“The cheerless, crushed and unwomanly mothers of polygamy”

By May 14, 2014

When we decided to devote a month to women?s history beginning with mother?s day, I thought about how my research about Mormon girls and young women is also very much about hopes for the future mothers of the next generation of Mormon children. It is clear that the changing (both Mormon and non-Mormon) representations and experiences of Mormon women as mothers is an integral aspect of the church?s metamorphosis from being perceived as an outsider religion to becoming patriotic, religious Americans. A question along the lines of ?how did Mormon women transition from a group of polygamist wives who fought for women?s suffrage to embodying the model of wholesome stay at home wives and mothers?? has dominated scholarly research about Mormon women?s history.

Linda P. Wilcox?s article ?Mormon Motherhood: Official Images? offers a comprehensive and thorough examination of how perceptions of motherhood have appeared and been referenced in church talks, publications, and other church writing. Wilcox contends that throughout the nineteenth century before the 1890s, motherhood and even childrearing were not prominently featured in official and unofficial church rhetoric. In addition, when the subject of motherhood was addressed, there was nothing extraordinarily Mormon about it.[1]By the 1950s, the terms mother and woman became interchangeable within the Mormon context.[2] What then accounts for this change in the relatively short period of sixty years?

On one hand, the answer seems quite clear: it was likely just inevitable that a group that attempted to fit into mainstream America (albeit on their own terms) would readily embrace widespread ideals of family and motherhood. On the other hand, I think that mainstream America?s vilification of Mormon plural marriage, family, and the home in the late-nineteenth century, via the words and actions of the mainstream press, federal government, and members of reforming and religious groups, led the church membership and leadership to encourage and expect female adherent to subscribe to an idealized motherhood. Of course, I am not the first and will not be the last scholar to embrace this conclusion, yet a close look at young mothers? experiences as plural wives during the height of antipolygamy legislation is needed to further untangle this assertion.
Secrecy was already the way of life for many polygamous husbands and their polygamous wives in the late nineteenth century. By the 1880s, with an increase in arrests and convictions, calls for secrecy among Mormons to protect polygamists were at an all-time high. Newly married plural wives were impelled to use a variety of methods to hide their plural wife statuses. Some continued to live with their families of origin or were already lived with her husband?s families. As soon as a woman became pregnant her circumstances changed and she had to seek refuge among the extensive ?Mormon Underground.?

Annie Clark Tanner?s autobiography Mormon Mother provides one of the most unfiltered records of a woman?s difficult experiences as a plural wife. In 1883, she married her husband Joseph Marion Clark Tanner. Her pregnancy a polygamous wife led her live on the ?Underground Railroad? in Utah during her fifth month of pregnancy to hide from federal authorities. After her daughter?s birth while she was staying with relatives, Tanner had the opportunity to share a meal with the current Church president Wilford Woodruff. Woodruff noticed that Tanner was paying attention to her daughter and inquired if the daughter was hers when she answered in the affirmative, he then asked ?And who is the happy father?? Apostle Cannon quickly said: ?That is hardly a fair question, is it, Brother Woodruff??[3] This example exhibits the lengths that Mormon polygamous mothers would go to protect their children and families.

This exchange with the president of the Church highlights how polygamous mothers did not feel safe even in Mormon communities and could not openly enjoy their children?s early years. Another plural wife, who lived amongst other Mormons, recalled: ?I had to hide in the granary out there all day long and when my baby cried, I had to feed it and try to cover its head. At night I had to live in that little bedroom and stifle my baby?s cries when the Lord?s teachers called.? Sometimes even older daughters of polygamist families took the risky move of claiming the youngest children of their mothers as their own to trick federal authorities. [4] These women?s experiences as mothers also reveal the complicated relationship between motherhood and polygamy within the late-nineteenth century Mormon context. Parenthood, and in turn motherhood, was an essential aspect of Mormon polygamy. However, although motherhood was considered a sacred duty, it also jeopardized polygamous women?s freedom in the late nineteenth century.

Mainstream America?s reasons for criminalizing plural marriage offers insight toward why the children, who were the products of Mormon plural marriage, undermined Mormon women?s freedom. In his first address to Congress in 1885, President Grover Cleveland said: ?The strength, the perpetuity, and the destiny of the nation rests upon our homes, established by the law of God, guarded by parental care, regulated by parental authority, and sanctified by parental love?These homes are not the homes of polygamy.?[5] While Cleveland offers only one opinion amongst pervasive Mormon rhetoric, it captures the sentiment of this rhetoric. In essence, plural marriage both jeopardized marriage and led to growing numbers of children who were being raised by inept and unscrupulous men and women. The existence of children, who were products of polygamous marriages, was pervasive proof that not only did polygamy exist but also that it was essentially thriving.

