How Mormon Polygamy In The 19th Century Fueled Women's Activism
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. What was it like to be a Mormon woman in a polygamist marriage in 19th-century America? That's what historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich explores in her new book "A House Full Of Females: Plural Marriage And Women's Rights In Early Mormonism." She says plural marriage, as it was called, could have been described as an experiment in co-operative housekeeping and an incubator of female activism. The founder of the faith, Joseph Smith, took his first Mormon plural wife in 1841. In 1890, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Wilford Woodruff issued a manifesto that led to the end of plural marriage.
Ulrich's book is based on diaries, letters, minutes of meetings and other day-to-day documents written by Mormons during the period. Ulrich won a Pulitzer Prize for her nonfiction book "A Midwife's Tale" which told the story of a midwife and mother in Maine after the Revolutionary War and was based on the midwife's journal. The book was adapted into a PBS film.
Ulrich is a professor at Harvard and past president of the American Historical Association and the Mormon History Association. All eight of her great grandparents and four of her great, great grandparents were Mormons who migrated to Utah before 1860. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, welcome to FRESH AIR.
So I think you're making the argument that for women, plural marriage was both empowering and subordinating. So the subordinating part is, I think, kind of obvious 'cause you're one of several wives of one man. You're sharing that person. You are - the women, I think, are subordinate to the man. But in what sense do you think it might have been empowering for the women?
LAUREL THATCHER ULRICH: I think plural marriage empowered women in very complicated ways, and to put it most simply, it added to the complexity and the adversity they experienced. And we can argue that women who deal with tough things - or a man - develop certain strengths and aptitudes. It also reinforced an already well developed community of women to share work, to share childcare, to share religious faith, to share care in childbirth and in illness, in some sense strengthened bonds that were already very much present in their lives.
GROSS: So who had a say in - who, like - how many women would be in a plural marriage and who the next woman would be? I mean, a lot of what I know is from the HBO series "Big Love," and as well researched as it was...
GROSS: I mean, it was about a breakaway fundamentalist compound, so they were - who knows what they were practicing?
GROSS: So you really have to set me straight on this. But, like, did the women already in the marriage have any say in terms of who the next woman to be added to the marriage would be or was it just like a man's choice?
ULRICH: No. It's not a man's choice who he's going to marry in the first place. Latter-day Saints, like other Americans, believed you had to consent to a marriage. So the woman who was a potential wife had to agree, but in a plural marriage, the prior wife had to agree as well. In fact, in the marriage ceremony, she is involved, and there are some very interesting examples.
One of my favorites was a man who's first wife had died, and he was courting a potential new wife. And she said, yes, I'll marry you if you'll marry my sister also - seems very, very strange to us. But the idea that they were going to not be parted from a beloved sister was apparently appealing to this woman.
GROSS: So forgive me for jumping right to sex here, but having read...
GROSS: Having read the diaries of Mormon women in plural marriages, what sense did you get of the place of sexuality in the marriage? I mean, the assumption is often - the assumption of outsiders anyways is often that men had plural marriages, so that they'd have more variety sexually in their life.
And, you know, if one woman was pregnant, there'd be another woman to have relations with. And that for the woman, they wouldn't have a man to spend the night with every night. They wouldn't have somebody to have relations with or even just cuddle with or just be in a room with overnight so that the woman was getting short changed and the men were having this kind of, you know, bountiful feast.
And at the same time, I sometimes wonder, gee, were there women who chose plural marriage because they didn't really care to have sexual relations? Were the women in plural marriages because they were really lesbians and could maybe be secretly intimate with other women in the marriages? So you read these diaries - I don't know how forthcoming they are - but did you get any insights into any of that?
ULRICH: 19th-century diarists don't talk about sex.
ULRICH: Alas, I mean - there was one diary - a man's diary - diary of William Clayton, who was quite expressive about his passionate love for the second wife he was trying to persuade. But they don't talk about who they slept with. So in order to understand sexuality in the 19th century, you have to look in other places, look at the consequences - when were babies born, how many babies were there, and also to look at the kind of advice literature that they read, not necessarily published by Mormons, but by certain very conservative writers in the 19th century.
And sermons - sermons sometimes could be quite explicit. So the 19th-century idea that sexual relations during pregnancy and lactation was a dangerous thing probably impacted a lot of these relationships. Restraining from sex during a wife's pregnancy and during a period when she was nursing a child put a certain kind of pressure on a man, perhaps, to seek another wife. I think some men did seek new wives when their first wife was pregnant. It's also certainly possible - I mean, there are a lot of different kinds of human beings in the 19th century as they are today. Some women prefer not to engage in sexual relations.
