Was Polygamy Good for Women?

July 25, 2004 | 18 comments
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I think there is an unexamined assumption that polygamy in general is misogynistic, as if there were an equation in our minds and three or four or five women were needed to be ‘equal’ to one man in a polygamous worldview. I am wondering if we might explore that assumption.

A few data points:

(1) I’m reading Arrington’s biography of Brigham Young and one thing that I learned is that while BY was open to granting divorces to women for reasons ranging from abuse to “incompatibility,” he did not grant divorces to men. (Hey you anthropologists out there: Have there been other societies where women but not men could divorce?) We often take women’s right to divorce (or lack thereof) as evidence of their rights in general. Do we want to do that in this case?

(2) Those fabled polygamously-married women who headed ‘back East’ for their medical degrees always come to mind. Most women today are less-than-thrilled with their choices for balancing work and career; might we see polygamy as one way to achieve balance? It does seem that polygamy created a system where (most) poly-married women had much greater freedom for decision making on a variety of topics.

(3) Contra the above, the only real exposure to a woman’s first-person narrative of polygamous life in 19th century Utah that I am familiar with is Mormon Mother: An Autobiography by Annie Clark Tanner. And to say that she wasn’t too thrilled with her polygamous marriage would be to put it lightly. (I know that other LDS women spoke about polygamy, but I have to confess that I am always slightly suspicious of their public defenses of the institution given the charged political environment.)

Was polygamy good for women? (I don’t know.) And does our answer to that question have any impact on our thinking about women in the Church today?

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18 Responses to Was Polygamy Good for Women?

  1. Nate W. on July 25, 2004 at 7:09 pm

    Fix Bug

  2. diogenes on July 25, 2004 at 8:03 pm

    I’m afraid that this is a bit like the question, “Is marriage good for women?” You will find cases (I hope many) where the answer is yes, and the marital relationship provided the environment for the female partner to flourish. You will unfortunately also find many other cases where the answer is no, and the marital relationship provided an excuse for oppression or abuse of the female partner. And you will find every variation in between.

    My admittedly unsystematic reading on polygyny suggests the same pattern: there are many anecdotes where it seems to have worked well, many others where it seems to have failed spectacularly, and many where it sort of worked some of the time. I think it would be difficult, and probably misleading, to generalize about the overall impact on feminine welfare.

  3. Measure on July 25, 2004 at 8:19 pm

    Has anybody read Orson Scott Card’s novel, Saints? I loved the book, and it dwells on this topic for a good deal of time.

    It’s a historical-fiction novel about the Navoo era, and the main character is eventually a plural wife of Joseph Smith, and later Brigham Young.

  4. Susan on July 25, 2004 at 8:43 pm

    In certain contexts, polygamy arguably was enabling for some women. A given situation licensed some women to pursue opportunities that might have otherwise been socially discouraged in the nineteenth century. For other women this “autonomy” simply meant poverty and loneliness.

    Here are the aspects of polygamy–and certainly polygamy as Joseph introduced and explained it–that are just so deeply troubling to me that I can’t do anything but resist them in the core of my being:

    –Joseph set the women at each other with his lying. He lied to his wife. Asked his wife’s closest associates to lie to her. And in exchange he promised salvation for them and their descendants and their ancestors. In Nauvoo in 1842 he began putting young teenagers (14 or so) in the situation of resisting this kind of lobbying. Can you imagine a 14-year-old girl asked to damn her ancestors and her descendants. My essay on the Book of Abraham and “Lying for the Lord” tries to get at the painful context for the women in Nauvoo in 1842–the context for the founding of the Relief Society, by the way.

    –In Joseph’s explication of polygamy, exaltation for women depended on the position of the man she was sealed to. Hence women were asked to leave husbands for more prominent men. The “laxness” of divorce is intimately related to this notion that women should be free to hitch themselves to a more promising star. For men, exaltation came in having more wives–hierarchy for women, quantity for men. This system was so asymmetrical and so troubling to me–for both the men and the women.

