Women and Polygamy
The moment polygamy was announced as a practice of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church), the myth was born and persisted: Mormon polygamy was a means for lustful men to (lustfully) have as many wives as they wanted. Polygamy was thought to be a system benefiting only the men. Many believed (or wanted to believe) that women were forced into the arrangement and oppressed terribly once within it.
Like much of Mormon history, the reality is both far more boring and far more interesting than the sensational stories. Visitors to Utah were often terribly disappointed by how comparatively drab the Mormon lifestyle was. There was a distinct lack of lazy husbands forcing their fifteen plus wives to till the fields, while simultaneously keeping the house spotless. The Mormon communities were built on the arid land of the desert—and the Mormons made the desert bloom. This took effort. Everyone worked, men and women. No one had the luxury of sitting at home, be they male or female.
Nor did every Mormon practice polygamy. Although its practice was encouraged, especially during the Mormon reformation of 1857-58, polygamy was carefully regulated from the beginning. Every polygamous marriage had to be approved by the President of the Church and performed in a Mormon temple. Usually, the first wife also had to approve of her husband’s second marriage. If some marriages were proposed or entered into without her approval, her input was still always important, especially if she knew that her husband wasn’t providing well for her alone. Men did have to be members in good standing to marry additional wives and the additional wives had to wholly consent to the match. Perhaps unsurprisingly, wealthy members and Church leaders were more likely to practice polygamy, but the practice was hardly restricted to them.
Most polygamous families consisted of a man, two wives, and their children. Some men did have more wives, but families with more than five wives were very rare indeed. Altogether, somewhere between twenty and forty percent of the population practiced polygamy—the numbers varied by the period and the location.
There were good polygamous marriages and bad ones. As with any marriage, some arrangements worked better than others, and some homes were happier than others. Some wives enjoyed the polygamous arrangement and others hated it, and so forth. But women had an out, so to speak. While divorce was generally discouraged, a wife could divorce her husband for neglect or abuse and even for general alienation and unhappiness. Men could divorce their wives as well, but their divorce requests were somewhat less likely to be granted. There are sufficient records to show that many women did, in fact, divorce their polygamous husbands (a fairly high percentage in the earlier years of polygamy, in fact). Polygamy was often a difficult practice to live. Its first practitioners were in fact horrified by the concept, but practiced it in obedience to the Lord. But that women were able to divorce and did with measurable frequency shows that they were not the silent, oppressed women forced into their situation that the sensationalists would have them be. The ability to divorce was a real one. They did not have to accept offers of polygamous marriages and they did not have to stay in situations they found intolerable.
Nor were all polygamous marriages sexual, even. Although one of the stated purposes of polygamy was to “raise up seed unto the Lord,” it wasn’t the only purpose. Some marriages were never consummated. Some women were past childbearing age. Some women were even dying. Kathryn Daynes relates a story of a woman in her forties, desperately ill, who married into a polygamous family. The first wife was a nurse, who cared for the woman until she died, five months later.
Women were in many ways advantaged by polygamy. The man who married them was morally obligated to share his resources with them—if he neglected them, they did not need to remain with him. In many cases, the wives were new immigrants who came to Utah with no means. Immigration was expensive. Or they had lost their fathers and/or husbands on the trek across the plains. Many polygamous wives were widows, divorced, or fatherless women in a period when women had few economic opportunities. Marriage was a means of support. Further, under polygamy, almost everyone was married, unless someone chose not to get married. Polygamy created a scarcity of women, and these women had the power of refusal. Nor did men approach “pretty young wives” and ignore all that didn’t fit in that category.
Perhaps because household duties could be divided among wives, women were actually actively encouraged by Brigham Young to work outside the home. There were an unusual number of female doctors in Utah. Many Mormon women were well educated (as a glance at the “Mormon” Women’s Protest quickly shows). They had the time for education.
Women in Utah had the vote well before the rest of the women in the United States did. The whys of this are somewhat entertaining. The government of Utah was partly in the hands of anti-Mormons, who gave the women the vote in 1870, believing that they would shake off their oppressive husbands and vote anti-Mormon. To their surprise, the women voted emphatically in favor of Mormon candidates. These women would also be very vocal when the Utah government withdrew the vote in 1888. They would be the allies of the suffragists, proclaiming that all women everywhere should have a vote, and that those who thought the Mormon lifestyle oppressive were hypocrites who silenced their women. This does not really fit the image of the submissive, terrified polygamist wife.
In short, the practice of polygamy put an unusual amount of power into the hands of women. Men had to be authorized to practice it, and women were able to remove themselves from a marriage if there were abuses. The practice gave them the time to practice vocations and gain more education—in fact, this was openly encouraged. While polygamy wasn’t an entirely comfortable practice and was often very difficult, it was far from an oppressive patriarchal construct. In many ways, polygamy furthered the rights of women, when practiced correctly.
For more information:
Polygamy, Kathryn Daynes.
More Wives Than One, Kathryn Daynes. University of Illinois Press: 2001.