Lecture Report: Janet Bennion and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich on “The Faces of Eve: Varieties of Mormon Feminism”

By November 3, 2012

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?

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Conference/Presentation Reports Gender Miscellaneous Ritual Women's History


  1. Thanks Cristine. Great summary. I would have loved to hear it.

    Several years ago I was in one of Kathleen Flake’s classes at Vanderbilt and we were discussing Kathy Daynes’ More Wives Than One. Kathleen and I, the two Mormons in the class, talked about the possibilities of this being a good arrangement for an independent 19th c. woman–the benefits of marriage without all the impediments. It seemed that every one else at the class completely recoiled at the suggestion.

    In contrast, I think most Mormons would likewise recoil at the suggestion of contemporary polygamy being empowering. I think most have more knowledge of Warren Jeffs rather than the Allreds, but I think that that would still be a difficult sell. Though Mormons maintain a theological necessity of marriage in eternity, marriage is not nearly the mortal necessity it was in the nineteenth century…personally, why would I subject myself to that, if I’m just fine on my own for now?

    I have no idea what to do by Laurel’s claim about the desire to (re)gain the priesthood….

    Comment by JanieceJ — November 3, 2012 @ 4:39 pm

  2. “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.”

    I asked her about this, from the audience. I heard her to say that the members of the Relief Society viewed that organization as a first step (?) on a path to the priesthood. Or that the RS would be a proxy for the priesthood? As you can tell, I was confused by her answer.

    Comment by Alex B — November 3, 2012 @ 5:09 pm

  3. I think there definitely were opportunities for female empowerment within polygamy. In the nineteenth century, middle class, Protestant women were expected ground their identity in two things: first, in romantic love, as they were courted by their fiancees and then, in the children that followed (hopefully, after marriage). In decreasing the emphasis on romantic love and on the nuclear family, polygamy offered women opportunities to work outside of the home and encouraged them to leave husbands that were unsatisfactory. We have accounts of women who rode along the perimeter of their homestead to check and fix fence until their 9th month of pregnancy. There were also women who worked as editors of newspapers, served as senators, and went to medical school.

    BUT… it is important to remember they often did these things because their husbands could not support them. Emmeline Wells, for example, became the editor of the Woman’s Exponent because she needed the money. Her husband did not have the resources to provide for her. The strain on Louisa Barnes and Addison Pratt’s marriage began when he abandoned her to go on a mission. She was forced to care for their children and travel to Utah by herself because her husbands and the brethren offered her little support.

    I think that Mormon women are right to celebrate the feminism of their foremothers and the opportunities opened up for women within polygamy, BUT, I think it’s also important to remember that in some sense these women were abandoned. Even when supported by sister wives or other family members, they felt their husbands’ absences and mourned over them. Polygamy — and the experiences of 19th C women — are a mixed bag. In some ways, they were liberating but in other ways, they weren’t. I don’t think that’s particularly surprising but it’s important to remember.

    Comment by Amanda — November 3, 2012 @ 6:05 pm

  4. Thanks for the report. I agree that 19th century and Allred-style polygamy has the potential to be empowering to women. And FLDS style polygamy is an abomination, and Warren Jeffs can rot in hell (not to put too fine a point on it. I like the terminology of well-functioning and poor-functioning polygamy; that’s a great way to frame it.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — November 3, 2012 @ 6:53 pm

  5. What I see when I look at the arguments for polygamy “empowering” women is wishful thinking. Wealthy polygamous women and/or those who had friends, family, or no kids yet went to school. Those who were poor, had few social resources, and/or tons of kids didn’t. Sound familiar?

    The main source of the “polygamy empowered women to be professionals!” myth is Ellis Shipp, one individual who left her kids with sister-wives while she went off to med school.

    See also: Martha Hughes Cannon, who went to med school, THEN got married, then had her first kid at 27.

    See also: Romania Pratt Penrose, who had 5 or 7 kids or something, watched helplessly as a couple of them died, said “This is ridiculous,” and left her surviving kids with her mom when she left Utah to study medicine so this nonsense didn’t keep happening to everyone else. The youngest one didn’t recognize her when she came back. Her marriage was monogamous until about two weeks before she came back from med school. DH hadn’t told her yet that he’d married someone else. She didn’t exactly need his money at this point, so she dumped his sorry ass.

