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Book review: The Polygamous Wives Writing Club

Posted by cherylem on June 10, 2014

Review: The Polygamous Wives Writing Club: From the Diaries of Mormon Pioneer Women
By Paula Kelly Harline
Oxford University Press June 2014

Review by Cheryl McGuire

This review is of a pre-publication copy, without page numbers or numbered footnotes. Therefore quotes from the book do not list page numbers.

In many ways the church Joseph Smith began with a visionary experience in the early 19th century was both a product of its time and something radically different. Among religious and social movements peopled by those striving to understand what it meant to not live under ancient aristocracies, government sanctioned religions, or rigid class structures, Mormonism offered something radically different even from the radicalisms of the new world environment: a new book from the heavens, a new way of looking at religious history and current religious life, and a new prophet. That this new religion would end up testing and trying even its most devoted followers to their limits in ways they did not foresee is something we are only beginning to understand. From our 21st century perspective, we know the ending already of some of those tests: we know that Joseph Smith was murdered, that Brigham Young would lead the Saints west, that some would die in unspeakable hardship as they crossed the plains, and that polygamy – that social construct known as the “new and everlasting covenant” of marriage, would be lived for a time, only to be abandoned under the leadership of 4th church president Wilford Woodruff.

The 1890 Manifesto of Wilford Woodruff was the beginning of the end of plural marriage in the official LDS church. Those that lived plural marriage are all but institutionally forgotten, written out of films and stories of the time, a footnote of history for the majority of members, even though there has been new official recognition in the form of a recent Gospel Topics section on the church website (Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah: https://www.lds.org/topics/plural-marriage-and-families-in-early-utah?lang=eng&query=polygamy). While the difficulties for women under this system are acknowledged in this official brief history, what is missing is exactly what Paula Kelly Harline delivers in The Polygamous Wives Writing Club: a study of ordinary women who were part of polygamous households. Harline chose her histories carefully: to be included in this book the women could not be married to high ranking officials, were not leaders themselves, did not leave the church, and have not been widely read, yet who left behind journals and diaries of their lives under officially sanctioned and widely encouraged polygamy. In other words, Harline delivers the stories of everyday women who were caught up in this most androcentric of doctrines, one that Brigham Young would describe in fully male terms, this way:

“We understand that we are to be made kings and priests unto God; now if I be made the king and lawgiver to my family, and if I have many sons, I shall become the father of many fathers, for they will have sons, and their sons will have sons, and so on, from generation to generation, and, in this way, I may become the father of many fathers, or the king of many kings. This will constitute every man a prince, king, lord, or whatever the Father sees fit to confer upon us.

“In this way we can become king of kings, and lord of lords, or father of fathers, or prince of princes, and this is the only course, for another man is not going to raise up a kingdom for you” (in Discourses of Brigham Young, 195).

What was of course absent from this part of Young’s text, if not from his life, was any mention of women, whether wives or daughters. Harline has partially filled this gap with the histories of her 29 polygamous women, and developed the device of placing them within the context of a 19th century writing club. This review will talk first about this device, and then about the importance of her book to the history of the period, and our understanding of the role of women today.

Harline justifies the title of the book, The Polygamous Wives Writing Club, by noting that women’s writing clubs proliferated at this time. However few, if any, of these women actually knew each other and certainly did not belong to any such club. If they had, I think they would not have easily shared stories of their doubts, loneliness, poverty and other miseries with each other – to do so would have seemed weak and transgressive, and possibly brought strong censure. Thus this imaginary writing club did not always work for me as a reader, and distanced me from the stories presented and overall organization of the book at least as often as it brought the stories in close. I was sometimes confused as to who I was reading about, and Harline’s frequent comments such as, “If the wives . . . had known each other,” when we know they did not, sometimes placed the writer’s device more front and center than the stories themselves.

