MHA Preview: Notes toward Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Presidential Address

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has kindly shared with us a preview of her Presidential Address, “Runaway Wives 1840-60,” to be delivered next weekend at the Mormon History Association conference in Provo. In 1995, Ulrich joined the history department at Harvard University, where she is now 300th Anniversary University Professor. Register here for the conference if you haven’t already.

Abstract: In the nineteenth century, stories about wives fleeing the wrath of drunken or abusive husbands filled the pages of novels, divorce petitions, and temperance, health reform, and women’s rights literature. Similarly harrowing tales became a staple in anti-Mormon campaigns. One oft-repeated story claimed that in 1855 a hundred women, single and married, fled Utah with departing federal troops in order to escape the horrors of polygamy.   Situating Mormon and anti-Mormon stories within the large genre of runaway wife tales allows us to understand broader changes in nineteenth-century concepts of marriage, women’s rights, and the law.


I have just finished A House Full of Females: Mormon Diaries, 1835-1870, which will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in about a year. It is a narrative history exploring the relationship between plural marriage and female organizational life from Kirtland to the passage of woman suffrage.

My Presidential Address picks up on an unexpected discovery in my research—the phenomenon of wives leaving husbands.  As I said in the abstract, some women ran away from polygamy, but others left legal husbands to enter plural marriages. To understand that phenomenon, one needs to know more about the nature of monogamy and laws governing it in the same period. Contrary to popular assumptions, marriages were far from stable in this period, either in the United States or in Britain. Extra-legal forms of separation persisted even as legislators began to address the problems of divorce, bigamy, and adultery, and a relatively new concept: “seduction.” When women’s rights activists defined marriage as a form of slavery, they were sensationalizing aspects of household law that acknowledged a husband’s property interest in his wife’s labor and person. In myriad ways, wives (like slaves) exemplified their personhood by running away.

Situating Mormon stories alongside this larger history (instead of in relationship to an idealized “Victorian” ideal), helps us to see progressive as well as conservative elements in early Mormonism and helps explain how after 1870 some plural wives could make common cause with radical feminists.

There are several takeaway messages for the present in these stories. The simplest is that debates over the nature of “the family” were as intense in the nineteenth century as today. A more surprising conclusion is that Latter-day Saint ideas were actually more “modern” in some of their attitudes than their antagonists. Their support for divorce, for example, was surprisingly liberal and would surprise most practicing Mormons today. For historians, the takeaway is that there is still a great deal to be learned about the nature of early Mormon marriages if we begin to think comparatively. Given the wealth of data available on Mormon families, it is surprising how little we actually know about the economics of plural marriage, the overall incidence of divorce and remarriage, and the success or failure of informal methods of conflict resolution in the face of alcoholism or domestic violence. Although some of the information we need is as yet inaccessible, there are many topics worth pursuing, not just in the nineteenth century but beyond.  If families are at the heart of our theology, it is time we began to look more seriously at how they actually operated.


  1. Sounds Amazing. [the sound of my heart breaking from not being able to attend MHA]

  2. J. Stapley says:

    I’m excited both for the conference address and for the book. I remember reading in some of the latter 19th century popular press about the “Mormon Problem” and divorce was a common theme highlighting Mormon degeneracy.

  3. Hooray for MHA previews! Horray for Laurel’s plenary address! Hurray that Laurel’s book will be out in a year!

  4. Very interesting stuff. Economies of plural marriage indeed.

  5. Christie says:

    I can’t wait to hear her address and read the book! I attended my first MHA conference last year in Texas because it was nearby. Now I’m hooked, and I’m driving all the way to Utah to attend this conference. Thanks to all who have spent their lifetime researching and sharing for the benefit of all.

  6. FarSide says:

    Alcohol and spousal abuse in the 19th Century America were the catalyst for the women’s rights movement and Prohibition, two progressive causes that were initially joined at the hip. If you want to read an excellent account of this historical episode, pick up Daniel Okrent’s “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.” It will provide you with a lot of background information about the United States during this time, which should be helpful when reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book.

    (One of my favorite stories from the book was when Heber J. Grant spoke at the Utah Convention to repeal Prohibition in 1933. When President Grant urged the convention delegates, the vast majority of whom were LDS, to NOT repeal the 18th Amendment, he received a standing ovation. But when he finished and the delegates voted, they decided unanimously to do away with prohibition. Utah was the deciding state in the passage of the 21st Amendment repealing Prohibition, setting off a huge—and not very sober—celebration nationwide.)

  7. I bet Laurel’s presidential address will be one of the very best–interesting, insightful, thoughtful, generous, etc.


    my goodness i wish i had known about this conference in time to register for it but alas i did not thus will miss the opportunity to hear my favorite mormon historian laurel ulrich. laurel i will miss seeing you also. i wish you would call me or stop by when you are here.

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