I've been really puzzled, for example, about the number of childless women or women with only one child who lived happily together in a community of women, sometimes in the same household helping each other to raise their children. And I think it's quite possible that their intimacy certainly psychologically and emotionally if not physically may have been expressed with other women rather than with men.
GROSS: What was the spiritual justification that Joseph Smith and his early followers used for polygamy?
ULRICH: The spiritual justification was that God said to do it (laughter). And it's about as simple as that.
GROSS: Like he's told Adam and Eve go forth and multiply.
ULRICH: Yes. Go forth and multiply, but even more, I think there's the sense when this emerged - in fact, I know there's a sense, some powerful sense in 1842, not just among Mormons, but among people all over the world that Jesus is coming soon, that the end of the world is coming. And we need to be prepared. And Joseph Smith taught that one of the forms of preparation was to gather all of the faithful, all of those who had embraced the new gospel into families and the part of that process meant creating plural households.
So every righteous woman had a husband, and men were like ancient Abraham households which would become patriarchs and fathers of large families. So a lot of it was about this imminence of the Second Coming of Jesus.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, author of the new book "A House Full Of Females: Plural Marriage And Women's Rights In Early Mormonism." And it's based on diaries of Mormon women from 1835 to 1870. She's a professor of history at Harvard, and she won a Pulitzer Prize for an earlier book called "A Midwife's Tale," which was based on an 18th-century journal by a midwife. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. And her new book, "A House Full Of Females," is about plural marriage and women's rights in early Mormonism. And it's based on 19th-century journals that she had access to. She's also a Pulitzer Prize winner for her book "A Midwife's Tale."
So, you know, in writing about Mormonism in the 1800s, you write about how women in Utah - Utah was a largely, like, Mormon place - women won the right to vote before they did in the rest of the nation, with the exception of Wyoming, which was very sparsely populated. So why did Mormons support suffrage for women?
ULRICH: Mormons supported suffrage for women, I think, as a way of calling the bluff of 19th-century antagonists, who claimed that women were subordinated in Mormonism. And that - in a kind of joking way, a writer in The New York Times said, well, let's give them the vote, and then they can, you know, eliminate polygamy. Well, Mormons thought that was a rather bright idea. Some people have assumed, well, the men just came up with this idea as a kind of political move. But what we know now, through very careful research in the minutes of women's meetings, is that they asked for it.
GROSS: The women asked for it?
ULRICH: The women asked for it. For many of us, we think that the women's rights movement is about seizing power over men who appear to be controlling our lives, right to wages, right to divorce, right to enter any profession we would like. In truth, many Mormon women already had those rights. And when they acted publicly in 1870, when this discussion was going on, they astonished the world by creating a very large meeting to defend polygamy, which one woman expressed as the right to choose my own husband.
Now, I think we have to look at that public demonstration in behalf of polygamy in more than one way. These were women who had suffered the loss of homes, had suffered incredible hardships - through the persecution...
GROSS: Well, they were pioneers, right? I mean, they had...
ULRICH: I think it's more correct to call them refugees. They were pioneers, but their pioneering wasn't chosen. They were driven from homes in Missouri. They were driven from homes in Illinois.
GROSS: Because of polygamy?
ULRICH: Not because of polygamy alone. In Missouri, polygamy was not a factor. In Illinois, it was a factor. But the larger factor is people didn't like communities that banded together and voted alike and cooperated economically.
And they threatened their neighbors politically because they could out-vote them. So there were not a lot of them in numerical terms in the nation or in the world. But there were an awful lot of them in small, early settlements in very unstable frontier communities. And that led to a lot of conflict.
GROSS: So something I found very interesting, you quote a reporter from New Jersey who wrote, what is the use of women's suffrage if it is to be used to bolster up an institution so degrading to the sex and demoralizing to society? And he's referring, there, to plural marriage. But then, two famous suffragists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, support suffrage in Utah and say, you know, polygamy and monogamy, they're both oppressive systems for women.
And Stanton says, the condition of women is slavery today and must be so, so long as they are shut out of the world of work, helpless dependents on man for bread. So I think it's really interesting to see these two suffragists basically say, oh, you think plural marriage is oppressive? Well, look at your own marriage. Your own monogamous marriage is oppressive to women, too.
ULRICH: Yes, absolutely. They're talking about laws. Specific laws, in the 19th century, was oppressive. Many states still followed the common law Doctrine of Coverture, which declared a woman civilly dead once she married. It's not just...