    I could go on and on about this. When all is said and done, I find it really disheartening when Mormon women think the best/only way for women to help and support each other and form powerful female-centered communities is if they’re all banging the same ten dudes.

    Comment by Sarah Kendall Taber — November 3, 2012 @ 7:02 pm

  6. I’m still laughing at/appreciating Sarah’s comments. She raises the point I keep wondering about. How much do we conflate “Mormon women” with “polygamous wives” (talking 19th C here) and when we talk “polygamous wives” how much are we really referring to a fairly small group of relatively privileged women? I don’t think my great-great grandmother, who lived in poverty in the dirt of eastern Utah, experienced polygamy as liberating, especially after she relinquished her husband to his younger wife (who had seven young children) following the Manifesto. And I know that in the case of another great-grandmother, who was the hated second wife, polygamy is the major reason that line of my family is almost completely out of the church.

    All of which echoes Amanda’s point that it is extremely difficult and dangerous to overgeneralize.

    It would be cool if we could come up with a socio-economic study of polygamy (then and now, but especially then). What could we learn about patterns in polygamy related to economic status? I know Kathy has some of that in her book, but I don’t know that it’s ever been used as a primary lens–and I am not sure if we even have good enough records that it could be.

    Comment by LisaT — November 3, 2012 @ 8:46 pm

  7. Excellent comment (#3) Amanda! I’ve always wondered if the 19th Century women were just better/stronger/more devote than we are, but after reading Women of Faith in the Latter-days and getting several women’s viewpoints on polygamy, I realize, they (most of them) didn’t much like it either. They just did it because they were asked and they were faithful. I jotted down some of the quotes from the book:

    73: “Tis rather trying to a womans feelings not to be acknowledged by the man she has given herself to, and desires to love with all her heart.” Martha Heywood
    74: “My husband had a long conversation with me last night counselling me to if possible to assist in the housework sufficient [Martha was expecting] to avoid the hiring of a girl during Mrs. Heywood’s [the other wife] expected confinement.” Martha Heywood
    78: “After my husband and his wife Sarepta left me, I felt a spirit of peace. . .” Martha Heywood
    79: “Joseph came as far as Provo [close to where Martha was living] and did not send me one single word which hurt my feelings and taught me to think that I was not much cared for.” Martha Heywood
    98: “Plural marriage destroys the oneness of course. . . . ‘no one can feel the full weight of the curse till she enters into polygamy; it is a great trial of feelings, but not of faith.’ It is a great trial, no one would deny that; but she was willing because it was a duty her religion demanded. For years, she says, she was so bound and so united to her husband that she could do nothing without him. . . .” Mary Isabella Horne
    99: “Mary Isabella lived the law of plural marriage without complaint. In looking back, she also later recognized the benefits of plurality, at least for her own development and independent growth. . . . ‘Since his plural marriage, she could see some advantages, now she feels better; she is freer and can do herself individually things she never could have attempted before; and work out her individual character as separate from her husband.” Mary Isabella Horne
    153: “‘Well, after living in Plurality and getting the experience you desired how do you like it and what is your belief now?’ I will say I like it first rate. . . . I do believe it is a principle that if not abused will purify and exalt those that enter in to it with purity and purpose and abide there in.” Lydia Knight


    Comment by Emily — November 3, 2012 @ 10:15 pm

  8. I enjoyed this, and the thoughtful comments. Thank you.

    Comment by Moss — November 4, 2012 @ 11:59 am

  9. Thank you, everyone, for your thoughtful comments!

    I agree with you, Amanda, that we always need to be careful to keep the downsides in mind, though it was clear to me at Bennion’s lecture that both she and Ulrich assumed that we all had a good strong sense of those downsides (they both said as much), and so they didn’t need to spend too much time rehashing them.

    Sarah, thank you for a good, hearty, full-throated laugh. And the smart, relevant comments that it accompanied!

    Janiece, your point regarding contemporary polygamy is one that Ulrich explicitly made, essentially as Amanda outlines it. In a culture where women’s only roles were as wives and mothers, polygamy permitted them a measure of freedom. But given that we have far more options today, why would we go there?

