Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and “A House Full of Females” [MIPodcast #62]
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. In the late nineteenth century, a newspaper written and published by women and for women sprung up in what most Americans thought was the unlikeliest of locations: Utah, the home of the Mormons. It was the Woman’s Exponent. Along the top of the newspaper, the masthead had proudly declared its concern. “The rights of the women of Zion, and the rights of the women of all nations.”
This declaration, and the paper’s articles on suffrage and woman’s rights, puzzled onlookers who thought about the religion mostly as a strange polygamous sect. How could women simultaneously support a national campaign for political and economic rights while defending a marital practice that, to most people, seemed relentlessly patriarchal?
That’s the question addressed by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in her latest book, A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835 to 1870. But this book is about more than polygamy and woman’s rights. It’s a bold new social and cultural history of early Mormonism more broadly as seen in the earliest and most personal writings of many overlooked figures of Mormon history. Pulitzer and Bancroft prize winner Laurel Thatcher Ulrich joins us to talk about A House Full of Females in this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
Questions and comments about this and other episodes can be sent to email@example.com and don’t forget to rate and review the show on iTunes.
We’re joined today by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a professor of history at Harvard University. We’re talking about her latest book, A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835 to 1870.
Laurel, we’ll begin with a famous quote that’s been attributed to a lot of different people, but you’re the one who coined this memorable phrase: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” This has become a revered slogan for many women. You can see it on bumper stickers and T-shirts and posters, and I’ve seen tattoos. People might be surprised to hear you talk about how the quote worked in its original setting, though. You may not have intended it to mean what a lot of people use it to mean today. So, what was the meaning of that quote?
LAUREL THATCHER ULRICH: Well, in context, it was the introduction to an article about Puritan women as revealed in funeral sermons. I had found a couple hundred funeral sermons—they’re mainly sermons, but usually there’s a little bit of biographical information.
HODGES: Heavy on the homiletics, light on the biography?
ULRICH: Right, and I was looking for ways to understand women in the 1600s in early New England. So, it’s a seminar paper, I was still a graduate student, I latched on to the sermons. And as I was writing the introduction to the book, I described the women. They never went to Harvard, they didn’t ask to be remembered, and they haven’t been. And then just out of the ether somewhere I continued, “well-behaved women seldom make history.”
And you know, I tossed it off. It was in the middle of a paragraph. But in context, I think I was responding to my interest in ordinary people. Anybody who’d written about early America had written about Anne Hutchinson, the famous so-called heretic, or they’d written about witch hunting. And I thought, “Well, there are a lot of woman in early Massachusetts, what were the rest of them doing?” And you know, it’s a phenomenon even today. What gets on the press is “man bites dog,” not “dog bites man.” So, that’s what I meant.
But also, I have to confess, I had an agenda myself, which was to make a little trouble in the history profession by taking on something that was a bit contrarian. So it was double from the beginning. But in its literal meaning, it was about those Puritan women.
HODGES: Your new book A House Full of Females really falls in line with that idea of trying to get at the stories of what we might call “everyday people,” who are actually incredible people who have a lot to say in history and that they’re often overlooked—
HODGES: —and this book is really tuned into that idea.
ULRICH: Yes, absolutely. I think everything I’ve done is, really, at that angle.
HODGES: One of the things you write at the end of this book, you say, “I’ve spent the last eight years learning how little I actually knew about Latter-day Saint history.” I thought that was a remarkable statement to hear from a lifelong Latter-day Saint yourself.
ULRICH: Yes! Not only a lifelong Latter-day Saint, but someone who grew up hearing stories about the pioneers and someone who’s been a very regular attendee—sort of fellow traveler—at history meetings dealing LDS history. So, it was really fascinating to me to realize when you get really up-close and start looking at details and start looking at things in time sequence, suddenly you see things you didn’t know where there before.
One example—which was pretty profound, actually, in my own thinking—was to pause and say, “Oh, twelve thousand people were just asked to get up and leave their homes and go from Nauvoo, Illinois. What?!”
HODGES: Yeah. [laughs]
ULRICH: I mean, I teach American history. You know, I could think about the removal of the Acadians in the eighteenth century when the British Empire conquered the French. We removed the Indians all the time in U.S. history. But it’s kind of remarkable to just take a whole town and they voluntarily left, or they were gonna be in the middle of another frontier war. So I suddenly realized my ancestors, who were in that migration, were refugees. I began to look at that situation, Winter Quarters, Nebraska wasn’t just a Mormon community. It was a Mormon refugee community. And I began to think about that story in a very different way.
HODGES: And it’s really amazing, I think, to read the accounts you have in the book of people in that refugee camp and to think of it in terms of being a refugee camp. Because like you said, this is a story that I feel like I can’t remember ever learning as a Mormon because it’s always been there.
HODGES: But to put it in this new frame was really something else.
HODGES: One thing I wanted to mention as well is that Mormon history buffs tend to think of “early Mormonism” as referring to the first decade or so of the church’s existence, like the Joseph Smith era or whatnot. But in your book, in the title here, you have “early Mormonism” stretched all the way up to 1870. Talk a little bit about that decision.