GROSS: So she had no legal rights over her money, her property. She had no ownership over them.
ULRICH: Her money, her - her money, her property - she couldn't sue or take a case to court except under a father or a husband - so dependency. The right to divorce - although divorce laws were greatly liberalized in the 19th century in most parts of the country, it was definitely - you had to prove either adultery - it took a while for physical abuse to be grounds for divorce.
Utah had no fault divorce from the beginning. It was very, very open and pretty common. And particularly, I think that made plural marriage workable. If you didn't like it, you could leave. And there was no real stigma, which is what's interesting. Well, I can't say that. Of course, there must have been. People may have looked down on other people. But people who were high authorities in the church had multiple divorces. Women who were divorced went on to marry somebody higher up in the hierarchy. It's a very different world than we imagine. And so instead of comparing plural marriage in the 19th century to our notions of women's rights today, we need to compare plural marriage, monogamy and then other institutions that really distressed people in the 19th century, like prostitution for example, different kinds of bigamous relationships.
So Mormons would argue, many American men have multiple sexual partners. They're just not responsible. They don't acknowledge them. They don't give them dignity. They don't legitimate their children. So polygamy is a solution to the horrendous licentiousness of other Americans. Seems like a strange argument to us today, but in this era, it made sense to some people.
GROSS: Well, another thing about the early divorce law in Utah - didn't that also make it easier for women in monogamous marriages - and maybe monogamous marriages outside of the Mormon faith - to divorce their husbands and enter into a plural marriage with a Mormon family?
ULRICH: Yes. We think of marriage in the 19th century as a very stable institution supported by laws - strict laws, hard to be divorced, et cetera, et cetera. But the major means of divorce in the 19th century was probably just leaving town.
ULRICH: And men did that more easily than women. But bigamy was pretty common in the 19th century. What's interesting about the Mormons is they sanctified new relationships for women who had fled abusive or alcoholic husbands. A number of these married both monogamously and polygamous among the Latter-day Saints. And they were welcomed into the community and not stigmatized.
One woman said that when Joseph Smith married her, even though she was legally married to somebody in South Carolina - you know, it was a long ways away - it was like receiving golden apples in baskets of silver. That is, she was not an outcast woman. She was a woman who had made her own choice and had left a bad situation, and now she was going to enter a relationship with a man she could admire.
GROSS: So how did polygamy officially end in the Mormon faith?
ULRICH: Polygamy officially ended in 1890, after the Supreme Court had ruled that the laws against polygamy were legal. These are sort of the first federal laws governing marriage, marriage generally being a state issue. And when the church had finally lost its last battle and the federal government threatened to confiscate all the church property, they gave in. And interestingly, one of the main characters in my book had by then become president of the church as an old man. His name was Wilford Woodruff, and he said he had come to the point in his life where he had to act for the survival of the church.
And so he issued what was called a manifesto, saying, we will obey the law of the land. That was in 1890. It took another 20 years or so before that really was solidly in place. There were some plural marriages after 1890, secretly. But plural marriage, even before the manifesto, had already begun to decline. And I think prosecution had its toll. But also a kind of modernization, and younger generations who had not gone through the early suffering and pioneering were less zealous about plural marriage.
GROSS: My guest is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, author of the new book, "A House Full Of Females" about plural marriage and women's rights in early Mormonism. We'll talk more after a break, and we'll hear from Rachel Bloom, the co-creator and star of the musical comedy TV series, "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, author of the new book "A House Full Of Females," about polygamy and women's rights in early Mormonism. The book covers the years 1853 to 1870. Ulrich is a professor at Harvard and past president of both the American Historical Association and the Mormon History Association. When we left off, we were talking about the end of polygamy, or plural marriage as it was called, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
What do you think it was like for the church to distance itself from one of its founding principles?
ULRICH: That it's an extremely important question, and it's one that historians are beginning to explore a little more depth than in the past. I say in my book which really doesn't deal with the aftermath of polygamy that some women wept, some woman cheered and some probably just didn't know what to make of it. How could something be the word of God in one generation and then because of federal action now it be the word of God that it has to end?
And that felt like probably capitulating to secular authority which accounts for the survival of small polygamous sects that trace their genealogy back to Joseph Smith and to early Utah and continued to perpetuate the practice today. But there are a very, very small number of people in terms of an internationally expanding worldwide church of many, many million members.
GROSS: I think one of the things that people find puzzling about the Mormon faith is that since Joseph Smith lived in the 1800s, in terms of history, it's pretty recent. You know, so like...
