19th Century Mormonism and Radical Feminism

19th century Mormonism is foreign to our modern conceptions of the Church. Praxis and culture have evolved such that it is improper to discus the frank realities of our history in worship services. No aspect of this transformation is more acute than the dynamic role of women. And no woman is more iconoclastic than Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Smith Young.

It is counterintuitive really. One would think that polygamy is the subjugation of women. To a certain extent, it probably was; the appellation alone of the fullness of the priesthood — the patriarchal order — is a violence to modern identity politics. There is, however, no doubt that women were concurrently liberated.  The insurrection against the Victorian ethic surpassed any subjugation.

Liberalism was a requisite function of Mormon culture. Polygamous wives rarely saw their husbands and could not rely on them for fiscal or spiritual support. 19th century Mormon women were independent by exigency.  These women raised their children as single mothers, they worked to support these families financially and they were the children’s spiritual ministers.

Perhaps it was not by complete ignorance that the Washington Post heralded Zina as Brigham Young’s "first wife" in 1901. Though she was not his literal first wife, she was the paramount woman.

Zina divorced her first husband to be the Levirate wife of Brigham Young. As a single parent she raised her own children as well as those of a deceased sister wife. After arriving in the Salt Lake valley, she worked as a school teacher. Zina had a long history of ministering to the sick with a blend of folk medicine and priestly gifts, but in the mid 1850’s she took a course in obstetrics. Subsequently, Zina led one school of obstetrics, started another nursing school and served as president of Deseret Hospital for 12 years. Zina also was chosen as president of the Utah silk association, having spent a year concurrently working as the cocoonery manager.

Zina served as a councilor in the General Relief Society Presidency until the death of Eliza R. Snow Smith opened the office of president to her assumption. At this time, General Relief Society President was a role that was filled for the duration of one’s life. As President, she affiliated the Relief Society with the Nation Council for Women, an activist group that fought for women’s rights (an interesting blend of suffragists and abolitionists). Zina toured the nation and represented the Society at the National Woman’s Suffrage Association and at the World Congress of Women at Chicago in 1893. These activist associations were 30 years before the 19th amendment was ratified and upheld by the courts.

Imagine a contemporary General Relief Society President that was divorced and worked outside of the home as a teacher, medical doctor and CEO – a woman who affiliated the Society with activist women’s organizations and retained her office until death. Iconoclasm.


  1. Excellent post J. I love the fact of early sisters’ involvement in the medical field. Does anyone know of a good paper or book on this topic?

    I do disagree with you, however, that we couldn’t bring this story up in church. I’ve brought the same point up before (polygamy leading to a sort of feminism) and pointed out careers, etc. and it’s been fine. Often these things are a matter of tone and intent…you can pretty much get away with saying anything in church if you do it right! :o)

  2. Rosalynde says:

    J, I disagree that Mormon polygamy so subverted Victorian mores; many Victorian women–most unmarried, but some married, as well, and many motivated by religious conviction–worked tirelessly outside the home for the public good.

    I’m always in favor of recognizing women’s resourcefulness and strategic ingenuity under unequal social conditions, but I think we go to far when we attribute that resourcefulness and ingenuity to the unequal conditions themselves.

  3. But Rosalynde, take the example of Brigham Young’s wives. They were in a very unique circumstance…high social profile, economic independence, married (some with children) but spending very little time with the spouse. Many of the leaders of the Utah suffrage movement were either Brigham’s wives, or had a similar biography…and Utah was the first state in which women voted. I understand your reluctance to find a causal link, and I also understand the community involvement of victorian women…but in this case, I think there is a strong causal argument. These women were in a unique position and they achieved a very unique result.

  4. Thanks, Karen. I’m not familiar with anything that treats the 19th century female medical professions as a whole (but I’m not as aware of such things as I should be). There are good source materials around, though, like Patty Sessions Diary that was published by Utah State.

    Rosalynde, I’ll concede that my general comprehension of 19th century Victorian dynamics is not wonderful. However, if you compare Relief Society presidents today to Zina, one is struck with the chasmal disparity in life experience. I infer that the Zina was president because her life was socially laudable. It was culturally laudable because of the exigencies of the time. No?

  5. Emmeline Wells was General Relief Society President as well as editor of the “Women’s Exponent” and worked for women’s suffrage. She was a polygamous wife, but her husband (Daniel Wells) struggled financially so at times she needed to support herself.

    I read her diary and the “Woman’s Exponent” and her take was that polygamy freed women to be able to work and accomplish more things.