ULRICH: Well, I think there’s sort of the instrumental decision and then maybe the conceptual decision. I mean, the railroad comes in ’69 so it makes sense that that’s a turning point, very much a turning point in Latter-day Saint history. But the other part of it is, I was directing my thoughts toward a particular moment which was the big “indignation meeting” of 1870 when essentially a very powerful group of Latter-day Saint women staged a massive protest against federal legislation against polygamy. And in a way, it was sort of their coming out to the world as advocates for women’s rights, although in a very contrarian and unusual way.
So that became a focal point. I begin the book in 1870. I end the book in 1870. And there’s a kind of circular structure.
HODGES: And it’s all “early” for you. Would you say…it’s sort of an artificial timeframe—
ULRICH: Yes, yes.
HODGES: I see that.
ULRICH: All of those points are, yeah.
HODGES: Do you think there’s anything significant in stretching that “early Mormonism” out from that first decade from the Joseph Smith era?
ULRICH: Oh, absolutely. It’s the same generation. So, I didn’t do a lot with women who were born in Utah. It was very interesting when I began to look at the names—I think there were 29 names that showed up in the minutes of the pre-planning meeting and who participated in the actual indignation meeting. And almost all of them—Well, all but one I think had arrived in Utah before 1850—But almost all of them we could think of as first generation. The real foundational leaders had been in Kirtland. Some, like Zina was from New York, but the first gathering had been in Kirtland. So, I was following a group of people who were the founders.
HODGES: Yeah. They were a core of early Mormonism.
HODGES: Okay. So before we get more to the meat of the book, I’d also like to hear you describe a little bit about the beginning of this project, why you came to it and what you hoped to do?
ULRICH: Well my life was transformed, actually, by this group of women some of whom went along to found the Woman’s Exponent for example. And before I even thought about becoming historian when I was a wife and mother in Boston, Massachusetts a group of us began thinking about early Mormon history, really inspired by something Leonard Arrington had written. And one of our members, Susan Kohler, stumbled across a full run of the Woman’s Exponent in Harvard’s research library.
We’d never heard of it. Yet we’d all been raised as Latter-day Saints. And the 70s—a period of resurgent women’s movement, what was the place of Latter-day Saints in this transformation? We didn’t know that our ancestors had been publishing things that seemed, ah! more radical than anything we’d been thinking at the time.
HODGES: So that really changed your trajectory.
ULRICH: Well it changed my trajectory. And it was part of a long-simmering transition where I realized I could be a scholar and writer and a mother as well.
HODGES: It sounds like it really lit your imagination and your intellect. This sort of awakening. Because like you said, there was a national movement, the national consciousness was being shifted. And so to have [laughs] “voices from the dust,” almost, to use a Book of Mormon phrase.
ULRICH: And I wasn’t alone. I mean I’ve written about this in a number of places. That period of the 70s was a period of the rediscovery of the past for many women—for African-American women, for Jewish women, for Catholic women—to go back and find models that helped them work through really difficult transitions in their own lives. And certainly, for secular women as well.
Suddenly, we wanted to learn about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and names that had somehow mysteriously disappeared from textbooks.
HODGES: A lot of history up to that point had been capital G, capital M “Great Men” history, where you had the founding fathers and the big figures. And there was this turn toward the quotidian, the everyday people.
ULRICH: Right. It was part of social history. And I was trained as a social historian when I went back to graduate school. But a lot of that social history was about masses of people. I mean, it came out as social sciences. It was often quantitative. You couldn’t get any texture of daily life but you could figure out how old people were when they married and how many children they had. And that’s why the funeral sermon was so interesting to me [laughs] because, you know I realized here’s Cotton Mather praising somebody for learning Greek?
HODGES: Yeah. [Laughs]
ULRICH: Yeah! How did that happen? It wasn’t much use to her, but she had a lot of interest, this woman being praised in a funeral sermon. And so I began to think there were things to discover that social historians hadn’t probed deeply enough.
Including court records. A lot of that history was about misbehaving women, I mentioned the witch hunts. But strange things end up in courts, like breaking the Sabbath. Or removing somebody’s cushion in the meeting house. I mean it’s wonderful because it’s very local. So going into the Essex County, Massachusetts court records, I could actually map a neighborhood and I could begin to attach stories about a servant who was taking food from her mistress’s house and passing it off to a poor neighbor. And therefore really shaming the well-to-do woman because she was supposed to be charitable and helping her neighbors. So, these little miniature dramas that help me to understand the variety of women’s lives.
HODGES: What kind of reactions did you get back then when you decided, “I really want to get serious about this history thing.” Did you receive a lot of support? Did you receive any critical comments? What was the reaction?
ULRICH: I was kind of incognito. [laughter] I mean I taught some—I assume you’re thinking in terms of my Mormon context. I mean I did everything. I taught seminary, I taught Relief Society. I got up at five in the morning to do this interesting thing that I loved. But I baked cookies. I mean that, of course, is part of the tradition of “Mormon women do everything,” right? [laughs]
It was a little exhausting, but also very satisfying. I mean my friend, Claudia Bushman, has often said during that period when many of us were doing similar things, she said, “I escaped from one world to the other.” That is, I love both worlds. I actually like baking cookies. I love both worlds. And I love my children. But as a fully-formed human being, it was very exciting to discover. It wasn’t either/or, it was both/and.
