- Respecting Marriage (Early and Often): Three Books on Mormon Polygamy
Scandal, betrayal, sex, murder, scoundrels, revelations, and chicken pie: the history of Mormon polygamy has it all. It could not be a more dramatic and fascinating history, though also one filled with compellingly homely details. Three new books offer insights and useful narratives framing this rich history. They don’t entirely capture the drama and breathlessness of that unexpected tale, nor do they offer startling new insights about marriage, gender, and politics in the nineteenth-century United States. Still, they make clear the high stakes and the many lives touched by this extraordinary history.
The history of American marriage has captured a great deal of attention, scholarly and otherwise, of late. Who should be allowed to marry whom and in what configuration? In particular, the many years of agitation for same-sex marriage, culminating in the Obergefell v. Hodges decision that makes it legal across all states, have prompted greater consideration of marriage and its history. “As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves”: so declared Justice Anthony Kennedy in the Obergefell decision.
Kennedy’s words could easily have described nineteenth-century polygamists of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who also saw love [End Page 90] as enduring past death and who respected marriage so deeply that they placed it at the center of their vision of salvation. Has marriage always been one man plus one woman? Of course not. The most common alternative for much of human history, over most of the globe, has been the configuration of one man plus two or more women. Plural marriages, just as same-sex ones, offer fascinating access to the workings of the institution and gender more generally, as well as the controversies linking public and private that have surrounded it. Naturally, members of the mainstream LDS Church have long been interested in, if a bit wary about, polygamy, given its centrality to their early history. Their own volte-face in terms of marriage—from defenders of a decidedly illicit version to active promoters of the most conservative heterosexual monogamy—has also contributed to this disquiet.
Also provoking unease is the complicated issue of women in Mormon polygyny (that is, one husband/multiple wives). Polygyny has seemed to embody the oppression of women by men. Even where individual Mormon women declared their willingness to live the principle of polygyny, it was a system that favored men, giving them access to the productive and reproductive labor of women and children. However, one might say the same of monogamy in the nineteenth century (and earlier). Indeed, Susan B. Anthony at the time saw them in similar terms: “woman’s work in monogamy and polygamy is one and the same—that of planting her feet on the ground of self-support” (Anthony as quoted in Talbot, p. 67). It seems strange that Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke in Utah, communicating with Mormon women, who were among the first women in the nation to win the vote (enfranchised in 1870). For some women, polygamy apparently offered a system of household organization that allowed at least a few of them to pursue interests beyond the household (such as medical training). Polygamy could afford some women space and relations with other women...