Christine Talbot on Mormonism and Polygamy

The following is a guest post from Christine Talbot, author of A Foreign Kingdom: Mormons and Polygamy in American Political Culture, 1852-1890. This June, we are offering a free ebook copy of her book. See the bottom of the post for details.

In my early twenties, I failed to find a history I could use to make sense of my own burgeoning Mormon feminism.  Since then, I have been an interested observer of, and often troubled by, Mormon feminists’ search for a usable past.  I am captivated by the ways others have succeeded and often conflicted about what they “count” as success.  In graduate school I also found myself dissatisfied with existing explanations of why the Mormon practice of polygamy ignited so much anti-Mormon sentiment in the United States.  This book combines these two sentiments, the latter more overtly and the former behind the curtain.

This book demonstrates how nineteenth-century Mormons deconstructed the public/private divide, giving the lie to a principle central to emerging middle-class white American identity.  I came to graduate school just as feminist historians were abandoning the public/private divide as an interpretive framework for the nineteenth century.  Feminist histories over the 1990s showed clearly that, despite its ideological power, the public/private distinction could not hold in practice.  As I dug into anti-Mormon sources looking for the origin of anti-Mormon disdain, it became clear that the public/private divide was central to debates over plural marriage.  Mormons exposed to these Americans that the public/private divide was, like the conceptions of gender that attended it, a fabrication that could never hold.  Equally troubling to anti-Mormons, Mormons also reconstructed that divide on their own terms.  They publicized the family as a broader Mormon community, sealed together through polygamy and early adoption processes, and privatized that community family in opposition to the public state.  These reconstructions of gender, family, and government ideals challenged fundamental conceptions of government and citizenship along with emerging ideals of family underlying them.  As this book argues, plural marriage was so disturbing to white middle-class Americans precisely because the public/private distinction did not and could not hold.  Anti-Mormon literature demonstrated that these Americans clung to the public/private distinction tightly and feared and scorned that which exposed the lie.  As my conclusion states, “Ultimately, the resolution of the controversy over plural marriage was a story of Mormon defeat and federal victory in consolidating the relationship among monogamy, heterosexuality, citizenship, and the public/private divide.”

The relevance of the themes in this book endure in twenty-first-century America.  Mormons, perhaps more than most other Americans or American religious groups, are still very invested in the public/private divide.  The 1995 Proclamation on the Family is not only a relatively new doctrinal statement, but also has achieved such cultural importance that many LDS households have it framed, hanging on their living room wall.  The Proclamation emphasizes the eternal nature of gender characteristics that suit women for private family life, nurturing children in the home, and suit men to preside, provide, and protect, the latter two at least being distinctly public activities.

The church thus defends the public/private divide against such social influences as same-sex marriage and feminism (made most recently visible in the church’s most recent statement to the Salt Lake Tribune that its opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment has not changed).   Perhaps the doctrinal culmination of filial elements of an Americanization process among Mormons first discussed by Thomas Alexander in Mormonism in Transition, the church now embraces the distinction it deconstructed in the nineteenth century.

I hope that this book holds a nugget of a usable past for Mormon feminists: the church hasn’t always been determined to preserve the gender ideals that work to keep women in the private sphere.  Early in its history the church’s marital practices upset the very distinction between public and private.  I do not at all suggest that polygamy is “feminist” (though, as Joan Smyth Iversen demonstrated decades ago, it had feminist implications) but it is to suggest that the church’s gender and marital ideals have not been stable across history.   Indeed, those currently in place were likely a concession to American ideas that the church resisted for over half a century, a change made in response to social pressure.  If those ideas can change once, they can change again.  I hope they do.

By Christine Talbot

Get a free ebook copy of Christine Talbot’s book A Foreign Kingdom here:

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