Diaries of early LDS women show how they dealt with polygamy.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY LOUISA THOMAS

‘His­to­ri­ans like to say, ‘No source, no his­tory,’ ” Lau­rel Thatcher Ul­rich writes in her new book, “A House Full of Fe­males: Plu­ral Mar­riage and Women’s Rights in Early Mor­monism, 1835-1870.” Un­til not so long ago, the tru­ism could have been: No male source, no his­tory. The diaries and let­ters of men linked to mo­men­tous events were care­fully pre­served and con­sulted, and out of them the nar­ra­tives of Amer­i­can his­tory were con­structed. The writ­ings of women, mean­while, were of­ten dis­carded, lost, for­got­ten or over­looked.

Ul­rich her­self has done as much as any­one to change that. Her Pulitzer Prize-win­ning book, “A Mid­wife’s Tale” (1990), used the diary of a mid­wife to bring to life 18th-cen­tury New Eng­land — and one woman’s ar­du­ous, in­ter­est­ing life — in dense de­tail and rig­or­ous, rich con­text. That book be­came one of the sem­i­nal texts in women’s stud­ies.

Her new book re­flects a more ex­pan­sive, plu­ral­is­tic view of women’s ex­pe­ri­ence than “A Mid­wife’s Tale.” In­stead of one woman, Ul­rich fo­cuses on the diaries of many women — and of sev­eral men, most no­tably Wil­ford Woodruff. In­stead of one tra­di­tional model of hu­man re­la­tion­ships, the monog­a­mous mar­riage, she takes as her sub­ject plu­ral mar­riage in the early years of the Mor­mon Church — and the plu­ral ex­pec­ta­tions, ex­pe­ri­ences and mean­ings that women made of polygamy.

Woodruff was one of the lead­ers of the church, and his diary has been an in­valu­able source for many his­to­ri­ans try­ing to un­der­stand the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s early years. The diaries, let­ters and frag­men­tary writ­ings of women such as Phebe Woodruff, Au­gusta Cobb, Bathsheba Smith and dozens of oth­ers took un­likely and of­ten cir­cuitous paths into the ar­chives (not un­like those who penned them). They were stashed in walls and bread boxes, dis­cov­ered when de­scen­dants searched for Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions or pried open lon­glocked trunks. In them, Ul­rich found a mix of re­li­gious ec­stasy and mun­dane ac­counts of pass­ing days. There were women speak­ing in tongues; there were wag­ons mired in mud of bib­li­cal pro­por­tions; there was the sewing of stock­ings and the mak­ing of caps. Above all, there were dif­fer­ent opin­ions on and ac­counts of plu­ral mar­riages, as the women tried to cope with the rad­i­cal change. Their gen­eros­ity, con­fu­sion, agony, anger, co­op­er­a­tion and re­silience are the many-col­ored threads that run through this book, twist­ing and tan­gling but ex­pertly stitched.

Ul­rich calls her book “a kind of quilt,” in a nod to a quilt that 67 Salt Lake women made in 1857. There is in­deed a kind of patch­work qual­ity to it, a mix of close read­ing, care­ful con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing (of­ten in a dry, aca­demic tone), and in­ti­mate in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the lives of women as they grap­pled with their chal­leng­ing lives and even more chal­leng­ing feel­ings — and the dif­fi­cult ques­tions of con­sent and power that their new ar­range­ments en­tailed. There is Zina Ja­cobs, who “moved through her days softly, as though she were al­ready half­way to heaven,” and Patty Ses­sions, who was con­fi­dent in her spir­i­tual au­thor­ity and earthly role as a mid­wife. There is Phebe Woodruff, who had left her fam­ily and trav­eled 1,000 miles, “a lone maid,” to join the en­clave of Mor­mons. She at once fully ac­cepted the claim that God — and his lieu­tenants Joseph Smith and Brigham Young — had upon her hus­band but strug­gled to sup­press her own claims upon him. Wil­ford would leave her re­peat­edly, on mis­sions and ex­pe­di­tions, to give birth to and bury their chil­dren alone.

There are women who em­braced plu­ral mar­riage and women who ab­horred it — and women who felt that con­flict in­ter­nally. They were help­meets to each other and ri­vals; some were al­most ser­vants, while oth­ers were lit­er­ally sis­ters. The women were also a group that or­ga­nized. The Fe­male Re­lief So­ci­ety helped the poor, en­forced moral stric­tures, found sup­port and suc­cor, de­fended its com­mu­nity, took records, and ul­ti­mately helped women gain po­lit­i­cal power. Ul­rich con­sid­ers se­ri­ously the re­li­gious mo­ti­va­tion for women’s ac­cep­tance of a prac­tice that was con­sid­ered re­pug­nant by many Amer­i­cans, but she also tracks the var­i­ous eco­nomic, so­cial, psy­cho­log­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions of plu­ral mar­riage care­fully.

Plu­ral mar­riage was a re­li­gious tenet but also a “so­cial ex­per­i­ment” — and there­fore it in­volved the con­stant ne­go­ti­a­tion of rules, ad hoc ad­just­ments and au­thor­ity. Mor­mon mar­riages were, in some senses, more egal­i­tar­ian than oth­ers — not nec­es­sar­ily be­cause of a more pro­gres­sive view of a woman’s place (though Mor­mons did pro­mote the then-un­usual idea that mar­riage with­out mu­tual af­fec­tion was a kind of adul­tery) but out of ne­ces­sity: Mor­mons wanted to keep mar­riage out of the sys­tem of law and in­side the church. The nor­mal rules did not ap­ply. This was most vividly re­al­ized in women’s ac­cess to no-fault di­vorce, which was not un­usual for Mor­mons — and, dur­ing Young’s ten­ure at the head of the church, three times as com­mon among women in polyg­a­mous re­la­tion­ships as in tra­di­tional mar­riages. “Di­vorce,” Ul­rich writes, “was per­haps the safety valve that made polygamy work.” Cer­tainly, though, there were women who felt forced to ac­cept what they could barely, if at all, abide.

There is no ques­tion that those in the church lived in a strict pa­tri­archy, un­der rules made more se­vere by Young, who once said, “I don’t [want] the ad­vice or coun­sel of any woman — they would lead us down to hell.” But Ul­rich con­vinc­ingly shows why it is not such an irony that women also had more power than they did in other parts of the coun­try. Utah gave women the vote a half-cen­tury be­fore the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion did. The women who asked for it, af­ter all, were ac­cus­tomed to gath­er­ing, or­ga­niz­ing and sus­tain­ing their com­mu­nity and them­selves, in the face of threats and siege — from with­out and from within.

Louisa Thomas is the au­thor of “Louisa: The Ex­tra­or­di­nary Life of Mrs. Adams.”

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