Having said that, I did often find Harline’s book compelling, moving, and instructional. Harline has done these women – and us – a great service by calling their written record to our attention, and I am grateful to her for this book. These were women who would write, after the Manifesto referred to above, “I am glad those old polygamous times are over I don’t like to think about them,” who in their funerals would be remembered for many good things, but not for being polygamous (sometimes their husbands would not even be mentioned), and who struggled in the face of grinding daily life, who found that their marriages “did not redeem them from loneliness or poverty, but did provide them with children . . .” only to discover that even children did not comfort them entirely. Harline writes of Ellis Shipp: “Although she loved children, she wrote that she was ‘tired’ of her life of ‘uselessness and unaccomplished desires.’”

Harline divides her book into three main sections, each with its own interlude. The sections are: 1) Settling Utah Territory: Polygamous yet Monogamous, 2) Making Sense of Sisterhood: Relations between Wives, and 3) Abandoning Polygamy: Weariness. But it is loneliness and hardship that forms an overarching theme in the writings presented in this book. Indeed, I felt the separate accounts sang a common song of grief and determination: determination to live a principle, even though it “nearly killed me,” and loneliness as marriage relationships were never truly intimate or partnering, and close female friendships were often non-existent.

As I noted above, and as presented in Harline’s book, polygamy was an androcentric social construct. I have heard that there were benefits to women, that the sister-wives became best friends, for instance. But since it was the men who almost always chose the new wives, these were relationships thrust upon the women, not chosen by them. Wives found they could depend on their husbands for very little: not financial support, not physical presence, not emotional intimacy.

In fact, some wives worked hard not to be financial burdens on their husbands, and indeed sometimes provided financial support for their husbands, sending hard earned money out of their impoverished households for the men’s support. And it must be said that thousands of these men would spend time in prison rather than renounce their plural families.

I can almost hear some readers of this review countering with stories they have heard of public, passionate defenses by prominent polygamous wives, of opportunities gained for women as they were able to share housework and homemaking chores, of Mormon women’s early right to vote. But what Harline has given us is something different – something, I think, more true, or at least as true, as those few institutionally approved memories. The necessarily short courtships, the mourning that first wives suffered as their husbands married others, the need for all wives to “coach” themselves to endure loneliness, the understanding that as women their main role was to provide bodies for those in the spirit world, the reality of single parenting, and the confusion brought by the Manifesto – “did God go back on His word?” – all find their place in these transgressive writings – transgressive because it was in diaries and journals that the women wrote their truths and thankfully left them for us to read. These truths were not the truths of officially sanctioned doctrine or the importance of plural marriage to the godhood of men, but the lived experiences of the women who practiced it.

As the Church continues into the 21st century, hopefully we have grown up into a place where we can face a history that grows ever more distant in time, yet closer in truth, with the same courage and raw determination as those who lived it. For the thoughtful reader, the book raises questions, not least of which for me is how our own attitudes as women in the church have been informed by this foundational attitude toward and acceptance by women of a life that often caused them great grief. Doggedly living a principle displaced joy, friendship, and authentic intimacy. I wonder if we have somehow incorporated this terrible lesson in our own church lives – if as women we need to work our way through these stories in order to see the past more clearly and the future with more hope. Paula Kelly Harline’s The Polygamous Wives Writing Club can help us do that, as she gives us important research and narrative in understanding the 19th century church, its requirements, and the human cost of that most radical difference within its historical context: plural marriage.

3 Responses to “Book review: The Polygamous Wives Writing Club”

  1. Karla said

    What a helpful review! Thank you, Cheryl. I’m adding this book to my list.

  2. Robert C. said

    Nice, thought-provoking review — thanks Cheryl!

  3. BrianJ said

    As one not at all familiar with the “stories…of public, passionate defenses by prominent polygamous wives,” I would have wanted Harline to include some of those viewpoints in the book. And how much more interesting would that make the imaginary book club to see the back and forth between different viewpoints!

    Thanks for the review!

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