The fact that Mormon women were both producing children and acting as mothers to them was distressing on several levels. In the same speech from 1885, President Cleveland claimed that American women ?should warm light of true womanhood, unperverted and unpolluted, upon all within their pure and wholesome family circle?These are not the cheerless, crushed and unwomanly mothers of polygamy.?[6] From the cartoons of magazines like Harper?s Weekly and Frank Leslie?s Illustrated Newspaper to the nearly fifty books published on anti-Mormonism, Mormon women were depicted as white slaves, sexually licentious members of the their husbands large harems, uncultured and uneducated, unsightly, and impoverished among many other negative representations.[7] These stereotypes and images did not quickly cease with the official end of church-sanctioned plural marriage in 1890 yet flourished for quite some time.

Given the detrimental rhetoric surrounding Mormon mothers and plural wives, it is no wonder that the church leadership was intent upon reversing the non-Mormon public?s view of Mormon mothers. One long-term result of this maneuver was that the Mormon woman of the post-World War Two Era came to closely exemplify the pervasive image of the idealized stay at home wife and mother of the latter half of the twentieth century. No longer did impending motherhood have the consequence of landing some married Mormon women ?in trouble? with the federal government but motherhood became almost a non-negotiable and the primary duty of Mormon womanhood within Mormon culture. The earlier stories of young Mormon mothers and plural wives are usually told through a lens of religious dedication. While this factor did influence many women?s desire to enter polygamy and pursue motherhood, it can also oversimplify and demean the complicated experiences that these women encountered. Although religious obligation should be taken into consideration when analyzing the history of Mormon motherhood, other factors such as the church?s promotion of an idealized motherhood should be examined to unpack the complicated and sometimes-conflicting representation and experiences of Mormon mothers.


[1]Linda P. Wilcox, ?Mormon Motherhood: Official Images,? in Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective, ed.Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 209.

[2] Ibid, 215.

[3]Annie Clark Tanner, A Mormon Mother; An Autobiography. (Salt Lake City]: Tanner Trust Fund, University of Utah Library, 1973), 97

[4] Josephin Spillsbury Vance, uncatalogued typescript in Vance file, Kimball Young Collection, box 2 quoted in Bradley, Martha S. “?Hide and Seek?”, Children on the Underground.” Utah Historical Quarterly. 51.2 (1983): 146.

[5] Grover Cleveland quoted in Charles A. Cannon, “The Awesome Power of Sex: the Polemical Campaign against Mormon Polygamy.” The Pacific Historical Review. 43.1 (1974): 61.

[6] Grover Cleveland quoted in Cannon, 71.

[7] Davis Bitton and Gary L. Bunker, “Double Jeopardy: Visual Images of Mormon Women to 1914.” Utah Historical Quarterly. 46.2 (1978): 184-201.

Article filed under Gender Miscellaneous Women's History


  1. Fantastic stuff, Natalie.

    Comment by Ben P — May 14, 2014 @ 10:58 am

  2. Thanks. That line from Apostle Cannon to President Woodruff was stunning (?And who is the happy father?? Apostle Cannon quickly said: ?That is hardly a fair question, is it, Brother Woodruff??).

    Comment by Hunter — May 14, 2014 @ 11:22 am

  3. Thanks! Yes, I love the exchange between Tanner and Woodruff in her memoir. So telling of what was at stake for women at that moment.

    Comment by Natalie R — May 14, 2014 @ 5:15 pm

  4. Fascinating. I’m just now getting around to reading the Tanner book–long overdue!

    Comment by Saskia — May 14, 2014 @ 6:44 pm

  5. Thanks, Natalie. Really interesting to think about the different ways that Mormon women were re-cast during the late 19th/early 20th century.

    Comment by Kris — May 14, 2014 @ 8:27 pm

  6. There are so many ways the quote at the beginning of this post butters my biscuit. Did it seriously never occur to any of those self-righteous twerps that if those women were “cheerless” and “crushed” it was because their husbands weren’t permitted to support their families properly and because being pregnant or taking care of small children is taxing enough without being on the run also? That, in fact, it was those opponents who were crushing the women with their bigoted laws? And “unwomanly?!” Sorry I don’t have time to curl my hair and scrub my petticoats to your satisfaction, sir, I’m too busy hiding from the Feds to keep my family together to be sexy for you too!

    I need a clue-by-four and a time machine, stat!

    Comment by Proud Daughter of Eve — May 14, 2014 @ 8:56 pm

  7. Fantastic stuff, Natalie! A Mormon Mother is one of my favorite biographies. It’s beautiful, heartbreaking, sincere…anyway, I’m glad you included it.

    Not sure how it connects, but Mormons are often in the run for “Mother of the Year” on local and national stages. I don’t think there’s been a widespread change in perception between the 20th and 21st centuries.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 15, 2014 @ 8:09 am


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