BCC Research Collaborative 4: Female Power in Polygamy

I will confess that this time I have the question.  I am eager to ensure that my historical writing includes female perspectives and experiences rather than simply charting the course of Joseph Smith’s thought.  In my current treatment of early polygamy for a larger cultural history project, I currently have a great deal of primary evidence that polygamy was seen as an index of power, both in life and more importantly in death.  This sense of power and afterlife gravitas is quite clear from the writings of the men involved.

I’m wondering who knows about contemporary accounts that demonstrate the women feeling empowered by it, that they somehow participated in the afterlife gravitas, or was it for them primarily the security of a patriarchal association that could persist indefinitely (which would be the argument from silence on the basis of my current findings)? I personally am most interested in proto-polygamy (Daynes’s apt phrase for polygamy before ca 1852), but I think all phases of polygamy would be interesting to the broader community.  (Incidentally, I am still awaiting my copy of the Hardy compilation, which may contain much information–has anyone read it yet?)

And, please, no polemics.  If people are urgently in need of another polygamy argument, we can discuss the possibility of another post to accommodate such needs.

As a reminder, your research questions are welcome at research at bycommonconsent dot com.


  1. I don’t have too many notes on this, so I am going from a bit of memory. Seems like some of the first Sister “misisonaries” were women that were sent out to speak in support of Mormon Women and polygamy in the midwest and east. I want to say Ellis Shipp or Martha Cannon did some of that, but I may be mistaken, either way, they were pretty supportive of the cause. You might check Mormon Sisters. Even though it is quite incomplete, it is short enough to flip through and potentially find something. Of course Eliza and Zina were fairly outspoken. Does Tullidge’s Women of Mormondum have anything? I’ll do some digging.

  2. The WE is going to be a very important soure. E.g., Editorial, Woman’s Exponent, 13 (1 November 1894), 81:

    Whatever other qualities it may engender, it [polygamy] develops strength in character. Women are left to depend more upon their own judgment and to take more fully the charge of their own home and affairs. It brings out latent and dormant powers. A wife becomes literally the head of her household.

    The WE and YWJ are full of this stuff. Helen Whitney, Wells, etc.

    Also do a search for Eliz in the M* (e.g., “Miss E. R. Snow’s Address to the Female Relief Societies of Weber County,” Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 33 (12 September 1871): 578.)

    Seems to me that Eliza once defended polygamy to 5,000 women in teh tabernacle once, but I can’t find the reference.

  3. Sam, I’m thinking Bathsheba Smith might be a possibility. From her autobiography:

    “Mr. Smith and I believed firmly in Joseph Smith as a Prophet of the Most High. We believed that he had sealed his testimony with his blood. I became thoroughly convinced as well as my husband, that the doctrine of “plurality of wives” as taught by Joseph the Prophet, in our hearing, was a revelation from God; and having a fixed determination to attain to Celestial Glory, I felt to embrace every principle, and that it was for my husband’s exaltation that he should obey the revelation on Plural Marriage, in order to attain to kingdoms, thrones, principalities and powers, firmly believing that I should participate with him in all his blessings, glory and honor.”

    This is from Carol Cornwall Madsen’s In Their Own Words: Women and the Story of Nauvoo, p. 212.

  4. It was the January 1870 “Great Indignation Meeting.”

  5. There was also the notion that the practice of plural marriage enabled women to be redeemed from the curse of Eve.

  6. The March 1886 Mormon Women’s Protest meeting:

    Click to access MormonWomenProtest.pdf

  7. Justin: thanks for the great links (you should submit something so BCCRC can help you in return). The 1870 meeting is fascinating. The heavenly familial hierarchy of Mormonism gives new valence to the claim made (so similar to the Victorian statement, but so much vaster in semantic content) that “children…represent our true glory,” recalling that glory was a code for position in the celestial hierarchy, and children added to a man’s glory as well.
    You know, it occurs to me that within this familial hierarchy, a woman was in a position of superiority to her son, who himself could multiply glory polygamously.
    I’m not aware of anyone specifically invoking this idea, but in general terms this would impute great power to a matriarch, particularly when, as I argue in various places with I believe reasonable evidentiary support, the hierarchy of heaven is a sacerdotal kindred. Still not maybe the way we personally might design the system today, but it does represent greater access to power than I had previously thought.