  5. Julie in Austin on July 25, 2004 at 8:46 pm

    Measure–

    Another thing I read in the BY biography was of his dislike for novels because he thought they couldn’t accurately represent the human condition.

    While I would disagree with that sentiment, I would question the ability of a 20th century male to evaluate the effects of polygamy on women. That said, I really liked Saints.

  6. Kaimi on July 25, 2004 at 9:27 pm

    Well, polygamy was practiced in many different ways.

    I have a hard time thinking that Nauvoo polygamy was good for women. There was a lot of secrecy about it; many wives didn’t know that their husbands were practicing polygamy; and it involved a high degree of polyandry — i.e., not just unmarried women, but married women as well, were asked to enter into polygamous relationships with men other than their (first) husbands. Also, it was undoubtedly a shock to many women.

    Utah polygamy was probably less problematic. It allowed for some women to take advantage of the free child-rearing and house-keeping assistance of sister-wives, though that may be seen as just letting some women share the exploitation. (But hey, maybe that was one of the best possible available social statuses for women at the time.) It was also practiced openly, and was widely known, so was probably much less of a shock to anyone.

    That said, Utah polygamy still had numerous problems — the inequality and sexism of the whole regime; abusive relationships; neglected wives — and I have my doubts over whether it could be a long-term sustainable system.

  7. Measure on July 26, 2004 at 1:13 am

    I wasn’t trying to say that “Saints” was a perfect representation, just that it examined this topic extensively.

    In my view, “Saints” seems to come to the conclusion that polygamy helped the church stay more cohesive than it would have been without it, that is, many more people followed Brigham to Salt Lake than would have without polygamy holding so many members together.

    I think this is the best rationale for polygamy I’ve ever heard, and is why I love “Saints.”

  8. Geoff B on July 26, 2004 at 10:22 am

    Measure, I loved “Saints” for many reasons.

    1)It was an entertaining way to learn more about Church history (as long as we remember it was a novel and not strictly historically accurate; the point is that it became easier to imagine the settings of 1830s England and 1840s Nauvoo.)

    2)It gave us great insights into a possible view of the character of the Prophet. The vision of him as a complete man but also a prophet of God was very believable in this novel.

    3)We got a vision inside the thinking of polygamists. I found it believable and understandable and enlightening. (For the record, I am very glad we’re not asked to practice polygamy today).

    4)I was alarmed about all the sneaking around and lying Joseph had to do for years to practice The Principle. There is an obvious question about this, however: would Joseph had to have done these things if his wife had obeyed D&C 25 right from the start? I’m not sure I know the answer, but it’s worth pondering.

  9. ed on July 26, 2004 at 11:19 am

    Why don’t people usually ask whether polygamy is good for men? It seems to me that the men who are left out without wives are the real losers in a polygamous system. I’m not sure if that was the case in Utah…perhaps at some point there was an excess of women…but in the long run, polygamy means that some men can’t get married.

  10. Frank McIntyre on July 26, 2004 at 11:29 am

    Julie,

    Taking as given that polygamy was from God, we can assume that it was good for something. I suppose one could say it was only good as a punishment, but that seems awkward since it was first practiced by the most worthy of members. In which case, perhaps it was good as a trial. As a trial, obviously, it could serve its purpose just as well for the wives as the husbands, if not more so. Maybe you are asking if there was more to it than that, if polygamy was more than a test and actually a useful social institution. In which case, it would be just as interesting to know if “polygamy was good for men”.

    Another way of phrasing it, which you allude to in your post, is: “For which women was polygamy good? For which women was it bad? Ditto for men.” It seems obvious to me that each of the four sets was nonempty (male/female winners/losers). The next consideration would be to ask whether the winners gained more than the losers lost.