    The world says polygamy makes women inferior to men — we think differently. Polygamy gives women more time for thought, for mental culture, more freedom of action, a broader field of labor…
    -Emmeline Wells

    In her diary, Wells wrote of her loneliness and sadness at her empty marriage. Not that her public declarations weren’t her truth, but the practice of polygamy didn’t have the same shine in actual practice for her.

    Brigham Young said this, “We think the sisters ought to have the privilege to study various branches of knowledge that they may develop the powers with which they are endowed. Women are useful, not only to sweep houses, wash dishes, make beds, and raise babies, but they may also stand behind the counter, study law and physic [medicine], or become good bookkeepers, and all this to enlarge their sphere or usefulness for the benefit of society at large. In following these things they but answer the design of their creation.”

    All in all, though, I’d rather be a member under Hinckley than Brigham Young.

  6. Rosalynde says:

    J., agreed on the differences between present-day RS presidents and presidents of yore. I don’t know why Zina was called as RS President, but I do feel quite sure that her public accomplishments were facilitated not primarily by the structural conditions of polygamy but by her social status–her cultural and religious cachet, her financial and social resources. In this very limited sense, then, perhaps polygamy directly facilitated women’s achievement—by allowing a greater (but still relatively limited) number of women to marry powerful men and thus gain access to their husband’s financial and cultural resources and authority. A hollow sort of achievement, in many ways, but I greatly admire the women who made the most of it. Overall, though, I think polygamy could be made to work in the ways you suggest—that is, to women’s benefit—only for the most privileged women, women who probably would have achieved anyway.

  7. Rosalynde, I agree that any benefit would have only reached the most privileged women. To a certain extent, we could say the same thing about all the progress made in the last century – like that Atlantic article you mentioned in a recent post. The poor get crap, especially the women.

    I am no advocate of polygamy; I realize that it was not a positive experience for most women – like my great great grandmother. However, I have a hard time separating the life of single parenthood (by both polygamy and mission service) and consequent economic and spiritual independence from the empowerment of the privileged elite. I seriously doubt that Eliza, Zina or Emmeline would have been women’s activists had it not been for the measure of independence that enjoyed in their culture.

  8. zinafan says:

    Here’s a more complete story of Zina’s marital history (all the more reason details of her life are rarely brought up at church):

    Zina Huntington married Henry Jacobs in March 1841 and then married Joseph Smith in October of the same year, while continuing to live with Henry. Joseph died in June 1844 and Zina married Brigham Young in September of the same year, but still kept house with Henry. In March of 1846, Zina and Henry’s second son, Henry Chariton Jacobs, was born.

    In May of 1846, along the trail to Winter Quarters, Henry Jacobs was called to leave his wife and sons and was sent on a mission. Zina began living openly as Brigham Young’s wife in Winter Quarters, while Henry was away. A letter written from Henry to Zina in August of 1846 is signed, “as ever your affectionate Husband in truth Henry B. Jacobs.”

    In June of 1847, though, Zina informed Henry by letter (he was on his mission still) that she was living with Brigham and no longer considered herself to be Henry’s wife. Zina and Brigham eventually had a daughter together.


  9. Julie in Austin says:

    Interesting post.

    The book Four Zinas (may be found as 4 Zinas depending on search engine) is fabulous for anyone who wants more info.

  10. J., you seem to have raised a sticky problem here. The modern view that women need a husband (for reasons trotted out whenever the Proclamation or the family get discussed) seems to be in conflict with polygamy, which suggests faithful women should be content with a third or a fifth or a tenth of a husband. In other words, polygamy establishes in a roundabout way the women don’t really need husbands, just a sperm donor and, if they’re lucky, a monthly stipend to help support the household. But modern orthodox Mormons, especially those with polygamy in their family line, will defend polygamy, family, and the Proclamation all in the same breath, as if they all fit together nicely.

  11. grin.

  12. I heart J.

  13. Intriguing post, J.

    I am reminded of the practical realities illustrated in the lives of Orson Pratt and his wives and children. When he could, Pratt distributed his meager revenues from selling almanacs and such to his several wives and children. But there were never sufficient resources to go around, and his wives often subsisted in dire poverty with their children.

  14. It seems cruel that a poor provider would take on additional wives. Were those women forced into it? Did lesbians fare better by hiding out under polygamy? Were boys pushed out of the community back then, like were hearing about with the fundy “mormons” of today, so there would be more girls/women available for the grown polygamous men?

