A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Thousands of details from forgotten lives of domesticity enrich this first-rate history, writes Deborah D. Rogers

February 23, 2017
Victorian woman holding book

If Pulitzer-prizewinning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich shot the moon with A Midwife’s Tale (1990), which reconstructs the life of Martha Ballard from a single diary, she may have achieved an equally impressive feat here. This work uses the documents and artefacts of ordinary people to provide a social history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons). Her focus is on the movement’s many forgotten women, who had become little more than names and dates. This book is their memorial.

Until recently, most studies of the uniquely American Mormon Church, established in 1830, have emphasised its male founders and prophets, especially Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Ulrich, however, relies on – even as she contributes to – the relatively new field of Mormon women’s history, which is calling attention to women’s first-hand accounts and testimonies. Instead of using retrospective autobiographies whose writers knew the outcome of events, Ulrich depends on the immediacy of daily records of first-generation Mormons. From 19th-century diaries, fragments, scrapbooks, letters, albums, meeting minutes and even textiles, she teases out a rich account of their struggles and triumphs.

Although Ulrich discusses the complications and emotional costs of polygamy, she focuses on the way that many women embraced its communal living arrangements. (She even provides floor plans.) Mormon culture prized “gathering” (or coming together) over isolation. Spirituality was more important than friendship and romance. At the very least, female defence of plural marriage was instrumental in enfranchising women. Congressional efforts to outlaw polygamy convinced a Mormon-dominated Utah legislature to grant women the right to vote in their state in 1870, 50 years before they won national suffrage.

In emphasising women’s power and influence, however, Ulrich may not adequately account for the subordination of intelligent, strong women to a patriarchal church preaching God-ordained gender inequality. Even today, although Mormons may no longer practise polygamy, most denominations do not allow women to assume its highest leadership positions.

The author admittedly has some skin in the game: all of Ulrich’s great-grandparents and four of her great-great-grandparents were Mormons who moved to Utah before 1860 and participated in some of the political and religious events that she discusses. Moreover, some of her relations were polygamous. It is therefore all the more remarkable that this study is so fair-minded, relying as it does on thousands of details from the daily lives of ordinary people in an extraordinary moment.

Ulrich’s “brand” as a scholar is, perhaps, best known by the slogan – taken from the title of one of her books and seen on bumper stickers throughout the US – “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History”. But equally important is the way that she validates women’s domestic concerns by elevating the ordinary. As in her earlier books, especially Good Wives, A Midwife’s Tale and The Age of Homespun, Ulrich focuses here on mundane details from forgotten, seemingly unimportant primary sources and on material objects. Her methodology not only highlights female contributions, but continues to expand the nature of historical evidence. Beautifully written in an eminently readable narrative style, Ulrich’s latest study also demonstrates that works of scholarship can sing.

Deborah D. Rogers is professor of English, University of Maine, and author of The Matrophobic Gothic and its Legacy: Sacrificing Mothers in the Novel and in Popular Culture (2007).

A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870
By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Penguin Random House, 512pp, £30.00

ISBN 9780307594907
Published 11 January 2017

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