Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who coined the phrase “well-behaved women seldom make history,” recently discussed how well-behaved women in polygamist marriages in mid-1800s Utah benefited from and in fact brought benefit to the entire then-territory of Utah, making a niche in Mormon history all their own. At an event on campus in March, she spoke to many women and a handful of curious men about her exploration of the role women played in the early days of the Church. Through her research, she said that she found that she, like other modern women, “…could be a woman of faith,…activism and scholarship.”
In the early days of the LDS church, men and women worked together, she said. Early diaries affirmed that women spoke in the earliest LDS gatherings, and they testified. Other events took place in homes under the joint-leadership of men and women. When the saints moved to Nauvoo, the Relief Society was established. “Relief Society began as an individual initiative within a community of women,” Ulrich said. “Prophecies,” “prophetess,” “authority,” and “keys” were all words used in Joseph Smith’s establishment of the organization. Some of those words, such as “authority” and “keys” are more typically associated with men in modern LDS practice. But the Relief Society became an opportunity for women to have authority and to lead. Ulrich said it was a godly community where everyone had a place. In a painting of Joseph and Emma Smith, both held symbols of mastery and authority. Ulrich interpreted this as depicting their equality to each other.
When polygamy was first introduced, Ulrich said there were dissenters who claimed the Relief Society was where Joseph Smith found “harlots.” The Relief Society pushed back at these claims, and defended the prophet and the church, according to Ulrich. The women unified, “huddling” closer together. “There is so little known about early Mormon polygamy,” Ulrich said. But what is know is that there was not cohabitation around 1843 and it was not yet publicly announced, but there were plural temple sealings. About these, Emma was upset. Ulrich said that there is no biological or DNA evidence that Joseph Smith ever fathered a child, except with Emma.
There was a rumor that Mormon women were promiscuous, so Emma asked for a reformation of both men and women in their duty to uphold the moral values in the law. Ulrich said Emma met with the Relief Society twice a day. After Joseph’s martyrdom, there was tension between Emma and Brigham Young, second president of the Church, who had embraced polygamy. Because Emma was the leader of the Relief Society, Brigham Young was upset with the Relief Society, and said “damning” things about it and women. Ulrich said that this was probably a time where Brigham Young wished he could take back his words.
“What I think is very, very clear from her behavior first in her rallying of Relief Society in defense of the church…[is that] she cared about the church, and she cared about the survival of the church,” Ulrich said. Ulrich suggests that Emma was “terrified” of Joseph Smith’s behavior because she had to learn if it was adulterous or visionary, and Emma was terrified of what would happen. Despite these difficulties and the general lack of information, Ulrich noted, there is evidence that women were seen as equals during plural marriage. In an announcement of the plural sealing of Mary Ann to Brigham Young, Mary Ann was referred to as “presidentess.” In Ulrich’s recently-published book A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism (1835-1870), she said: it could…have been described as an experiment in cooperative housekeeping and an incubator of female activism.”
Indeed, though many of the Mormon pioneer women indicated in their diaries that “they had not a clue what they were getting into,” they entered into the practice of plural marriage in faith and figured it out across the plains. When they arrived in Salt Lake City, the women gathered every other day. They were in constant contact. Men and women were still learning who should preside in a religious gathering in the home. Here again, was evidence that men and women were equals, Ulrich said. “Women sometimes stepped in when men failed in their duties,” Ulrich said. When the male leader decided to not come to a meeting, he would usually delegate the authority to the woman of the household to preside and conduct the meeting.
The Relief Society, which had been disbanded soon after Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, was not fully functional again for about 20 years. “The reorganization came from individual initiative of women,” Ulrich said. When it was reestablished, the minutes from the original Relief Society were used as guides to address the women in society. The women at the time moved into the women’s rights movements. Ulrich said the women said this of Relief Society: “They believed there was something more Joseph was offering.” And indeed, perhaps because of that unification and activism, Ulrich said that Utah, which was then a primarily female state, gave women voting rights fifty years before it was federally mandated by the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. “These women felt the Spirit of God in each other’s company. They were able to carry on because they were huddling together.”
Ulrich, an American historian and professor at Harvard University, said Mormon women’s history during this time is an “uplifting” and a “really sad” story, but that is shows something about the resilience of these interesting women. That resiliency is still something that modern women can take to heart.