Louisa Thomas is the author of “Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams.”
‘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 long-locked 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.
By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Knopf. 484 pp. $35