A House Full of Females

Plural Marriage and Women's Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870

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Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
  • New York, NY: 
    Alfred P. Knopf
    , January
     2017.
     512 pages.
     $26.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780307594907.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This title is also being reviewed in JAAR by Katherine Mohrman.

For over three decades Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s histories have transformed the ways we understand the lives of American women in the 17th through 19th centuries. Through her work we have much richer and more complex insights into women’s lives, gender relations, and community interactions. Ulrich’s books examine deep wells of social and cultural life in the communities she scrutinizes; she has consistently been concerned with restoring “the forgotten web of social relations” and especially the ways that women’s voices, when recovered by historians, can function powerfully to “trouble the old stories” (32). 

Two of Ulrich’s earlier books—The Age of Homespun (Vintage, 2002) and Tangible Things (Oxford University Press, 2015)—broaden the kinds of evidence historians use by close analysis of different kinds of material culture. Indian baskets, a linen tablecloth, a mahogany chest, and an unfinished stocking open for Ulrich histories that deepen readers’ understanding of daily life in early 19th century upper New England. In this new book, too, Ulrich draws engagingly on material objects and visual culture. She is fortunate indeed to have studied communities with an abiding sense of history such that they preserved objects and papers, clothing and household adornments. Photographs underscore her points about Mormon women weaving similar patterns in the cloth they then fashioned into differently-patterned dresses; men and women both drew single and intertwined hearts around passages in their letters and diaries; women’s poems could hold compelling political meanings when read in conjunction with events in the wider community. 

Ulrich does very close readings of diaries and letters, analyzing words crossed out, deciphering references to people and seemingly obscure events. She has always been acutely attentive to the nuances of her sources—evidence other historians gloss over. This makes all of her books compelling reading but the attentiveness is especially finely honed in A House Full of Females. For instance, she analyzes the doodles of keys in the diary of Wilford Woodruff, one of the early male leaders of the church in the Salt Lake Valley. Ulrich explains that in Mormon iconography a key symbolized the ability to keep a secret and at that time Woodruff was struggling with the still-secret revelations from Joseph Smith about plural marriage (58). She notes misspellings in women’s diaries (“prophet” for “profit” in one case) even when the meanings remain “intriguing but inscrutable” (308). 

In all of her books Ulrich is acutely sensitive to the roles and work of women. In this book she argues for the existence of a deep and pervasive female culture within the early Mormon communities. Historians of Mormons have not overlooked the role of women in the flourishing of the faith, but Ulrich makes it powerfully clear how important women were in the rooting of the LDS church in America. As she notes, 14,000 Mormon women left Nauvoo in 1846 to make the hard trek to Utah; in the Winter Quarters women sustained health and morale. Settled in Utah, they helped create homes and gardens, they nursed the sick, birthed babies, and dressed the dead. They created organizations, recorded public speeches, wrote poetry, and spoke in tongues.

As early as 1842 in the Mormon settlement in Nauvoo, Illinois, women organized a Female Relief Society and then essentially reconstituted it as the Council of Health after the move to Utah. The minutes of their meetings are invaluable sources about key community events that did not get recorded in the men’s world of church and business. Eliza Snow, a significant figure for decades—a poet, a staunch member of female groups, and a firm advocate of plural marriage, meticulously wrote down Joseph Smith’s sermons to the Female Relief Society. Later, male leaders changed the wording so as to give the husbands of the women more prominence (309). The Mormon pioneer women’s written words provide crucial history, but so too do their material creations—clothing, woven fabrics, samplers, scrapbooks.

A key focus of this book is how women within the faith reacted to plural marriage. Indeed, the book’s title is a subtle reference to polygamy since polygamous households were indeed full of women. Some women were enticed by the concept and then by the practice; some became friends with the other wives and their children. Others reacted angrily. The day after the “Revelation” was read to her, Emma Smith, first wife of Joseph Smith, secured deeds to their property and to a steamboat (92). Emma Smith did not migrate with the others after the murder of her husband; instead she remarried a non-Mormon and later she and her son by Smith founded what became a dissident branch of Mormonism.

 Ulrich interprets instances of conflict on the trail to Utah in 1846 as hostility among the women over the issue of plural wives. In 1852 when the practice of plural marriage came to be openly acknowledged by church elders, Ulrich notes that some men remained unable to acknowledge their own involvement in the practice. Wilber Kimball had plural wives with whom he slept but he kept their pregnancies secret from his first wife, Vilate (231). Ulrich can at times be very funny, even sarcastic. Commenting on the meticulous account LDS Elder Wilford Woodruff kept at the end of each year of the number of sermons he had written and the farming accomplished, she observes that he did not record births of his children nor of the seven women he had married by the end of 1853: “Perhaps some things were better left uncounted” (266), she writes.

In her many books Ulrich has given us richly patterned new and deep understandings of the worlds of women and men in the American past, from the Puritans to the mid-19th century Mormons. I have so profited from her historian’s vision that I rarely find fault with anything she has written. This book, however, might in places have provided more explanation of some basic Mormon beliefs. Non-Mormons need some help understanding what it meant to be sealed in marriage, for example, or how the church treated the legal complexities of property rights in plural marriages. Also, Ulrich knows the people in her chapters so deeply that she does not always help readers less familiar with names and relationships. Eventually I created charts to help keep individuals and their relationships clearer. But these are quibbles about a book that is both an immeasurably good read and a treasured addition to our understanding of 19th century US women’s history and social history.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Janet Farrell Brodie is Professor of History at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich holds degrees from the University of New Hampshire, University of Utah, and Simmons College. She is 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and past president of the American Historical Association. As a MacArthur Fellow, Ulrich worked on the PBS documentary based on A Midwife’s Tale. Her work is also featured on an award-winning website called dohistory.org. She is immediate past president of the Mormon History Association. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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