“Either a misogynist or proto-feminist”: Women and Polygamy in John Turner’s “Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet”

By October 23, 2012

[Another installment in the roundtable on John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet.]

Amanda's Aunt Ann Eliza, also known as Wife No. 19 and now a star of a major Lifetime Movie

I should mention at the outset of this review that I am not a dispassionate, objective observer when it comes to the subject of Brigham Young and polygamy.  In other words, I have a dog in the fight.  As a child, my grandmother regaled me of stories of my Uncle Ed?s great grandmother who had divorced Brigham Young and then went on a lecture tour revealing his hypocrisy and tyrannical abuse of his wives.  When I was older, I realized that the woman that my grandmother had taken such pride was none other than Ann Eliza Young, the famous nineteenth wife of Brigham Young.  The fact that my great uncle?s last name was Webb confirmed the ancestral tie.  My adulthood, however, also tempered my feelings about Brigham Young, which had ranged from bemusement at his ideas about Adam-God to disgust at the number of his wives.  Although I still joked about what I would like to say to the Mormon prophet if we ever met in the afterlife, I also began realized that he was a man who had loved his children deeply and had experienced a great deal of pain and suffering during his time as a missionary and as a man in Nauvoo.  I still remember reading about the aid that he rendered to his daughter Susa after she found herself unable to support herself after divorcing her alcoholic first husband.

As a result of my investment in Brigham Young?s marital relations, I was excited when someone suggested that Juvenile Instructor do a roundtable on John Turner?s new biography on the man who has been called the Lion of the Lord.  In some ways, I was not disappointed.  Unlike many previous Mormon biographers, Turner tried to foreground the experiences of Young?s wives in his biography.  In his chapter on early Mormon missionary work in Great Britain, Turner describes the difficulties that Mary Ann Young encountered during her husband?s absence.  When Joseph Smith announced that the Twelve would be leaving for a mission in Britain, Young?s family was so ill that they did not have the strength to get their own water.  His wife was expecting their fourth child and would give birth only days before he left for his mission.  Although Young worried about his wife and children, he felt that he was called to go on a mission and said that he would go even if he knew that they would be dead when he returned.  Turner also explores the experiences of other wives, including Augusta?s disappointment with her marriage to Young and her requests to be sealed to Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith, the difficulty that Zina Huntington had when she was forced to abandon her first husband, and Amanda Barnes? disappointment with Young?s unwillingness to accept her.

In spite of his willingness to emphasize the experiences of Young?s plural wives, however, Turner never presents an argument about Young?s participation in polygamy or his treatment of women.  Instead, Turner presents us with a divided picture, arguing that Young could be portrayed as ?either a misogynist or proto-feminist? depending on which quotes a person decided to focus on.  In one sermon, Young disagreed with the idea that women were naturally more religious than men and claimed instead they were ?dirtier than men? and lied with regularity.  ?If a woman wont lie,? he argued, ?she is a miracle.?  At the same time, Young supported women?s rights and encouraged them to participate in public life.  His wives spoke in tongues, became midwives, and publicly defended polygamy.  He also encouraged young women to travel to eastern colleges where they became educated as doctors.  When they returned to Utah, they shared the knowledge they had gained by offering physiology lectures and publishing columns in local newspapers.  The picture of Young that Turner paints is a complicated one: Young was at once a man who made deeply misogynist comments that went beyond the ideas about women common in the nineteenth century.  At the same time, he gave individual women incredible latitude in their personal lives and supported women?s rights as a whole.

I can understand Turner?s unwillingness to offer an argument about Young?s treatment of women or his participation in polygamy.  Young was a complex figure and any argument would necessarily reduce that complexity.  I think his reluctance to do so, however, goes beyond a reticence to overly simplify a complicated figure.  One of the questions that a biographer always faces is how much to focus on the life he or she is elucidating and how much to focus on their argument.  Like many biographers, Turner has chosen to focus on the life of his subject.  No one subject becomes the focus of his biography.  Mountain Meadows, the succession crisis after Joseph Smith?s death, his dealings with the United States government, his attempts to pacify Native American tribes, and, of course, polygamy all get extended treatment in the book but none become the focal point or are even central to Turner?s argument.  Although this approach has its advantages, it also means that we never get to understand the full texture of any one aspect of Young?s life.  After I finished the book, I was unsatisfied.  I felt like I had been presented with tantalizing glimpses into Young?s relationships with his women but they had never been fully developed or theorized.  I quite simply wanted more.