HODGES: And what was it like back then for a woman entering the academy going for a PhD?
ULRICH: Well, I was a faculty wife and a part-time student, so I wasn’t aiming for the Ivy’s. I did my PhD at the University of New Hampshire. If I’d been planning a career, I never would have done that. But I thought, I’m doing this for my own enrichment. My goal was to write. I liked writing about the past, and I’m going to be a better writer if I do this. My very wise mentor, Charles Clark, when I told him that was my motivation, he said, “Uh, I kind of think you might change your mind.”
But I’m no model for anybody, because a lot of it was serendipity and sort of taking opportunities as they fell in my lap, which in some ways they did.
HODGES: Okay. So maybe on a practical level you don’t find yourself to be a model, but I know a lot of historians in the church, both men and women, who look to you as someone who’s gone to have great success and who’s become a great figure in the field of history in general. What kind of suggestions would you offer to people who are looking at the academy, women and men, who want to do the kind of things that you’ve been able to do?
ULRICH: [laughs] I don’t know. I don’t often give advice, though I have used this phrase, and I think there’s some real truth to it. That I had the advantage of disadvantage. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school. I now teach at an Ivy League school. I’ve read enough about the history of what was happening in the 70s at Harvard to know I never would have written about women. No one would have let me do that because it would have been the end of my career.
So the fact that I was in a very good place—great mentors—but a small program and a new program, and because I was a faculty wife, so nobody worried about me getting a job, they let me do what I cared about. And I do think writing about what you care about is a very good thing.
You need to be practical—I never tell my students just go off on a tangent. But you can find a way. If you’re going to write about what you care about, make sure it’s grounded in a bigger framework so it communicates to people who don’t particularly care about what you care about.
HODGES: Let’s talk about records in general because the book A House Full of Females is really about records, I think. It’s a common thread throughout the book. And one thing that you write toward the end is, “Historians like to say, ‘No source, no history.’” You seem like a person obsessed with records.
ULRICH: I am obsessed with records. And this comes from lots of places. Certainly, it comes from the experience of working with this amazing 27-year diary of a Maine mid-wife that other people dismissed as trivia. And I came to it because I had been without records. My first book—which was my dissertation—was just patched together from scraps of information. And you know, it was successful in its own way, but not fully satisfying. And to have in my hands such a full record of one woman’s life for 27 years, it was transformative. So I understood what having those records meant.
But the other part of it was a frustration with the way a lot of American history is written, but particularly a lot of social history that dealt with women. I did a book on household production, and that was so romanticized from the nineteenth century on.
HODGES: Like churning butter and stuff like that?
ULRICH: A lot about spinning and weaving—
HODGES: A lot of weaving.
ULRICH: —and the spinning wheel is the absolute icon of women’s history. So I thought, “Okay, I’m going to look at that.” Well, I realized a lot of what we thought we knew about the eighteenth century came from post-industrial New England, where people were gathering memoirs that romanticized the earlier period. And so I became fascinated with this whole problem of history and memory. When there are very different things to write when you know how things turned out. To write after industrialization about the joys of handweaving—it’s a very different thing to do handweaving a hundred years earlier.
So when I came to Mormon history, I found the same phenomenon. I found that there was a tendency in bibliographies, in anthologies, to simply mix memoirs and diaries. Things written at the time of the events they were describing, and things written sometimes fifty years later. And so I was intrigued by that and I thought, you know what? I’m going to break the mold. And I’m going to not worry about the memoirs. I’m going to see what this looks like from the materials that were really contemporary to the events I’m trying to describe. And that was transformative.
HODGES: I think it makes for a very different book. I would say A House Full of Females is sort of an early cultural history of Mormonism in general—
HODGES: —the subtitle aside, and so it makes sense that you say, by paying attention to those contemporaneous records, you’re in the moment with the people as they’re telling the story. And that is different than what you get from a later memoir.
ULRICH: Yeah, it’s very different. And you’re very astute to say “title aside,” because the original title of the book was “Mormon Diaries, 1835 to 1870” and my publishers said, “Oh, no!” [laughs]
HODGES: I suspected that’s…[laughs]
ULRICH: “Nobody will wanna read that book!” And there is a theme. There’s obviously a very strong theme in the book. It’s indicated in the main title. A House Full of Females is about the private household, it’s about the meeting house, the House of God. So that theme is all the way through—the interior, the exterior work of women in community. But I’m very flattered that you think this is a cultural history because it felt that way to me.
HODGES: And I think that’s why it’s going to be a landmark book in Mormon history, because it’s telling early Mormon history from the ground-up and from the experiences of a lot of women that I think a lot of readers will be introduced to for the first time through this book.
ULRICH: Right, and men.
HODGES: Hosea Stout and others—
ULRICH: There are male diaries. Somebody said to me, “Oh, I was so surprised how many men there were.” [laughs] Well, if you’re going to talk about women, you got to talk about men.
