This essay was originally posted at Both Sides Now. Its aim is to explore how contemporary Mormon women relate to and feel about polygny. Please be sensitive in the comments.
The excellent series at Feminist Mormon Housewives “Remembering the Forgotten Women of Joseph Smith” has given me pause on a lot of levels. It is a series of posts that, using primary and secondary sources, works to recover the stories, voices, and (when available) photographs of each of Joseph Smith, Jr.’s many plural wives.
As a historian-in-training and scholar of gender, I am always very pleased – no, thrilled – when there are sources available about women, and when the stories of women can be reclaimed from obscurity and inscribed in the record. As a scholar with some background in subaltern studies, I am delighted when we can find ways to tell the stories of not just the famous and powerful, but also of those who are often overlooked, usually the poor, minorities, and women.
(As an aside – I am relieved that I’ve never felt compelled in the slightest to do early LDS history professionally. The sources, though plentiful, are all so incredibly biased – whether toward apologetics or toward nasty and vengeful indictments of early leaders – that recovering any sort of coherent narrative of early LDS history, let alone attempting an accurate one, is phenomenally difficult. And I say this with the added acknowledgement that “accuracy” in history is a very thorny idea indeed.)
All of this is fine and good on a dispassionate, scholarly level.
On a personal level, as a woman who went through a long period of agonized, wrenching pain of soul while researching LDS history in my late teens and early twenties, I find the series to raise – or, perhaps, to resurrect – some of my own old demons. In particular, as I read the startled and outraged responses of both lifelong members and new converts on fMh, all of them encountering for the first time the murkier, less saintly bits of our history, I am reminded sharply of my own sense of disorientation when, over ten years ago, my born-and-bred, seventh-generation-LDS worldview began to unravel.
I am sad to say that a part of me – a deep, dark part that I don’t like to acknowledge to myself – had thought badly of these women, the plural wives of Joseph Smith, when I first learned of their existence. I had been ashamed of them, much as the broader institutional church now appears to be. (I say this since these women are notably absent from official church histories.) A big part of me didn’t want to know, and wanted to un-know as soon as I learned.
As I stepped back and really contemplated my own reticence to find out about Joseph Smith’s wives, I realized that it was deeper than discomfort with an embarrassing and, given current mores, increasingly inexplicable past. It was even deeper than dismay and bewilderment that this past had been kept hidden from me by a church hierarchy who knew of it – though that in itself was a source of profound soul-ache. I was uncomfortable on a private, personal level learning more about these women because there was no way around the feeling that they had betrayed Emma, Joseph’s first wife and the only official wife most LDS people grow up learning about. And I felt uncomfortable because I felt that they had been duped into this betrayal, and had been asked to sacrifice everything – their reputations, their honor, their ability to live happily with husbands who loved them. I couldn’t shake the belief that they had been duped cruelly, made to be figures of shame, figures that we are so ashamed of that we don’t speak of them now. (At least in Islam all of Muhammad’s wives are owned up to! At least they knew about each other! my mind rails.)
So many of them lied to Joseph’s wife, a woman they called their friend. And I didn’t want to identify with any of them – not Emma, and definitely not any of the plural wives. Yet I couldn’t avoid it. Our earliest exemplars as LDS women, the counterparts to the men we revere as prophets, include a heartbroken wife whose husband over and over again went behind her back to marry women whom she counted as her best friends. And the women consented. Over and over again.
It is probably for this reason that I am so uncomfortable with Eliza R. Snow. When I read about her I feel that had I known her, I would have liked her. I would have wanted to be her friend. She reminds me of the women I am drawn to – strong, witty, intelligent, educated, possessed of a way with words. I would have wanted to be close to her, to enjoy her company and engaging mind. She, more than any of Joseph’s other myriad wives, stings me. I have read the various accounts — all from potentially problematic sources – of Emma pushing Eliza down a flight of steps after catching her in some form of flagrante delicto with Joseph. I am aware of the problems of the sources: some say that Eliza was visibly pregnant, which is unlikely, and that she miscarried, which is never mentioned in Eliza’s copiously documented personal journals; some of the source authors disliked Emma and sought to discredit her through vilification.
Still, this one, the story of the staircase, fills me with dread. Even if it is apocryphal, it describes an impulse I can understand. Many sources – far too many to discount entirely – document the moments when Emma discovered that yet another one of her friends or housemaids or neighbors was secretly married to her husband, and her furious, broken response. Somewhere in my heart, knowing that Emma and Eliza were close, that they worked together side by side in a Relief Society that they themselves worked to establish, makes the secrecy of Eliza’s marriage to Joseph more galling to me. I can only imagine the blind rage, the swimming, dizzying awfulness of discovering her – my friend! my dearest darling friend! – in the arms of my husband. I can imagine the world tilting off its axis in that moment.
Et tu, Eliza?
(And where was God for Emma? Where was the trusted source of comfort, when her husband may be stealing off with another woman at any moment, always insisting that it was God’s will?)
Our legacy of polygyny is… disquieting, particularly the stories that we repeat to justify its practice in the nineteenth century and its eventual elimination in the early part of the twentieth. To say that God once demanded it of some and now forbids it of all invites doubt. Not just doubt in God, but doubt in the safety and stability of our most private, precious relationships. It suggests to women that betrayal – or the feeling of having been betrayed – may be asked of us at any moment, and that our feelings would be yet another sacrifice on the altar of devotion.
It is doubly disconcerting because even today widowers who have been sealed to a deceased wife can be – and often are – sealed to a second wife when they remarry, creating an eerie echo of a past we often do not speak of, and perpetuating the unresolved doctrinal question of whether or not there are polygynous relationships in the eternities. This lingering doctrinal irresolution impels many of us to go back to these hidden histories and contemplate a scenario as impossible as that of Eve: What would you have done, had you been in Eliza’s place? Trust the prophet and betray your friend? Or say no to God? If you were Emma, would you have borne it? If you had been one of her friends, would you have turned him down? (How could any of us know what we would have done?) Would you be the first wife, later spoken of caustically by Brigham Young; the shamed and betrayed woman who left an enigmatic legacy and split off from her husband’s church? Or would you be a woman who went west to Utah, to be buried in the desert like so many secret sister wives, largely forgotten by all but a few of your family until, more than a century later, a handful of LDS women finally started demanding to know of you against the wishes of their all-male leaders?