Before I wrote this blog post, I talked with a few other Mormon historians who asked if it was possible to write a good biography that foregrounded the author?s arguments without losing sight of the subject?s life.  I believe it is.  During my second year of graduate school, I took a class in writing feminist biography.  I had tried to write a biography for my first seminar paper and had become frustrated with how difficult it was.  During that semester, we read several biographies exploring the lives of Native American converts to Catholicism, African American icons, and a transvestite living in 18th century France.  The best biographies that we read that semester used individual people as a lens to understand the larger cultural and historical forces at play in their lives.  My personal favorite were Alison Light?s Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, which explored Virginia Woolf?s tortured relationship with the women who washed her sheets and cooked her meals. At the end of the semester, we agreed that the problem with traditional biography was that it focused on individual men (and occasionally women) and disconnected them from their cultural contexts.  As a result, these biographies told us little about the world in which they had lived and grown up in.

For the most part, Turner?s biography avoids this trap.  It reveals much about nineteenth-century Mormonism.  I especially appreciated his section on the Blackhawk War and his argument about the role that Nauvoo played in Young?s unwillingness to countenance dissent.  I also appreciated the fact that he spent more time on polygamy and the lives of women than many Mormon biographers who aren?t writing about women are willing to do.  In the end, though, I felt he didn?t go far enough.  I left his biography wanting to know more about the relationships he had with individual women and the ways in which they shaped his life.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks for this, Amanda. I appreciate your thoughts. So where do we go from here? Is what’s needed at this point something like Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness for BY’s wives? Or more theoretical work on the experiences of plural wives of church leaders that puts forth a clear and specific argument? Something else entirely?

    Comment by Christopher — October 23, 2012 @ 7:48 am

  2. Thanks for such a wonderful post.
    Just out of curiosity, what difference is there (or could be pointed out) between the treatment of women (within the church setting) under BY and under JS?

    Comment by FrancisE. — October 23, 2012 @ 8:24 am

  3. Excellent, Amanda.

    Comment by Ben P — October 23, 2012 @ 8:53 am

  4. Thanks FrancisE and Ben. Francis, one of the points that Turner makes is that it wasn’t clear in Nauvoo what polygamy would actually look like. Few men cohabited with many of their plural wives or offered them financial support. In Utah, that changes as women move in with the men they had been sealed to and begin to raise children born in polygamy. The divide isn’t really between Joseph Smith and Brigham Young but between polygamy in Nauvoo and polygamy post-Nauvoo.

    Chris, I actually think that a biography of Brigham Young could accomplish what I am asking by focusing on the experience of 2 or 3 of his wives and using them as a lens through which to view polygamy. In order to be successful or to make a theoretical point, a biography or work does not have to deal with the entire life. You can’t — every person’s life is too complex to be contained within a book. As a result, sometimes the best biography is one that consciously picks and chooses moments to illustrate what the author sees as the value of that life.

    Comment by Amanda — October 23, 2012 @ 9:16 am

  5. Help me understand this, please. Your greatuncle Ed Webb was the greatgrandson of Ann Eliza Webb Dee Young Denning? How so? Webb was Ann Eliza’s maiden name.

    Comment by A Reader — October 23, 2012 @ 10:38 am

  6. To be honest, I’m not quite sure and Uncle Ed is dead. I can call my Aunt Annie and ask and get back to you tomorrow. My guess would be this: Ann Eliza divorced several times and her children were shuffled around as a result. I wouldn’t be surprised if Uncle Ed’s grandfather was raised by other family members and had their last name. Uncle Ed was not overly found of Ann Eliza Young and felt that she had abandoned her family. I am guessing that that hostility came from his father or grandfather.

    To be honest, this never really bothered me much because there are many people in my family who bear their mother’s maiden name, usually because of illegitimacy but occasionally for another reason.