HODGES: Absolutely. So you say in the book that you rely heavily on diaries and other day-to-day records.
ULRICH: Day-to-day, yes.
HODGES: So letters, occasional poetry, minutes of meetings, and this type of thing. One scholar estimated, you say, that in Mormon archives, men’s diaries and memoirs outnumber those of women by ten to one. And you say that that might actually be an understatement. What accounts for that disparity, all these records of men, ten to one maybe?
ULRICH: Well, two things account. One is, keeping a record was a church duty for men. Many men went on missions, so there’s this vast archive of missionary journals. Most men did what they had to do and then stopped writing. Some men, like Wilford Woodruff, went on and on.
ULRICH: But it’s a duty to keep records because you may be capturing tomorrow’s scriptures, literally. I mean there was really that feeling, those who were preaching.
The other part of it is women’s records don’t get saved, or they get saved in a different way. They’re passed down if they survive at all for generations, and sometimes they get stuffed into a bread box and forgotten. And I’m talking about the literal example of some of Zina Young’s writings. Eliza Snow’s little diary almost disappeared when the person who finally inherited it died and the box was in the attic and people who were cleaning out the attic. It’s an old story.
HODGES: Even the Relief Society minutes themselves, right? Someone made a copy of them and got rid of the originals, like “you can have this back.”
ULRICH: Yes, the Relief Society minutes, yes. So we wouldn’t have the Nauvoo minutes of the Relief Society if Eliza hadn’t personally cared for them, brought them from Nauvoo, cared for them lovingly, passed them on then to Zina D. H. Young, who passed them on to Bathsheba Smith. So they cared for their own records, and they cared for their own records because they knew those records mattered. And they also, I think, knew nobody else was going to do it if they didn’t.
HODGES: Another thing you do—it’s not just written records, although they’re heavily used throughout the book, but also material records like quilts. There’s a striking quilt that comes up. If we had more time, I think if people check out the book, I love that part about the quilt—
ULRICH: [laughs] Yeah.
HODGES: —It’s divided and eventually over time the two sides are brought back together. So that’s kind of a teaser to get people to check out the book.
HODGES: But let’s talk about, also, you mentioned the Wilford Woodruff diaries, and this is a remarkable… He wrote so much, and you kind of use it as a framework. You kind of use Wilford Woodruff’s diaries that you can follow along, that early story, and then bring in the more sporadic records attached alongside that.
HODGES: And you say that his diary became “an unintentional witness to the influence of women.” Do you have a specific example of that that you like?
ULRICH: Yes. I love his quote where he said to men who were going off on missions, “I want you to write the important things. You don’t need to say what you had for dinner unless you’re Elijah and the angels bring you your food. You can write about it if that happens. But otherwise, ignore mundane things.” Well, he just was into record keeping [laughs], and he was into life, and he recorded odd things. I mean, I say at one point, he even gave us a recipe for chowder. I mean, he loved to fish. His first deep sea fishing and stopping on the shore and taking clams with his wife Phoebe’s relatives.
But then the title of my book comes from Wilford Woodruff. In 1857, just a little notation in one of his daily entries, “the house was full of females.” And I love that phrase because, if taken out of context, it sounds like, “you know, this man is a polygamist,” which he was. Had three wives, was about to acquire a fourth. But he was actually describing very briefly having attended a meeting of the Salt Lake City 14th Ward Relief Society. And he not only noted the house was full of females, but they were sewing and quilting. And then later that same season, he recorded other moments when they met at his house and there were fifty women there.
Now, why did he notice this? He’s a great person for making a list of everything, just obsessively…
HODGES: How many miles he traveled, how many people he baptized—
ULRICH: How many miles, how many people he baptized. He conducted hundreds and hundreds of meetings. He had been to many, many meetings. I don’t think, judged on what I can tell from the diary, he had ever been in a meeting that was full of women and women were conducting. That had not been his experience. He was always in a congregation where men in charge and men conducted. So, “whew! This is the meeting house I’ve been in every week. The house was full of females!” And that was kind of exciting to see that in the diary.
HODGES: You mentioned his wife, Phoebe, too. His first wife, Phoebe Carter, and you bring her into dialogue with him throughout the book with her letters. And I like a lot of times sh—Your book is long.
ULRICH: Yes. It’s a long book.
HODGES: Bless your publisher for letting you do that, because it enables you to draw out some things that you don’t see in a lot of books. For example, you get to right down to Phoebe’s penmanship. You talk about how her penmanship and spelling were better than her husband’s, “though he usually had more to say.”
ULRICH: Yes. That’s right! [Laughs]
HODGES: And I was struck I think with how sad a lot of the book was. I actually found it to be a pretty sad book.
ULRICH: It’s a sad book. It is. It was a really hard world. And I think—you know, I don’t know—maybe things got more upbeat after 1870. But what’s in this book? I didn’t even write about Missouri, except in flashback.
