A Church Full of Females: A New History of Mormon Women

As the title of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s 2007 book affirms, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History — like Mormon women.

A Church Full of Females: A New History of Mormon Women

A House Full of Females by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Knopf. 512 pages.

AS THE TITLE of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s 2007 book affirms, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. She meant, more specifically, that colonial-era women attracted little notice unless they chafed against patriarchal expectations. Ulrich’s new study, A House Full of Females, tells the story of just such ill-behaved women. Indeed, in the eyes of white Protestant Americans, Ulrich’s subjects could not have been more brazen. They joined a scorned religious minority. They spoke in tongues. Some ran away from their non-Mormon husbands, many entered into polygamy, and nearly all fiercely defended their religion and its system of marriage.

“A great deal of what women did has been lost because no one wrote it down,” Ulrich observes. Not these women: they kept a record. Scores of 19th-century Latter-day Saints maintained daily journals, and countless boxes of letters, autobiographies, and photographs fill the church’s archives in Salt Lake City. Fearing embarrassment, the church has kept some of those sources away from the prying eyes of historians, but church leaders opened the vaults for Ulrich. In making use of these materials, Ulrich does not trouble with questions of faith. There is no discussion of whether or not the Book of Mormon is an ancient record or a forgery. She does not ask whether God, Jesus, and angels really appeared to Joseph Smith and his followers. Other than identifying herself as the descendant of a dozen early Utah pioneers, she does not insert herself into the story.

Instead, she makes two related arguments about 19th-century Mormon women. The first is that they were activists. She begins and ends her book with an 1870 “indignation meeting” in Salt Lake City, to which men were not invited. In the church’s tabernacle, thousands of Mormon women demanded both the right to vote and the right to practice polygamy. Phebe Woodruff, married to one of the church’s 12 apostles, warned that if Congress intended to jail polygamous Mormon men they would need “prisons large enough to hold their wives, for where they go we will go also.” Utah’s legislature soon became the second in the country (after Wyoming) to grant women the right to vote. Other Americans hoped that Mormons would use their enfranchisement to extirpate polygamy. Instead, they defended it all the more.

“How could women simultaneously support a national campaign for political and economic rights,” asks Ulrich, “while defending marital practices that to most people seemed relentlessly patriarchal?” Her answer is that Mormon women had long “shown a willingness to push against the grain.”

Ulrich connects women’s organizing in Utah to deep-rooted traditions of female leadership within the church. In 1842, Mormon women organized what they called the Relief Society (which the church today terms the world’s largest women’s organization). They did so with the support of Joseph Smith, the church’s founding prophet and president. Smith told the Relief Society women that they should be “a kingdom of priest’s as in Enoch’s day,” and Mormon women understood themselves as possessing the spiritual power of the church’s priesthood. They met together in “blessing meetings.” They anointed the sick. They prepared bodies for burial. They ran public health campaigns.

As Ulrich is well aware, and as her book demonstrates, none of this evidence for women’s leadership and activism obscures the intensely patriarchal nature of Mormonism. The Relief Society existed at the pleasure of male leaders, and Smith’s successor Brigham Young shut it down for more than two decades out of spite for Emma Smith (Joseph Smith’s first wife) and her resolute opposition to polygamy. Had male Mormon leaders not wanted to enhance the church’s political power by granting women the right to vote in a territory with few non-Mormon women, the idea of suffrage in Utah would have been dead on arrival.

In the decades after Ulrich ends her story, Mormon men told Mormon women to stop anointing the sick, and eventually the church increased male authority over the Relief Society. Women might have access to the spiritual power of the priesthood, but only men “hold” the priesthood and its offices. In 2014, the church excommunicated Kate Kelly, an activist for the ordination of women to the Mormon priesthood.

If the language of rights-based activism was not as central to the lives of mid-19th-century Latter-day Saint women as Ulrich suggests, A House Full of Females nevertheless provides a needed and moving corrective to accounts of Mormon history dominated by men such as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. “The house was full of females,” Mormon apostle Wilford Woodruff wrote of one church meeting in 1857. They were “quilting” and “sewing.” Sixty-seven women contributed squares that formed a quilt raffled off to raise money for the congregation. They decorated their squares with flowers and fruits. They included mottos about the importance of family and industry.

The women who made the quilt together had long shared their hardships and joys. Some of them even shared husbands. Among them were four of Wilford Woodruff’s wives, including his first. Born on the coast of Maine, Phebe Carter was a teacher and dressmaker who in her late 20s remained single. After her baptism, she left her parents a letter to justify her decision to leave their home and gather with the Saints. “I believe it is the will of God for me to go to the west,” she wrote.

At the age of 30 she married Wilford Woodruff, who five decades later became the church’s fourth president. Their daughter died while Wilford was away on a two-year mission in England. “Had you been home I think our dear child might have been living,” Phebe wrote him. Eight other children followed, one every 1.7 years according to Ulrich’s calculations. Four more of those children died in infancy, two as the Mormons made their exodus across the continent in 1846. “Death is in the land around us,” Brigham Young once preached. Indeed, death stalked Mormon families with a tenacity that seems unusual even by 19th-century standards. Mormon couples buried infants and wept — and then conceived their next child.

By the time Phebe and Wilford left Illinois, they understood that they would add wives as well as children to their family. Joseph Smith taught his closest followers about “the principle,” and he dictated a revelation on the subject in 1843. Although the Mormon church abandoned polygamy at the turn of the 20th century, church leaders still assert the divine origins and social benefits of 19th-century polygamy. While Ulrich provides a few examples of harmonious families, A House Full of Females leaves little doubt that Mormon polygamy was a colossal mess.

At first, Wilford Woodruff was a reluctant and not very successful polygamist. His first three plural wives promptly left him. Next, he married a 50-year-old widow who promptly died. Finally, when Phebe entered menopause, Wilford got the hang of it. In 1853, he married two women in their 20s. They and additional wives bore him nearly two dozen children over the next quarter-century.

Most of Ulrich’s subjects fulfilled their church’s intensely patriarchal expectations. They complained about the fact that their husbands’ mission trips left them in poverty, but they managed. They clashed with their husbands and their husbands’ plural wives, but the majority of first wives — like Phebe Woodruff — stuck with their now-polygamous husbands. Whether angelic visitations or the testimony of other converts had sparked their faith in Mormonism, these women kept their shoulders to the wheel despite crushing setbacks. When they gave birth or saw a child die, they got back in the wagon the next day. When they lacked clothing, they spun cloth. Because they often worked cooperatively, the constant labor of building families and communities reinforced their faith. It is hard to imagine anything exceeding the 19th-century Mormon work ethic.

It was not only drudgery. Ulrich shows that, whether on the trail west or in houses and church buildings across Utah, Mormon women gathered — often without their husbands or male leaders — and found spiritual ecstasy with each other. They made what Eliza Snow termed “heavenly music.” Women knit more than quilts together. “Latter-day Saint women built the Church that claimed their loyalty,” Ulrich concludes.

Ulrich demonstrates that there are many ways for women to make history. “My pen is my only weapon,” wrote Augusta Adams (a plural wife of Brigham Young) when her husband would not see her in person. The women of A House Full of Females knew how to wield that weapon, and in stitching their stories together, so does Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.


John G. Turner is a professor of religious studies at George Mason University.

LARB Contributor

John G. Turner is a professor of religious studies at George Mason University. His writing focuses on the religious history of the America.


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