    Comment by Amanda — October 23, 2012 @ 10:48 am

  7. Interesting critiques, Amanda. I thought John’s incorporation of polygamy was very good, but beyond glimpses of things like Augusta Cobb’s colorful personality, we didn’t get to know his wives all that well. I do think it is the best treatment of BY’s family life to date. And though there is a lot of material, I also agree that there is not a systematic theory of BY’s views on women. I can sympathize with John, though. The positive example you show (Light?s) appears to have been focused primarily on these relationships. And perhaps that is your critique(?) that broad biographies miss too much.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 23, 2012 @ 11:13 am

  8. While I found the NY Times review to be sort of lame, this bit relates to your critique: “Turner?s judiciousness on the hot-­button subject of polygamy is squishy in the extreme.” Perhaps any squishiness is from that lack of overall unifying theory.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 23, 2012 @ 11:31 am

  9. J. – I would agree that Turner’s work represents the best treatment of Brigham Young’s family life in a large scale work. Dean Jesse does have a really good article on Brigham Young’s family in an old issue of BYU Studies: https://byustudies.byu.edu/showtitle.aspx?title=5329. I think you are on point about what my criticism is. I think ultimately the biography tries to do too much. When you list the number of things that Turner ultimately tries to cover in his biography — MMM, polygamy, missionary work, relationships with the US government, the problem of dissent, theological innovation, Native Americans, Brigham Young race, etc. — it becomes quite apparent that it would be impossible to everything thoroughly. I think as a result some things get short shrift. As a whole, I prefer biographies that focus on a few key moments rather than ones that try to be an exhaustive rendition of an individual life. The latter type seem too cursory and rushed.

    I should mention Nell Painter’s biography of Sojourner Truth and Allan Greer’s Mohawk Saint as other examples of fantastic biographies that don’t try to do an exhaustive treatment of an individual life, but focus on a few key themes.

    Finally, I should also mention that I really do like his biography. If I had reviewed a different aspect of his book, such as the section on race or Nauvoo, I think my review would have been quite different. I just happened to have the section which I thought was weakest in comparison to his other sections (which is sad because it’s still stronger than other treatments of women and polygamy in biographies about key Mormon figures.)

    Comment by Amanda — October 23, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

  10. Thanks, Amanda. You bring up cogent points in the review and in the comments, that will inform my review of Turner’s treatment of the West and Natives.

    Comment by David G. — October 23, 2012 @ 7:16 pm

  11. Good discussion, Amanda. I’m all the more anxious to read the book now! I am curious, though, what you might have read about Brigham Young’s supposed treatment of Susa after her divorce. She did not divorce Dunford until 1878, almost a year after her father’s death. I hope that’s not in the Turner bio.

    Comment by LisaT — October 23, 2012 @ 9:44 pm

  12. I was just reading Susa’s descriptions of her father’s treatment of her. I assumed when she said that her father had offered her flour and such to help her support herself that she had divorced Dunford. The letter was disparaging of him that I assumed they were no longer together. If I remember correctly in the same document (I think it was either in the Laie diaries or in a letter) she says that it would have better if she had been born a washerwoman because at least she would have been able to support herself. The document was written after her father’s death but was describing something that happened before it. I haven’t done the timelines of Susa’s life yet to place everything that happened or that I’ve read. Is it possible she is referring to a separation preceding a divorce? Or is it referring to his missionary work?

    I’ll send you a message with the specific citation in a few days. I’m working on the Mellon app right now, and the idea of opening up the Susa files is overwhelming.

    Comment by Amanda — October 23, 2012 @ 10:26 pm

  13. Finally read this in full, Amanda. Nice work.

    Comment by Ryan T. — October 24, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

  14. Maybe a biography of Brigham Young should be undertaken that would span several books. The complexity Brigham’s life and the length of time that he led the church makes it almost impossible to adequately cover all of the aspects of his tenure in one manageable volume.


    Comment by Glenn Thigpen — October 25, 2012 @ 7:42 pm

  15. […] founding years and was the driving force behind the Mormon settlement of the Great Basin. As Amanda noted in her contribution to this roundtable, the sheer scope of Young’s life required Turner to […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Mormon-Indian Relations in Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet — November 1, 2012 @ 7:01 am


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