ULRICH: And yet the Exodus from Nauvoo was profoundly disturbing. But even before that—this is one of the surprises for me. I think we usually think of plural marriage as the great testing ground for women. No. The great testing ground for Phoebe Carter Woodruff was being left behind when her husband went on his mission to England. And she was left behind in another refugee situation. Wilford had not been in Missouri but she was surrounded by people who were. She was also young. She had her first child, she was pregnant with the second child, he’s gone.
Now, what I realized as I looked closely at how she survived in comparison with how he survived in England, they were both doing very hard things. But there was this dramatic role reversal. Women in England were primal supporters of the mission.
HODGES: Mission mothers that would sort of look after people?
ULRICH: Yeah, the good mothers, the motherly women of England that provided laundering, that helped stitch together copies of the Millennial Star, that gave food even when they didn’t have a lot of food, that helped the elders understand the dialect, that had visions, that shared their dreams. They practically worshiped these men as if they were Peter and Paul coming as apostles to bring Jesus’s gospel. So it was very, very interesting.
In contrast, Phoebe is in Montrose, Iowa in horrible circumstances. Nobody’s fault. It was a horrible place. It was undeveloped and people were dying or suffering from malaria.
HODGES: There’s so much death in the book. Children.
ULRICH: It was really, really rough. This was the dark night of the soul for Phoebe. And she came through it. [laughs] Partly because her family rescued her. There was no support structure in place, it was too soon after they had been thrown out of Missouri. What I think the Nauvoo Relief Society became—and other relief societies—is that missing support structure that had not been there in that early period.
HODGES: That’s Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. She’s a professor of history at Harvard University and today we’re talking about her book, A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835 to 1870.
You introduce readers, Laurel, to the idea that Mormon history is awash with faith-promoting stories that have been passed on from generation to generation. And in chapter two, you relate stories about the miraculous healings that were reported in the earliest days of Nauvoo. This is a city that was founded on basically a malaria-ridden swamp land which they then turned into this beautiful city. Here’s a quote from you; you say, “The few women who appear in these [faith promoting stories] are shadowy figures. Adding women to the narrative allows us to see the courage, the piety, the generosity, and the foolhardiness of a people hungry for a witness of God’s power. Women’s voices trouble the old stories.” Talk about that a little bit, “troubling the old stories.”
ULRICH: Well, they do trouble the old stories, because they take us behind the scenes [laughs]. They take us backstage, so we don’t just see the pronouncements of Joseph Smith on the hill by Nauvoo. We see Zina Jacobs awake at night praying and trying to make decisions in her life. We don’t just see Brigham Young declaring “This is the place,” and going in and establishing a new religious community. We see women literally huddled together in leaking cabins in the dank spring trying to access a divine witness that they were where they should be and that they can find a way to endure it.
So we get to the daily challenge of discipleship, which isn’t usually about the grand revelatory moments, I think. I think it really is a lot about this slog. Which is what’s so discouraging.
HODGES: Like I said, some of it was very, it was very moving and very hard to read. I was particularly struck with all the children that passed away and all of the loss that they experienced.
HODGES: I just can’t really wrap my head around that.
HODGES: It was almost… I don’t know if it was expected or not, but it seemed to really cut them deeply.
ULRICH: It was… there were high mortality rates in the nineteenth century for lots of reasons. Some of which may have to do with biology. I mean some organisms may have been more powerful, some strains. So people are dying of consumption, you know this is classic from novels. There’s always some young women growing pale and dying from consumption.
Mormons are dying from things that could have been prevented if they haven’t been refugees. So they’re dying from scurvy, or losing their teeth, or losing their babies. And it’s happening today, sadly, for people who are expelled from their homes because of war and religious conflicts. So I think it’s doubly moving as we realize it’s not just our society that’s had these difficulties.
HODGES: Yeah. I couldn’t help but think of some of the parallels.
We mentioned the Relief Society organization, this is in 1842, a number of women in Nauvoo began to organize a group to provide community aid and also encourage high moral values and things like that. And the group perceived the approbation of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and became part of the church’s evolving structure. And you say that the Relief Society expanded the place of women in the organizational life of the church, but you also say it exposed the limits of their authority. Give an example of that.
ULRICH: Well, the most dramatic example, of course, is that the Nauvoo Relief Society lasted about three years. I mean the limits came pretty fast and furious when Joseph Smith died. And Brigham Young, who was widely accepted as president of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles to sort of look over the church after Joseph Smith’s death, ended up in a real conflict with Joseph’s widow, Emma, and disbanded the Relief Society. Emma had been the president. And he… Actually, it’s really hard to imagine this, a pretty rational man, but he was in a tough place. He did what people do when they’re in a tough place, [laughs] he found somebody to blame. He blamed the Relief Society for Joseph’s death and Hyrum Smith’s death at Carthage and said no more meetings of women.
HODGES: If people are more interested in the Relief Society and its suspension and then how it eventually was reconstituted and what happened in the interim they can check out the Maxwell Institute Podcast interview with Jill Mulvay Derr, Kate Holbrook, and Matt Grow on The First Fifty Years of Relief Society.
