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Until the U.S. government got wind of it, the sharpest critic of the Mormon practice of polygamy was Joseph Smith’s legal wife, Emma. But as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich explains in A HOUSE FULL OF FEMALES: PLURAL MARRIAGE AND WOMEN’S RIGHTS IN EARLY MORMONISM, 1835–1870 (Knopf, $35), a lot of Latter-day Saints didn’t cotton to the idea at first — not even Joseph.

John Taylor said it made his flesh crawl. Lucy Walker compared it to “a thunderbolt” and said every feeling of her soul “revolted against it.” Brigham Young claimed it was the first time in his life he had ever desired the grave. Lorenzo Snow testified that Joseph, too, resisted the revelation until an angel “appeared before him with a drawn sword threatening him with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment.”

Obey he did. In my Father’s house are many mansions, and the prophet needed them all. At the time of his death, in 1844, he was married, or “sealed,” to more than two dozen women, who may or may not have known about one another; fourteen years later they still flocked to the temple to unite with him by proxy. Most polygamous families, however, could make do without building an addition. By 1860, 40 percent of Utah’s men, women, and children lived in a household with more than one wife, but two thirds of these were shared by only two wives, and another fifth had three. (The men with larger harems tended to be church leaders.) The terms of these marriages varied. Some were entered into for earthly life; some were “celestial,” or for eternity. It was possible to have children with one man that would be with another man’s family in paradise.

Photograph of four prominent Mormon women, July 16, 1867, by Edward Martin © Intellectual Reserve. Courtesy Church History Library, Salt Lake City, and Alfred A. Knopf

Photograph of four prominent Mormon women, July 16, 1867, by Edward Martin © Intellectual Reserve. Courtesy Church History Library, Salt Lake City, and Alfred A. Knopf

O pioneers! Ulrich stitches together diaries, poems, meeting minutes, and quilt designs into a fascinating history of women’s lives. Tough doesn’t begin to describe it — they drove wagons across the frozen Midwest, bore and buried children, spoke in tongues, farmed, and organized relief societies while the men traveled on missions. (They drank and danced too.) Even the women who disliked polygamy defended it — or, like Emma, used it for leverage. When she threatened divorce, Joseph gave her the deeds to a steamboat and sixty city lots in Nauvoo, Illinois.

Ulrich suggests that Emma may have wanted something to fall back on, a reasonable desire given how persecuted the Mormons already were. Plural marriage increased the ire. Newspapers compared Mormons to Turks, Africans, and Indians; the Republican Party platform of 1856 likened polygamy to slavery. In 1870, faced with the Cullom Bill, which threatened to claim Mormon property and jail Mormon men, the wives rose up. Twenty-five thousand women attended fifty-eight meetings across the territory, and their fury bled into calls for suffrage; Utah granted women the right to vote that year, half a century before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Integration into the political system did not result in the preservation of religious tradition. Caught between the federal whip and the sword of the angel, the Mormon Church repealed the doctrine of plurality in 1890.

This is her first scholarly book on the Latter-day Saints, but Ulrich, herself a Mormon, has been thinking about what she calls “early Mormon feminism” for a long time. Fifteen years ago, she published an article in the Journal of American History in which she lionized nineteenth-century Mormon women as a “model for religious commitment, social activism, and personal achievement.” Anyone else in need of reassurance that family, faith, and intellect can live together need only consult her biography. In addition to rearing five children, Ulrich has taught at Harvard, run the American Historical Association, written several field-defining books, won a MacArthur and a Pulitzer Prize, and coined the phrase “well-behaved women seldom make history.” “I was raised to be an industrious housewife and a self-sacrificing and charitable neighbor,” she wrote in that journal article, “but sometime in my thirties I discovered that writing about women’s work was a lot more fun than doing it.”

Illustration of a Mormon quilt by Samantha Van Gerbig. Courtesy Alfred A. Knopf

Illustration of a Mormon quilt by Samantha Van Gerbig. Courtesy Alfred A. Knopf

Women who entered into plural marriages were often vulnerable: young, fatherless, poor, or foreign. Still, one does well to recall Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s remark after a visit to Salt Lake City: so long as women were not working for their own money, being a monogamous helpmeet was hardly less oppressive than being one of several spouses. It wasn’t difficult to break up a marriage in the nineteenth century — unless there was property at stake, one party usually just left town — but plural marriages were even easier to dissolve. That’s because Mormonism imagined marriage in modern terms, as an institution to foster mutual happiness, and allowed a woman to abandon one arrangement for another at whim. It reminds me of the old custom of wife-selling in England, which women used to escape abusive or unsatisfying relationships or leave a husband for a lover.

Although Smith does not seem to have enjoyed biblical knowledge of many or even any of his wives other than Emma, Utah’s population explosion of the 1860s indicates that subsequent practitioners dedicated themselves to procreation. For the women, this meant distributing childbearing and child-rearing labor into “reproductive collectives.” For the men, it was pure sex work. The Saints “simultaneously glorified reproduction and urged sexual restraint. . . . A man who married multiple wives in order to indulge his lascivious impulses was as guilty of adultery as a monogamist who strayed from his marital vows.”

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