  8. Lurkin' Grandma says:

    “A Woman’s View: Helen Mar Whitney’s Reminiscences of Early Church History” Edited by Jeni Broberg Holzapfel and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel is filled with Helen’s “perspectives and experiences”, polygamy being one of the major themes.

  9. Sam, let’s keep in mind that there was a often hierarchy in the polygamous family among the women themselves. I remember attending family reunions where people made a point of saying that they descended from the first wife. For people of my grandparents generation, to admit that you come through a forth or fifth wife was a step in the direction of being the misbegotten offspring of bastardy. I think there really was something of a pecking order among the women in polygamy. Sorry, I have no primary sources, just boyhood memories of large family reunions.

  10. Mark, I would amend that perhaps, to say “favored wife,” not first.

  11. J., yes that is better and more accurate. It actually makes me cringe to realize that some of our gggg grandmothers may have found themselves occupying the less favored end of the spectrum.

  12. The special collections section of the HBLL (at byu) has tons of primary resources by mormon women, including autobiographies, diaries etc talking about Mormon women. I’ll see if I can dig up some of my college papers to find some specific references. I remember at least one account talking about how the first wife had the only keys to the pantry and gave all the best (and most) food to her own children.

    My great-great-grandmother’s autobiography is there. I have portions of it, including a quote saying, “I went in to Plural marriage hesitatingly, reluctantly, but we were constantly taught that plural marriage was the only way to reach the highest degree in Heaven, and I looked upon our earthly pilgramidge [sic] as the great school, colledge [sic], University of life, I knew it would require great courage, adn constant self sacrifice, …” She was married in the later years of plural marriage, though, (suffered through the after-effects of the Manifesto), so it’s not precisely what you’re looking for.

  13. Jessie Embry, Mormon Polygamous Families: Life in the Principle, and accompanying notes, is the place to go. Embry uses notes interviews that the Mormon sociologist Kimball Young collected from one-time plural wives in the 1920s. There is a wistful nostalgia in some of the comments, but the interviews do cover ground nothing else does.

    The great 19th-c public defender of the practice, of course, is Emmeline B. Wells. For arguments, see Carol Cornwall Madsen’s recent biography.

  14. Kristine says:

    I was going to say EBW, too. _Battle for the Ballot_ is probably also good for the intersection of polygamy and power of various sorts. But that’s later than what you’re looking for, right, Sam?

    You could look at ERSS for the idea that polygamy redeems women from Eve’s fallen status, which might be an interesting counter to the patriarchal relationship–I’d look in her poetry, actually, if only because it will liven up your prose :)

  15. Heather P. says:

    J. and Jed mentioned Wells. Here are a couple of her relevant writings from Woman’s Exponent:

    “Why, Ah! Why” (October 1, 1874), 3(9), 67.

    “A Mormon Woman’s View of Marriage” (September 1, 1877), 6(7), 54.

    Other possibilites:

    Mulvay, Jill C. (Winter 1976). “Eliza R. Snow and the Woman Question,” BYU Studies 16(2), 250-264. electronic copy (pp. 260-262 specifically)

    Madsen, Carol Cornwall (Spring 1982). “Emmeline B. Wells: ‘Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?,'” BYU Studies 22(2), 161-178. electronic copy (pp. 175-177 specifically)

    Daynes, Kathryn M. More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001. BYU Studies review (The “heart of the book” is “Dayne’s examination of how and why women entered into plural marriage,” which was “in response to religious doctrine, which told them that their exaltation in the celestial worlds depended upon their adherence to the Principle.”)

  16. Heather P. says:

    Kristine beat me to it.

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