Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Book Review: A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women's Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870

A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women's Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women's Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most people know that the first Mormon settlers in Utah practiced polygamy, but what is less known is that those same saints also gave women the right to vote 50 years before the 19th amendment, had some of the best divorce laws of the time for women, and that many of those women were political activists who rallied with Susan B. Anthony and the like!

While their marriage system may seem in complete opposition of the women's rights movements they maintained that polygamy actually gave women freedom to choose who she wanted to live with, who she wanted to have children with, saved women from prostititution, and gave women a bigger support system which gave her more resources to pursue her own goals and talents. While for some women polygamy certainly seemed to achieve these goals, there are also many stories from women for whom polygamy left them feeling unloved and lonely, struggling with depression, living in poverty, relying on their children and extended family for financial support, and more.

More than looking at women's rights, or polygamy, this book gives us a more complete look at the women who helped found the LDS faith. Much of the history that is commonly talked about circles around the male pioneers with women's names popping in and out of stories here and there. Maybe we've heard about Emma Smith or Eliza Snow but even then it's only in stories where they are interacting with Jospeh Smith or Brigham Young. Not to mention there are so many other strong and dynamic women to learn about. What were these women’s lives like day to day? What were their thoughts on revelation, priesthood, marriage, and women’s rights?

At first I thought that we didn't talk about women's history because we just didn't have as many resources about the women. But the truth is we have notes, letters, journals, and pictures of the women. After reading several books about the lives of women I've concluded that we often don't talk about the women because we can't talk about them without acknowledging the parts of history we don't like to talk about as much like: polygamy, secret and exclusive societies in early mormonism, babies dying, saints disagreeing on things or even hating one another (like Brigham and Emma), the fact that women used to give blessings for the sick, that some of the notes from the first relief society meetings were altered by church leaders and have now been changed back, and even just the fact that pioneers sometimes complained or doubted. The author also mentions this idea. She says that some feel that the women's voices tell the other side of the story and that for some it takes away from the dominate narrative of miracles, and priesthood power, and faith unwavering. As LDS we do like to focus on the faith promoting views of history but we sometimes don't realize that the whole picture, including the failures and disappointments, can help us relate and empathize with the historical narrative and that can be just as faith promoting.

These women lived amazing lives. Many gave up money, status, stable homes, and health to travel across the country and build a community up in the middle of nothing. Their husbands were often gone on missions leaving them responsible to maintain the house, gardens, land, children and earn the money to support the family. Even when their husbands were home they were often doing the jobs in the spotlight and receiving much of the praise while the women do the quiet behind the scenes work. While many were happy with these roles, others were not. It's fascinating to read about their different accounts. This book will give you access to their actual words and thoughts through their letters and journals. Even more interesting were the letters they wrote but never sent. The grief they had to hold in, the anger that ebbed and flowed, the doubt they tried not to feel. I loved realizing that they struggled with those things too.

The author also uses their husband and leaders journals, letters and speeches to help us see that sometimes the men and women would see the same history quite differently. Although dealing with much different issues than we do today, it was interesting to see the dynamics between the genders in family life, church and social gatherings. While it was often hard to read some of the teachings going on at that time in regard to gender (such as women cannot be saved without a man, Women should have no say in the leadership of their family or they will incur the wrath of God, Men can’t help but wanting more than one woman, the higher up your husband’s calling the better chance you have for salvation, the more wives you have the higher up your exaltation, and that men should try not to love their wives too much) it was also very touching to read how much some of these men did love their wives and how they were often just as confused and hurt by the polygamist system as the women.

The author does a good job of using many women's voices too so that we get to see the diversity among the women of that time. We often see them all in black and white pictures and they tend to look the same and we combine that with one or two quotes from from Eliza Snow and we begin to think they all thought the same way too. But they were diverse in their thoughts and feelings. This book lets us see how they used that diversity to build a community, form organizations and committees to help with education, health, women’s rights, and spiritual improvement. Using voice of well known women (Eliza, Emma and Zina), notable women (such as Phebe Woodruff, Mary Richards, and Sarah Kimball), and many women who I previously had not heard of (Augusta Cobb), the author is able to help us see how these women interacted with those who agreed with them and those who didn’t. How they were able to come together and also what sometimes held them apart.

It was also very interesting to read about the women’s rights movement happening all around the country at the time. It was interesting to read about Susan B. Anthony and Amelia Bloomer. Even thought these women were advocating for a very different life for women that what the Utah polygamist wives were advocating. They were on some points able to unite in their common goal of giving the women the right to vote so that each woman could have the right to pick the type of life she wanted and have a voice in local and national politics of the day. How wonderful it would be if in today’s world we could focus more on the things we have in common in order to get things done instead of refusing to work with people whose political leanings seem so different from our own.
If you have any interest in LDS history or the history of women’s rights this is a great read!

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