    An example, if polygamy was concentrated among righteous men, it let more women share a bond with the righteous man rather than the lame man they’d have married (and divorced) in a monogamous society. But now the lame men don’t get as good a marriage pool because the good women can evade them. So they lose. It appears to me that we have quite a few unmarried women in the Church. This may not have been as much of a problem in the 19th century. But there may have been more of a problem with single men than there would have been in a monogamous society.

  11. Grasshopper on July 26, 2004 at 11:35 am

    Measure, I don’t think enough Saints knew about polygamy in the Nauvoo period for it to have been a significant factor in their choice to follow Brigham Young — at least, not a consciously considered factor. It could have been a factor in the sense that it held the Twelve together as a unit, which the majority of the Saints accepted (even though the Saints were in the dark about polygamy). But I think the real cohesive factor there was the temple. True, at the time, temple ordinances and knowledge of plural marriage were closely tied, but I think the administration of those ordinances and the keys to perform them were the really crucial factor.

  12. Frank McIntyre on July 26, 2004 at 11:59 am

    I agree with Grasshopper. Let me extend a little on his comment. Those that knew about and accepted polygamy went with Brigham. Those that knew but could not accept it did not. For example, William Marks, William Law, and Sidney Rigdon all opposed polygamy strongly. None of them followed Brigham west. Joseph Smith did not give Sidney Rigdon and William Law all the blessings of the temple; it is not a huge leap to say that this was tied to their unwillingness to accept plural marriage. Thus, among Church leaders, polygamy may have been a way to cut out the chaff. And polygamy was very much tied to the temple ceremonies.

  13. Eric James Stone on July 26, 2004 at 1:52 pm

    I’ve always (well, since I found it) thought the Book of Mormon explanation regarding polygamy gave a plausible explanation both for why it was practiced in the early years of the Church and why it is no longer approved.

  14. Scott on July 30, 2004 at 3:04 am

    You really can’t examine this issue without reading the most authoritative work on it to date, Todd Compton’s “In Sacred Loneliness.” I think it a fair summary to state that his conclusion, based on unbiased examination of historical records, is that polygamy was not generally good for women. And I concur. And I’m not sure how people can defend the practice as “coming from God.” One of the great mysteries of modern Mormonism, to me.

  15. Scott on July 30, 2004 at 3:05 am

    You really can’t examine this issue without reading the most authoritative work on it to date, Todd Compton’s “In Sacred Loneliness.” I think it a fair summary to state that his conclusion, based on unbiased examination of historical records, is that polygamy was not generally good for women. And I concur. Frankly, I don’t understand how people can defend the practice as “coming from God.” It’s one of the great mysteries of modern Mormonism, to me.

  16. Nate Oman on July 30, 2004 at 11:17 am

    Scott: Cromptom’s work can hardly be taken as THE definitive treatment of polygamy. Certainly, it is the best treatment of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, but there was 60 to 70 years of polygamy after Joseph Smith that occurred under quite different conditions.

  17. Scott on July 30, 2004 at 6:38 pm

    Well, I don’t want to quibble, this being your pond and all. Since most modern polygamy in the U.S., and Brigham Young-style polygamy as practiced in the Salt Lake valley, have their roots in Joseph Smith-style polygamy, I think ISL is a pretty good reference to the general topic. Do you have another work you would suggest (my interest is mainly in works that hew faithfully to the historical record as ISL does)?

    Also, sorry about the double post. Can admin delete one of them?

  18. Nate Oman on July 30, 2004 at 6:46 pm

    Quibble away.

    Hardy’s Solemn Covenant is pretty good from what I hear, as is Van Wagoner’s Mormon Polygamy: A History. Sarah Barringer Gordon’s The Mormon Question covers the legal aspects pretty well. Katherine Daiynes, More Wives Than One provides an excellent snap shot of the social reality of polygamy in Sanpete county in the mid to late 19th century.

    All of these works are written by professional historians, with the exception of Van Wagoner, and were published by academic presses, again with the exception of Van Wagoner, who was published by Signature.

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