Let’s talk a little bit more about polygamy before we move on. Polygamy is not the central theme of your book but you spend a good deal and time with it because there’s a lot of history there. It played a prominent role in nineteenth century Mormonism. And you say that plural marriage didn’t drop out of the heavens fully formed, and you say there was not a single path to its acceptance. As you’re looking at this history and spending more time with it during the course of this project than maybe you had before, was there anything that surprised you or anything you think might surprise people that aren’t as familiar with the history of polygamy?
ULRICH: Lots of things. [laughs] One, of course, is the surprising number of women who had been married before and not necessarily divorced. I mean, this is the nineteenth century. Sometimes the only practical way to leave a marriage is to leave physically. And so there were a number of women among those who became plural wives in Nauvoo who had left previous husbands and became plural wives.
What? What’s going on here? It was a kind of rescue operation, in a way, for people who felt they had been abandoned. I mean, I don’t wanna exaggerate that point. Maybe it was not put correctly, but someone who found a religious faith that sustained them was happy to be bound to what they considered a righteous man and to the other women in his family rather than endure a kind of misery in a legal monogamous marriage.
We so often forget how few legal rights women had in the nineteenth century, even in an era where there was a lot of sentimentality about marriage. For example, Margaret Smoot was married, had a child, her husband was apparently abusive. He was unfaithful to her. It’s a miserable marriage, what did she do? This is before she encountered the Latter-day Saints. She left. Picked up the child and left. Where she was living, divorce wouldn’t have been an option. When she came into Missouri and met the Latter-day Saints and joined the church she fell in love with Abraham Smoot, and Joseph Smith married them. And she said, this was like “apples of gold” in her life because she had a place in the world. And this was a monogamous marriage, but later in polygamy Margaret Smoot embraced a number of plural wives, some of whom were immigrants who had come into the Salt Lake Valley, and she became “Mother Smoot” to these women who were part of her family, and she mothered their children. She had no other children other than the child she had brought with her when she escaped her first marriage. And yet she felt she had a family that had been recreated through polygamy.
That’s one example. Another example, of course, would be—quite a contrasting example—would be Augusta Cobb, who left her husband. She was a mature woman. Most of her children were grown, she brought her two youngest children with her initially. Because her husband wouldn’t allow her to participate in the church. And it was a miserable marriage and so she made a choice. She married Brigham Young as his second plural wife. She was not so happy later by that decision because a lot of other women followed. Brigham Young had a very large household. So one of the things that was surprising about Augusta were her amazing letters to Brigham [laughs]. I mean she pretty much nailed all the problems with polygamy. If you wanted to go down the list, Augusta had a letter for every one of them.
At one point she said, “I wanna go on a mission. Call me on a mission I’m kind of tired of this place” [laughs]. I mean, men were going on missions, why not call women? Women who were sick of their husbands get to leave and go on a mission. I mean she had a sardonic sense of humor and these are not cheerful letters, but they’re sometimes very funny and very astute. But the interesting thing is, she stayed. She did not leave. She stayed with the system and eventually one of her sons came out to Utah and joined her and at least for a time was a member of the church.
HODGES: That’s Laurel Thatcher Ulrich we’re talking today about her book, A House Full of Females. Laurel, your book traces some of the contradictions and evolution of LDS women’s reactions and participation in the women’s rights movement. I’m thinking of Eliza Snow and her reaction to an 1850 National Women’s Rights Convention. Her reaction wasn’t exactly positive. She published a poem in the Deseret News that levied a little bit of criticism at the movement. I thought it would be nice to have you read from that poem.
ULRICH: “Let those fair champions of ‘female rights’ female conventionists, come here. Yes, in These mountain vales….here are noble men Whom they’ll be proud t’acknowledge to be far Their own superiors, and feel no need Of being Congressmen.”
HODGES: What do you make of this poem from Eliza Snow?
ULRICH: Well I think, like so much of Eliza’s writing, it can be read in more than one direction. So, yes indeed, she is critiquing this female conventionists. She thinks it’s a hopeless cause, you cannot countermand the laws of God. On the other hand, she’s taking them very seriously and her poem is less caustic, less critical than the newspapers at the time who were just uniformly hostile to the women’s rights movement. Eliza is taking it seriously, she’s read those accounts, she’s interested in feminine rights. She just thinks they’re achieved by obeying God—obeying God as he’s understood through Mormonism, and she has a view of Mormonism that imagines a Mother in Heaven, that imagines a kind of exalted womanhood that will be achieved through sufferings and obedience, but also she’s quite an operator. I mean, she knows how to work within the system.
HODGES: Also you might consider the way she seems to use this as a criticism of non-Mormon men here where she talks about, you know, “maybe you wouldn’t be having these problems and having to hold these conventions if only you had noble men like we have here”—
ULRICH: Oh yes.
HODGES: —So maybe she’s also using it to sort of—
ULRICH: Oh, it’s flattering the leaders and she’s really good at that. I mean she, on overland trail, composed a poem to the noble men who were heading back to Winter Quarters as her company was heading to Salt Lake. And it cuts two ways, as it does I think generally and Mormonism, between valorizing very strong women who are so independent—they can build their own cabin. And at the same time acknowledging a kind of, you know, superiority of godly men, not men in general, but godly men.