    Alex B, I think that both of the answers you list to the question of the RS’s relationship to the priesthood are potential interpretations of the relationship between women, the RS organization, and priesthood. I got the sense that Ulrich presented both as interpretations that were held by women in the 19th century. Perhaps someone more knowledgeable can step in here and fill in more detail?

    In response to LisaT’s call for a good socio-economic study of polygamy, is anyone familiar with Kimball Young’s Isn’t One Wife Enough? (1954)? Young was a grandson of Brigham Young who, if I’m recalling correctly, left the church. He was also a sociologist who taught at Northwestern. His book attempted to make some generalizations about the experiences of 19th-century polygamy–including the socio-economic status of those who entered plural marriage, and the economic impact of polygamy on families that entered it–using 19th-century diaries and journals as well as interviews with surviving children of polygamous families. When I read it a couple of years ago (quickly, and with an eye for how it painted polygamy and not so much for how accurate it was) I was surprised, given when it was written, to find that it read as a measured, understanding study (albeit not what I would call a sympathetic one). If you know it, what do you think of it?

    Comment by Cristine — November 4, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

  10. Young’s book is interesting. He used pseudonyms for many of his sources so it is terribly difficult to verify sources (though a copy of his papers are at BYU and I think that Embry has done some work on that).

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 4, 2012 @ 6:41 pm

  11. Cristine can you elucidate on the discussion relating to gain or regaining (particularly the latter) priesthood?

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 4, 2012 @ 6:42 pm

  12. Thanks for the report, Crissy. Sounds like a great lecture with lots of food for thought.

    Comment by Nate R. — November 4, 2012 @ 10:09 pm

  13. J. Stapley, there was very little detailed discussion of the question of women gaining/regaining the priesthood. Laurel Ulrich stated that many women in the 19th century were supported in the more difficult aspects of their faith — ie plural marriage — by the belief that they had been promised the priesthood at Nauvoo in 1842 and that the work they were doing would earn them that promise. She also said that this belief continues to support Mormon feminists.

    There was very little discussion of this statement beyond that, although in the Q&A it did get tied to women’s ritual empowerment. In response to a question from the audience, Ulrich confirmed that 19th century women had a much larger ritual role than contemporary Mormon women do, largely in ministering to other women — functions that have largely been reassigned to the male priesthood in the last 100 years. She noted that this shift was a function, in part, of the move of much ritual practice out of the home.

    On a related note, the things about the well-functioning polygamous communities that Bennion most clearly respected and even admired were the priesthood roles women were empowered to play. She spoke of a time when her young daughter was ill and a woman in the Allred group led her in blessing her child, which Bennion said she reacted to initially by shrinking from the forbidden, but then by embracing it with a great sense of joy — followed by her wondering why it was that in the mainstream church she wasn’t empowered to bless her own child. I think that both she and Ulrich were implicitly connecting that sense of longing for greater ritual empowerment with a desire to see a greater role — either actual priesthood or the empowerment of the Relief Society as a parallel organization to the priesthood (see comment 2 from Alex B) — among Mormon women.

    Comment by Cristine — November 5, 2012 @ 10:46 am

  14. Crissy– An excellent report. I’m also glad for all of these insightful readers’ comments about the debatable pros and cons of plural marriage. But my question seconds Jonathan’s question about the expectations of regaining the priesthood. I’m wondering if Laurel elucidated specific sources on that. In my own research, I just don’t see an overwhelming group expectation of that outcome. Is she reading between the lines? Did she find some obscure statements by RS leaders? I’m really curious. I don’t know if I would be ready to make that conclusion from the RS leadership statements that I’ve read.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — November 5, 2012 @ 10:53 am

  15. Andrea: She didn’t cite specific sources, as I recall. She simply made broad reference to the material she’s using for her current book project, which I believe is essentially any piece of women’s writing she can get her hands on. I think she particularly noted looking at women’s diaries, but I don’t remember any more specific references to sources than that.

    Comment by Cristine — November 5, 2012 @ 12:48 pm

  16. I’m very interested in Laurel’s argument as I share a similar perspective to Andrea.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 5, 2012 @ 2:13 pm


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