ULRICH: Very recent, yes.
GROSS: ...If you're looking at like Moses or Jesus or the Prophet Muhammad, I mean - that's like a long time ago. And so it's easy to look back on those times and things that might not make like scientific or logical sense, it's - you know, what? - it's like from another age. And we don't really have the most accurate documentation of what happened then. People didn't have access to science to explain mysteries or access to psychology to explain vision, so there's a certain element of that that you just say it's so deep in the past, we can never quite comprehend what the origins of these origin stories are.
But, you know, when you're talking about the 1800s and, like, you are, for instance, reading journals contemporaneous with that period, it just becomes, I think, harder for people to find credible the kind of visions that Joseph Smith claims to have had and the kind of, you know, gold plates that have these revelations that Jesus passed on after the resurrection when he was in the Americas. Do you know what I'm saying? So...
ULRICH: I know very much what you're saying, but I would argue that it's precisely because Mormonism is a very new faith, as are a number of others developed in 19th-century America - like Christian Science, for example, or Seventh-day Adventists. But the study of new religions is powerful academically and in terms of scholarship on religion precisely because it allows us to experience the origins of new faith traditions. And that is why what I discovered through approaching my own faith tradition as a historian rather than as a believer was how immensely powerful the human need to care for one another and to turn toward faith in God in order to surmount things that seem inexplicable and even unendurable.
My study of this period doesn't turn me toward abstract questions about the nature of God so much as it turns me toward deeply meaningful questions about how human beings manage to live together in the world and to make reasonable lives out of inscrutable suffering. Those are such contemporary and profound questions.
GROSS: Does the Mormon faith fulfill those functions for you?
ULRICH: Yes. It gives me many, many grounding values in my life, particularly the values of community, of sharing, of not being invested in being important or wealthy in the world. I don't always live up to those values, believe me. I try very hard, and they - and I come back to them constantly. And it also - some of the most profound issues have to do with the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of human beings, the sense of fatherhood and motherhood of God that we're in this together, and we're in this world to, I think - and this is just such a difficult thing to say - but we're in this world to make it better.
That to me is a fundamental revelation that Joseph Smith delivered. And believe me, he didn't always make it better, but the value that he taught and that has been passed on through many generations to those of us who are privileged to have had that faith tradition is, you know - we're supposed to try to improve things in whatever way we can in the world around us.
GROSS: So this might be awkward for me to ask and awkward for you to answer, but as a secular person, I wonder why some of the values that you've mentioned like the importance of sharing, of knowing that you are not the most important thing in the world, of realizing that, you know, material wealth is not important - why do values like those need to be attached to a faith tradition as opposed to being just really...
ULRICH: Oh, they don't.
GROSS: ...Solid secular values.
ULRICH: They don't.
ULRICH: But they need to be promulgated and taught, and I think they can be very powerfully communicated through faith tradition of faith community. You know, in my life, I have the biggest opportunities that I have in my life to rub shoulders and to participate and to listen and learn from people who aren't highly educated, affluent people are in my religious community. And that's something that we can seek in many different ways, but in my religious community, there is an assumption that those worldly attainments aren't as important as some of the other things that we try to do as a community. And, for me, it's extremely important.
GROSS: All right. I understand that. So one of the things you're famous for is a phrase that you originated in - I think it was like an academic paper in the 1970s - and the phrase has since shown up on like T-shirts and bumper stickers. I know you're asked about this all the time, but the phrase is well-behaved women seldom make history.
Now, knowing your work, knowing that you write about, quote, "ordinary women" who kept journals, and you're trying to understand what the lives of, like, ordinary women were in their time, I interpret that quote as meaning if you're just looking at history, you won't understand the lives of ordinary women because ordinary women seldom make history. But I suspect that that has been - that quote has been interpreted as ordinary women seldom make history so women don't be ordinary, do something special so you can make history. Don't be ordinary.
ULRICH: Yes (laughter).
ULRICH: Absolutely. Yes. It's been turned upside-down. On the other hand, you know, I was an ordinary girl from Idaho who got involved in the feminist movement and I've been on a collective bargaining team, and my former university, you know - I've done a lot of not very well-behaved things. And so I guess I embrace both sides. I embrace the contradiction of that crazy accidental slogan.
GROSS: (Laughter). Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
ULRICH: Thanks so much, Terry. I love your program.
GROSS: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's new book about plural marriage and women's rights in early Mormonism is called "A House Full Of Females." After we take a short break, we'll hear from Rachel Bloom, the co-creator and star of the musical comedy TV series "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.