  15. Steve (FSF) asks if women were forced into polygamy.

    That’s an interesting question: If you are told that in order to be exalted you must participate in a polygamous marriage, are you (man or woman) being forced to participate in same? Nobody is holding a gun to your head and telling you that you will die if you don’t marry, but, on the other hand, there is a clear message of at least implied spiritual death. Is the message of spiritual death enough to force you into a situation you’d prefer not to be in? (“It must be God’s will, even if I don’t like it and it means living in less-than-ideal circumstances. At least I’ll be saved in the end.”)

    Steve also asks if boys were pushed out of the community back then. Can’t answer that question (I’m not aware of any), but there were a lot of men who went on missions and then married the women they baptized. You know – “Want a wife, go convert yourself one; the ones here are already spoken for.”

    But back to the original topic of radical feminist RS Presidents – women who haven’t fit the traditional mormon mother role have been some of the more popular RS presidency members of late – Chieko Okazaki, Aileen Clyde, Sheri Dew.

    The last time I remember an RS president getting involved in worldwide/national women’s issues was the spearheading of the anti-ERA campaign in the late 1970s/early 1980s – wonder what the Elizas, Zinas and Emmelines of the early church thought of that?

  16. LRC,
    Thanks for the very helpful insight. I was thinking in a earthly sense that the B wives would sort of line up to marry a successful man in preference to being the A wife to some poor guy. But that a woman would have to be forced to be a B wife to the poor guy. I wasn’t thinking about their eternal viewpoint in that era.

    So much of the church culture and policy today seems to be a backlash against polygamy. I think I’ll do a post on that.

    Does anyone know if lesbians fared better by being able to hide out under polygamy?

  17. Compton says that Zina’s journals noted Henry Jacobs birthday every year until she died.

  18. A question I remember asking right after I joined the church is ‘why don’t the LDS women leaders (RS in particular) utilize their post in a more pro-woman, feminist way?’

    This discussion of Zina and the others is interesting indeed. Think, the RS leaders at one time used to campaign for women’s rights around the country, no doubt side by side with Anthony and the others. Yet, they themselves were polygamists, quite different from any of their counterparts.

    Let’s flash to today. Imagine today’s RS women continuing the fight for women’s rights…along side Gloria Steinem and others. Yep, nearly impossible to imagine. To me, the same oxi-moron exists as above. Our RS stands for the values expressed in the proclamation, traditional values, traditional marriage, etc. We all know the values promoted by Steinem (a place undoubtedly where lesbians fare better).

    Why is it then that past RS leaders like Zina are able to cross cultural/social boundaries, all the while maintaining their core religious beliefs, and today’s RS women cannot seem to do so at the risk of abandoning the teachings of their faith? At what point did our RS change?

  19. I think we’re overestimating the number of people involved. The church friendly histories put the figure at around 3-4% involved in polygamy. The more critical ones put it at a max of 10%. Considering the number of women v. men in the church, and the probably higher mortality rate of men, there probably weren’t a lot of extra men hanging around looking for wives. I have dozens and dozens of ancestors of whom we know a lot about who were around during the polygamist days. We only have one ancestor family that was engaged in polygamy–and in that case, he married a young woman who lost her family to cholera…probably as a means of welfare, as his family had taken her in so she wouldn’t cross the plains alone. None of the others had polygamist relationships. And no, from what I understand, it wasn’t such a great situation. Everyone made the best of it, but…

  20. Karen, I concur.

    Keith, from what I understand, the major change occurred under the Grant administration. President Emmeline Wells was the first president to be released before death in 1921. She was the last President with ties to the Nauvoo era and presided over the beginning of the end. By the late 1920’s leaders had limited things like charismatic gifts, prayer circles, and administrations of priestly gifts within the lines of male church hierarchy. Moreover, there seems to be a concurrent adoption of puritanical tenants such as prohibition and monogamous chastity and an integration of the Mormonism into the broader US culture.

  21. Perhaps Emmeline’s words delivered to the National Council of Women, Washington, D.C. in 1902 would be appropriate:

    “History may not have preserved it all, there may be no tangible record of what has been gained, but sometime we shall know that nothing has been irretrievably lost.”

  22. Interesting discussion. My g-g-grandmother was a third wife and, while not being totally FORCED into the marriage, was out of the loop while her father and 50-year-old husband arranged for her to marry at 16 (she was sad about it because she loved the high school dances, but went anyway, even though she was married).

    Young men settled in Utah OFTEN complained to Church leaders that the polygamists were not leaving them any women to marry. That goes against a general “romantic” and untrue belief that polygamy was for the good of the women who would not otherwise be married. I learned this in a BYU Utah history class–not surprised not to hear anything like it at church.

