What was life like for regular Mormon women in polygamy? Could you call these pioneering women “feminists”? Was it harder to be a first wife or a later wife?
These were some of the questions I had after reading one of this year’s most interesting Mormon books, The Polygamous Wives Writing Club. Paula Kelly Harline takes an in-depth look at the diaries and writings of more than two dozen ordinary plural wives from the 19th century.
And oh, what a hard road. Modern readers whose ideas of polygamous life come primarily from TV shows like Big Love or Sister Wives will recognize some recurring themes in actual history (hello, jealousy!) but be surprised by others, like grinding poverty or the lack of visible affection among the “sister” wives in these real-life accounts. Not a lot of love lost there, in some cases. — JKR
RNS: What misconceptions do Mormons have today about nineteenth-century polygamy?
Paula Kelly Harline: I think the biggest misconception might be that Mormons were distraught over the 1890 Manifesto that officially discontinued polygamy.
From 1852 when polygamy was first publicly encouraged, the practice was not popular among rank-and-file Mormons. By the late 1880s, a schism had likely developed between those who practiced polygamy and those who did not, and the percentage of Mormons who practiced it was growing smaller.
Those who were practicing it, such as the 29 polygamous wives I studied, did not uniformly defend the practice in their writings or complain about the Manifesto. Of the 13 women who lived during this time period, 11 did not mention the Manifesto in their writings, suggesting that a) they were apathetic about it, b) they considered the demise of polygamy inevitable, or c) the Manifesto didn’t affect them.
RNS: What did you gain by focusing on the writings of ordinary women that few people have heard of, rather than the “leading women” of Mormonism from this time period?
PKH: When gathering sources, I eliminated women who were married to Salt Lake general authorities or who were Church leaders themselves because they are better known—some of them were early feminists and were more polemical, political, or doctrinal about polygamy than ordinary women were. As I got to know ordinary women through their writings, their feelings seemed so human to me, and I wanted to rescue them from obscurity, I guess you could say. My heart went out to them.
RNS: What finding surprised you most in your research?
PKH: Initially I was curious to know if ordinary polygamous wives were feminists like some “leading women” were, and as I studied ordinary wives’ autobiographies and diaries, I looked for evidence of shared childcare, increased employment opportunity, independence from husbands, and sisterhood.
I found some extraordinary examples of these, but I mostly found that late nineteenth-century Mormon polygamous wives had pervasive assumptions about romantic love (like other American women at the time), and they were much more interested in their relationships with their husbands than with their “sister wives.”
In fact, except in one case out of 29, they did not call their husbands’ other wives “sister wives.”
RNS: In general, who had the harder lot: first wives or later wives? Why?
PKH: One first wife, Lydia Brinkerhoff, wrote that she tried to be a mother and a sister to the young wife, but that it nearly killed her to watch the girl leave with, as she put it, “my husband.” As her story continued, though, Lydia seemed to remain the wise head of the family.
In an another example, first wife Angelina Farley was agitated in her diary because her husband didn’t sleep with her for months after marrying a younger wife, and as the three were living in the same house and sharing things like coffee and garden hoes, Angelina had many complaints and frustrations that she often voiced. Older wives usually felt a loss, even if only expressed privately.
Second and third wives generally felt special at first because they were the new wife, but they usually quickly learned that they couldn’t regard themselves as a monogamous wife could. The husbands seemed torn a lot of the time, too, trying to be fair and make their families happy. Most wives eventually replaced their close relationships with their husbands with close relationships with their children, which, in retrospect, fulfilled the Mormons’ goal of raising righteous children who would carry on the faith.