and international societies is pervasive throughout these writings. Though Gates states that plural marriage is a “closed chapter to all faithful members” of the church, she also explains how Mormons considered it to be a “religious sacrament” and not “sensualist” in nature. Implicit in the descriptions of her childhood are inferences that plural marriage provided a communal atmosphere conducive to raising healthy and successful children. Like Emma Lucy Gates, Juanita Brooks even advocated for the practice in an unpublished piece titled “The Unmarried Woman and Polygamy.” Throughout this piece Brooks writes of concern for working, unmarried women over thirty who were either widowed or for whatever reason never married. She suggests that polygamy would serve as a viable option for women with a “business or artistic career” “because she could go on with her chosen field and still has as much of a husband as she would have time to care for.” One can only assume that Brooks’ worries for single women stem from her difficult experience being a widowed mother after her first husband Ernest Pulsipher passed away from cancer. Some polygamists, like her paternal grandfather, married a widowed woman to provide her and her children with financial security. To Brooks, this particular practice of polygamy may have appeared to be a practical option for women like herself. References to plural marriage as a viable option for women to rebuild their lives is reminiscent of the utopian language that nineteenth-century Mormons used to defend their practice of polygamy as a method to protect women and protect healthy children.
Despite some of her positive writing about polygamy, Brooks was careful to maintain that she was “glad, however, that polygamy was not practiced now.” Her conflicting views of polygamy reveal her place in Mormon history as a child born after the practice was outlawed but still followed by older members of her family, community, and the church. Whereas Susa Young Gates never comments on her status as a monogamist married woman, she does contend that only three of her father’s sons and six of his daughters engaged in plural marriage. Their stances on polygamy as captured in these magazine articles are similar to conversations about the practice of polygamy during the current “Mormon Moment.” In an August 23rd interview with Book of Mormon Girl author Joanna Brooks on the radio program On Being, Joanna Brooks commented that polygamy is very much a present issue for some Mormon men and women, who believe “polygamy is the order of heaven and that they very well may be asked to live it and they’re prepared to make that sacrifice.” Clearly, the possibility of heavenly plural marriage is not a pressing concern for all, yet it is hard to ignore the history of polygamy especially since many mainstream media outlets and many non-Mormon Americans, who are unfamiliar with Mormonism, still blindly conflate Utah, Mormonism, and polygamy.
These later writings and commentary on plural marriage after the practice ended are emblematic of larger tensions that Mormon faced during the transition from being perceived as a polygamist outsider group to becoming monogamist Americans. Mormon women like Brooks and Gates not only felt that they had to justify the practice and legacy of polygamy to the United States through their writing yet their writing also served as a method for them to reconcile their own thoughts on the practice. Nevertheless, they realized that this practice of plural marriage was incompatible with their current status in American society. To appease these two mutually exclusive issues, Juanita Brooks and Susa Young Gates rendered Mormon polygamy as a practice of the past that still had positive implications for the descendants of the religion.