  23. Sorry, I am late to the party. J., I really liked this post and I am intrigued by the idea of polygamy facilitating women’s independence and accomplishment. I am wondering though why did some have a “good” experience — was it more charisma, personality, etc. Was it the relationship with their husband, their expectations and their relationships with their “sister wives” Patty Sessions, for instance, had two disappointing experiences with polygamy, partly because neither of her husbands asked her permission before seeking another wife and also because she didn’t get along with the new wives, particularly in her first marriage.
    Other women like Bathsheba Smith give a fairly warm description of the principle.

    Finally, I wonder why are Mormon women as a group not activists today? Too busy with HFPE crafts? I can see why LDS women are not hooked up with Gloria Steinem for example, although I can still see how we could have plenty of common ground if we chose to not be so insular as a culture, but there are lots of other activist organizations which our “mission” and morals could mesh fairly well with.

  24. ESO,
    Interesting that a 50-year-old would marry your g-g-grandmother at 16 and that “responsible” leaders would sanction such an arranged marriage. Seems just as creepy as the Branch Davidians. No wondered the Feds intervened against the church.

    Do I assume correctly she was left widowed or w/ a disabled hubby before the children were grown?

  25. although it has already been stated several times, let us remember that polygamy was not practiced but by a small percentage of the families…thus, comparing the early church to the more recent Branch Davidians is foolish and wrong.

  26. Keith, Karen (and others): I’m not convinced that polygamy was only practiced by a “small” percentage of mormons.

    I know some people (including Pres. Hinckley) quote numbers like “3 percent.” Of course there are many ways to calculate a percentage like this if you want to get a small number; for example you can use a very long time period, or include children in the denominator. I’m not sure where they get these numbers but it seems to me very likely that they are quite misleading, and that this amounts to an attempt to whitewash the past.

    Other sources I’ve seen give much higher numbers. For example, Kathryn M. Daynes finds that “a surprising 36.9 percent of all [Manti?] women’s first marriages during [1847-1869] were into polygamy.” (See here for more: )

    Another site quotes Danel Bachman and Ronald K. Esplin:

    At its height, plural marriage probably involved only a third of the women reaching marriageable age—though among Church leadership plural marriage was the norm for a time.


    In my own ancestry, about half of the lines appear to pass through a polygamous marriage, in spite that fact that I don’t descend from any prominent mormon leaders at all.

  27. I actually do not think that such an age-gap (husband 50, wife 16) is that uncommon in a)polygamous situations and b)arranged marriages. The poly-sympathizers in my family emphasize that g-g-grandmother actually liked the idea of knowing what kind of a husband/father the man was based on observing first 2 families and that she thought he would be a good father, so went with it. By the way, she married the local church leadership; I am guessing the sanctioning was done by him.

    I find it interesting that polygamy is identified (by anyone, not specifically this readership) as “liberating.” That plural wives could get a lot more done without husbands bothering them. Do husbands really take that much time?

    Prominently displayed at the Susan B. Anthony House in Rochester, NY is a dress made for Susan by the Utah ladies. Anthony visited numerous times, but the museum does not mention how she reacted to polygamy. Perhaps the closest marriage situation to being single, as Anthony was her whole life.

  28. I’ve always figured polygamy was pretty common. My first ancestors in the Church brought a family of seven sons and one daughter to Utah, and all eight of them were in polygamous marriages. None of them were high Church leaders. One was called as bishop about ten years after his polygamous marriage.

    As far as polygamy giving women independence, I think that depended on the individuals involved. Have you read Jesse Embry’s “Life in the Principle”? She surveys several hundred polygamous marriages. Her conclusions are that the marriages basically functioned as most monogamous marriages in terms of roles, i.e., the husband worked on a farm or to earn an income, and the wife raised the kids and worked at home. Some of the crushing poverty was due to the fact that they were living on a frontier desert, so everyone was struggling. Her surveys concluded that the women worked outside of the home only when economically necessary, and returned to the home as soon as possible. Embry also noted that the work was typically women’s work, such as sewing, laundry, and so forth.

  29. Ed, I’m chuckling at your counter example. I’m sure that there are many ways to calculate percentages. I’m also sure that calculating them based on a sample in Manti is not the best way. (You did hear the rumor that you aren’t allowed to hang out in the celestial room in the manti temple because the polygamists would hang out and have meetings there?) :o)

  30. Karen, I was just quoting a source I found that used Manti because she found some good records there. The other source I quoted was not specific to Manti. Do you have any evidence that Manti was atypical back then? Like I said, polygamy was common in my ancestry and none of them lived in Manti. What makes you think it was rare?

