This is the fourteenth 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
Ulrich frames chapter fourteen through her close analysis of a quilt made by different women from the Fourteenth Ward’s Relief society in Salt Lake City. Quilts such as this were commonly made in the mid nineteenth century. Nevertheless, Ulrich shows that the quilt’s intricately sewed flowers and aphorisms become significant when understood in light of the contemporary writings of the women who made it and the tumultuous social backdrop of 1857 when it was produced. Life on the frontier was arduous and uncertain for these women; two immigrant pioneer companies barely survived their passage to Utah and the settlers already there struggled with implementing plural marriage and surviving near famine. Additionally, outside pressures continued to bear down on the saints: Mormon leader Parley P. Pratt died after being shot by a former husband of one of his plural wives, and now a threatening federal army was heading to Utah. Part of what makes the quilt striking is the gentility it projects despite the challenges that faced the women that made it.
The visual language of the quilt becomes increasingly interesting as Ulrich explores the process and context through which it was made. Ulrich examines several of the individually crafted squares and draws out interesting themes such as the women’s commitment to flowers despite the fact that they worked against drought conditions to cultivate their crops. She also focuses on the women’s assertion of defiant patriotism displayed in Aura Annette Cumming’s folk adaption of the Great Seal of the United States and the eagle in English-born Keziah Pratt’s square despite the looming conflict with the federal army. In sum, Ulrich highlights the importance of performing respectability for the Fourteenth Ward Relief Society despite the widely held American judgment that these women’s religious and marital practices were considered anything but respectable.
In this chapter Ulrich shows off a skill she uses throughout the book and more generally in her work as a scholar; she takes texts, often ones that have been overlooked by others, and shows us the complex world of women behind the names on a page or signatures on a quilt. In the previous chapter, Ulrich used Caroline Crosby’s diary to reveal a remarkably intimate view of the domestic life of San Bernardino. The steady flow of names in Crosby’s diary, as Andrea R-M discussed in her post yesterday, shows us how San Bernardino became a key part of the migratory route for Mormons and non-Mormons alike. It is this same analytical skill that has earned Ulrich acclaim with A Midwives Tale when she used the diary of Martha Ballard to discuss the economy of women’s labor in medicine and textiles in colonial New England. In the case of Chapter 14, one of the things we see is that despite the diverse backgrounds of its makers, the unified textile emphasizes their new collective identity as refined women of Zion. Ulrich takes women’s names, mentioned in a diary or on the margin of a quilt, and uses them to illustrate women’s social landscapes.
The title of Chapter 14, “The house was full of females” reflects the title of the book itself. The phrase comes from Wilford’s diary where he was describing his attendance of the Fourteenth Ward Relief Society. Ulrich argues Wilford’s interesting phrasing had less to do with the number of women at the meeting. Instead, “This was apparently the first time he had participated in a meeting where women not only filled the benches but presided.” (336) This observation helps give the reader insight not only to the origin of the title but also to what she means by her subtitle “Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism.” Women’s religious authority in the early history of the Latter-day Saints led to their ability to quickly mobilize and establish themselves politically. One early reviewer has negatively reviewed Ulrich’s book based on the assumption that a book that advertises itself as being about women’s rights should feature less “well-behaved” women. Instead, he wished that Ulrich would become a “badly behaved historian calling out fraudulent iniquities faced by female Saints.” Yet Alex Beam’s critique completely ignores the complex ways in which Ulrich shows Mormon women empowering themselves both through negotiating the every day life of the frontier and of their religion. Ulrich’s book shows readers a pre-history of women’s rights that paralleled the traditional narrative of women’s rights in the northeastern United States in the development of women’s charitable organizations and even the bloomer costume. But in other ways, Mormon women gained their empowerment through developing systems of women’s social and religious organizations unique to Mormonism. Ulrich shows how Mormon women developed their own unique brand of women’s rights through their varied experiences of plural marriage, ecstatic religion, and building Zion in their everyday lives.