HODGES: It’s one of the values of this book is the way that you show the distinct context and audiences that the people like Eliza R. Snow are communicating with. She’s not just communicating with those female conventionists—
HODGES: —But she has an audience here in Utah.
HODGES: There’s men, there’s women, there are these different audiences.
ULRICH: And it’s a reassuring poem. “I’m not gonna pay too much attention.” I mean, if she really weren’t paying attention there would be no poem.
HODGES: Her attitude seemed to undergo somewhat of an evolution, or maybe she just found her footing over time because you know in the twenty years after this poem was published, leaders for women’s suffrage would indeed come to Utah like she had said, “let them come to these mountain vales.” They did twenty years later—not to look at the superior Mormon men, but to investigate the newly acquired rights of Mormon women, that’s what you write. So it’s impossible to tell that entire story here. Your book covers quite a bit of it. But what are some of the key moments or ideas that help explain Eliza’s transition over that time period?
ULRICH: Well she’s been through suffering. I mean, she believes that’s how we grow and we learn. She seen disappointment, she’s seeing the church historical department sort of clean up the minutes that she took at the Nauvoo Relief Society and make sure that women knew they were subordinate and they should not pay too much attention to Joseph Smith’s promise to give them keys. She’s seen that. She’s not somebody’s who’s gonna go out and complain. I think she savvy enough to know the writing on the wall and also at some level—not at some level, basically fundamentally, she accepts the authority of priesthood leaders.
HODGES: She does believe in this.
ULRICH: And she believes in the Restoration, she believes God is going to work things out, and I think that’s very, very clear in a statement her friend Phoebe Woodruff made after the Utah legislature gave women the vote in 1870. She said “God has now touched the hearts of our legislatures and let’s not blow it.” You know [laughs] by upsetting them, essentially. This is what Phoebe says.
So things work not through public advocacy, but through praying, staying true, and God will work things out. They know that they’re equal in the sight of God. And they kind of have faith it’s gonna be worked out. So that was a big moment for them.
I think Eliza is cautious about any kind of overt alliance. I mean genuinely cautious, I mean she wants a world run on religious principles. But at the same time, she supports women’s suffrage and she uses the Relief Society to educate women in their civil rights as well as in their religious values.
HODGES: It was a complicated relationship it seems between her and the leaders from the women’s suffrage movement that came out to Utah. They didn’t only meet with active Mormon women but also with groups like the Godbeites, who I think were still around at that time?
ULRICH: Yes, that’s right, absolutely. It’s that very moment of the dissenting “New Movement” Mormons called “the Godbeites.”
HODGES: Yeah, so she’s also taking those into account.
ULRICH: And it’s complicated because the Godbeite men reached out to the women suffragists and it’s a long unfolding between the liberal faction and the orthodox faction, but eventually one of the leading women in the liberal faction, Fanny Stenhouse, writes a scathing denunciation of polygamy and becomes a sort of the national lecturer against plural marriage and against Mormonism, but she drops out of the women’s suffrage movement. The leadership does not come from that group, partly because the vote in Utah is fundamentally in the hands of Mormons, it’s about numbers. So it’s the Mormon women who are able to eventually ally with the national movement and attend those conventions and become players.
HODGES: Yeah. [laughs] The practical ways things work out sometimes are not what you’d have expected up front.
HODGES: The other thing I wanted to mention with you is, some of the internal differences of opinion that existed even among the “orthodox faction” and some of these Mormon women. Your book is book-ended by this meeting of Relief Society leaders. In the books final chapter you bring readers to this fascinating meeting held by Relief Society leaders in the Fifteenth Ward Hall. Women in Utah had just been granted the right to vote and this is where Sarah Kimball stood up and said, “She would openly declare herself a women’s rights woman.” But the reactions to Sarah Kimball here weren’t uniform. Not everybody felt exactly like Sarah did. What were some of the shades of opinion that existed among this group that was pretty united?
ULRICH: Well actually, I think they were almost perfectly united with Sarah, except for Margaret Smoot. And Margaret Smoot said “I never felt I needed any rights I didn’t have.” But she didn’t object to the women promoting suffrage, she just, I think, was kind of puzzled. She was a southerner and I think had a different kind of framework. But she remained very supportive and they’re very close. Phoebe Woodruff of course wanted them to be careful and not run too fast, but Phoebe also said “I have been waiting years for this moment.” Which is really fascinating. At what point did Phoebe Woodruff begin to think in terms of the vote, or was it something bigger?
I mean for Sarah Kimball, Sarah Kimball is the overt spokesperson for this, and that begins even in the first message she gives to the Fifteenth Ward Relief Society when she’s made their president. She wants to do something that will help women be remembered. She wants something permanent. She builds a building, the Relief Society building, and it’s significant that she accepted no financial help for that.
HODGES: No strings attached.
ULRICH: She actually had supported her family for a time as a teacher, she’s very, very strong by this period. She’s the one, you may remember, who had the original idea of the sewing society that became the Female Relief Society in Nauvoo, but she’s very young in 1842. Now in 67, 68 she’s a widow, she’s raised her children, she’s been through economic hardship, she’s really struggled in her life and come to a place of self-confidence that she can do things.