  31. Even if not rare, it’s your comparison to Branch Davidians that does not sit well with me. As far as I know, none of our polygamous ancestors claimed that they were the reincarnated Christ who had returned to prepare for Armageddon. None used fear and poverty to bring about submission. The LDS women have always been free to engage society, be industrious, be with friends and other family.

    Perhaps you picked a poor example.

  32. Ed, I realize that only one of your sources dealt with Manti, and I have no reason to think it was atypical back then…but the fact that it is so atypical now is kind of funny. My meaning was entirely humorous.

    The polygamy numbers are problematic–and historians do not agree…but I think that most mainstream historians, at least from my readings put the figure at 3-10% I’m wondering if those more educated on this issue than I am want to weigh in. John H. where are you?

  33. Karen, thanks for responding, I should have realized that you were being entirely humorous.

    I still wonder, though, which mainstream historians you are referring to for the 3-10% numbers? Also, do you know what these numbers are supposed to mean, i.e. what is the denominator?

  34. Keith,
    An arranged polygamous marriage between a 50-year-old man and 16 year old girl is creepy. The odds are the girl/woman will be left widowed or w/ a disabled hubby before the children are grown. Then we learn from ESO, the hubby was also the local ecclesiastical leader. Sure has the appearance of an abuse of authority. How about I say it’s Branch Davidianesque?

    In any event, with stuff like that going on, it’s no wondered the Feds intervened against the church.

  35. The following article is an informative study of the incidence of plural marriage in pioneer Utah:

    Marie Cornwall, Camela Courtright, and Laga Van Beek, “How Common the Principle?: Women as Plural Wives in 1860,” Dialogue 26/2 (Summer 1993): 139-152.

  36. Apropos this topic, I have always found the comments of my g-g-grandmother, Mary Isabella Horne, insightful. She was married to her husband for more than 20 years when he took other wives. She went on to become essentially Eliza Snow’s chief operating officer, serving as secretary/treasurer of the Church RS, president of the Salt Lake Stake RS (when that was about 1/4 of the entire Church), a founder of the Deseret Hospital and the Young Women, active in politics and the suffrage movement, etc, etc. (This is in the 3rd person because it was dictated by her.)

    “Plural marriage destroys the oneness of course. Mrs. Horne had lived for 28 years with her husband before he entered into polygamy, she said and re-iterated “no one can ever feel the full weight of the curse till she enters into polygamy, it is a great trial of feelings, but not of faith.” It is a great trial, no one would deny that, but she was willing because it was a duty her religion demanded. For years, she says, she was so bound and so united to her husband that she could do nothing without him, “and that unitedness I should enjoy to this day,” she added, “if God had willed it so.” But since his plural marriage she could see some advantages, and now she feels better, she is freer and can do herself individually things she never could have attempted before, and work out her individual character as separate from her husband.”

    With regard to current activism by women leaders in the Church, everyone here knows that the writers above are being facetious in proposing that whoever the current no-name general RS president is hang with Gloria Steinem. However, it is entirely conceivable that they could become much more involved in efforts to promote the well-being of women in the LDCs. Why couldn’t a RS president be publicly involved with the women’s microfinance movement or the cause of aid to Africa?

  37. Kristine says:

    “Why couldn’t a RS president be publicly involved with the women’s microfinance movement or the cause of aid to Africa?”

    I think the literacy program that got started under Sister Jack was a step in this direction, and it was rather unceremoniously dumped. I’d love to know the reasons why.

  38. Thanks for the fascinating insight, JWL.

    I’d love to know the reasons why.

    me too.

  39. Has it been dumped? I’ve been involved with it pretty recently…so has my mom.

  40. Kristine says:

    Karen, really? Where and how?

  41. My mom is in SL (East Millcreek area) and I’m in No. Va. We’ve both done, within the last two years, organized English as a Second Language programs for recent immigrants. I wasn’t using a curriculum from the church, but the program was organized through the relief society. I think my mom was using the church curriculum, but I’ll have to ask to make sure.

  42. The RS literacy program was, or still is, (whichever) a wonderful program. However, it is dependent on the availability of literate local Church members with the time and ability to teach illiterate local Church members. Thus the program is least helpful in the areas where the need is greatest, which is areas where the former are in short supply and the latter numerous. I am suggesting that the prominent women leaders in the Church could be more publicly involved in programs which transfer resources from the developed world to women in LDCs. There are many such organizations which could benefit from the active support of the able and well-organized women of the Church if their leaders mobilized them.