And she does things. I think she really is the driving force in this group, in terms of public advocacy and the willingness to go out on a limb. In fact, she says, you know, “I have had ideas in my life that seemed wild that I think will yet be realized.” She was a real “women’s rights” woman. But the others had enough of that that they rallied around.
HODGES: So you see most of the differences being in regard to feelings about approach or timing or things like that.
ULRICH: Approach, timing, yes. And also a little caution, what kind of reaction are they going to get at home? Sarah is now a widow.
ULRICH: And she also is a little more marginal because her husband Hiram Kimball—who’s a cousin of Heber C. Kimball—is not a member of the church in Nauvoo initially. He eventually joins the church but Wilford Woodruff [laughs] is somewhat sardonic about Hiram Kimball. You know, he’d never gone on a mission. And, sadly, he finally did leave to go on a mission to the Sandwich Islands and he died in an ship explosion in California and never reached his mission. But some of the more central figures like Woodruff—and perhaps Brigham Young and maybe even Heber Kimball, you know it’s hard to know you’re reading between the lines—but you know, he wasn’t quite up to snuff.
HODGES: As you were working on this project and now it’s published, it’s printed, it’s in stores, it’s available, are there any images from the book that have stayed with you and that you’ve returned to reflect on?
ULRICH: Because I’m a material culture person I take that term “image” pretty seriously [laughs]. I am a person who works with artifacts and visual sources. And there are actually quite a few of them, but the most powerful came very late in the project which ended up on the cover of the book, which is a painting by the famous Mormon painter C. C. A. Christensen that’s little known that I sort of accidentally stumbled on as I was looking for pictures. It’s at the Springville Art Museum. It’s a small painting made as a gift for Christensen former missionary companion in Denmark, John Dorius of a birthing room, weighing the baby after the delivery. And it’s a fabulous painting.
I didn’t write about Ephraim, Utah in this book. I didn’t have diaries from Ephraim. But it’s an image of a community of women in a classic scene—a birthing room, and the margins of the painting, the father is standing in the doorway, not quite in to the scene. And I think it’s an interesting sort of take on the boundary between the worlds of women and the worlds of men. A world in which women are invested in the work of reproduction, not just in birthing, but in raising children and caring for human beings, the kind of caring work of women which becomes valorized, of course, in the female Relief Society. They don’t seem like activist women, it’s a very comforting image, until you realize the consequence of this ethic of caring in a religious community that wants to embrace everyone, make everyone part of the household of God.
And so the real struggle for LDS women in the nineteenth century—and perhaps continuing even in the present—is how to operate in a community with that ethic, and how to make primary contributions that are systemic, not just personal—carrying bread to the poor neighbor—but making systemic changes in a society that create greater humanity and greater Christian love among human beings.
HODGES: People can check out that image, we’ll have an image of that painting at the Maxwell Institute blog and also on the cover of the book, A House Full of Females by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
Before we go I have one more question. One of the things you conclude the book with is, you say: “Like all writing, autobiographies are products of the moment in which they were written.” Now let’s say books in general are the same, how do you think this book is reflective of the current moment?
ULRICH: I think it’s reflective of the current moment in a number of ways. One of the most important, probably, is that Latter-day Saints are turning toward their history in new ways. It’s an interesting phenomenon because something similar was happening in the 60s and 70s, absolutely, in terms of larger turmoil in the society and people looking to the past. But we’ve had some turmoil in the church.
People—it’s hard for me to believe, but young people growing up not knowing Joseph Smith was a polygamist, not hearing the topic discussed, not hearing women talked about very much at all in the church. In fact, one of the consequences of not being able to talk about polygamy in our church teaching curriculum has been not being able to talk about women, because so many of the important early leaders were involved in plural marriage. And that has not played out well, because people have then as they’ve discovered elements of the Mormon past that surprised them—not all surprises are positive—”What are we gonna do with this information?” And I’ve had a very happy life writing about all kinds of things. I have not done a major project on Mormon history because I live on the east coast, that’s not been my field. But I felt like maybe I wanted to go back and look to find out about why history was so liberating for me in the seventies and so devastating for some young people I know. And I wanted to look at that. And the answer I came to was, of course, I didn’t know all the history. I was able to selectively find things that were transformative to my life, but I also came across a very richer—maybe being in my 70s was necessary to understand and to incorporate that history.
I’m becoming very personal here, it’s an important moment in my life where I’ve been through trials and I’ve been through challenges and I now have children and soon will have a great-grandchild. I’m able to look at that past in a new way and try, in some way, to share some of that with others in the hopes that it would be helpful.
HODGES: That’s Dr. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, she’s a professor of History in Harvard University. She has served as president of the American Historical Association and Mormon History Association. Her book A Midwife’s Tale received the Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize. Her latest book which we talked about today is called A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in the Early Mormonism, 1835 to 1870.
Thank you so much for talking to us today, Laurel.
ULRICH: Thank you.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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