Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Book Review: The Polygamous Wives Writing Club by Paula Kelly Harline

Paula Kelly Harline has done something remarkable with The Polygamous Wives Writing Club. She has brought polygamy - a topic that few in the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are truly knowledgeable about or comfortable discussing - in from the "safe" distance provided by keeping it in realm of the theoretical and theological, and grounded it firmly in reality, warts and all.

In all, "Mormon participation in polygamous marriage averaged between 25 and 30 percent if men, women, and children in polygamous families are counted" and "an average of three in every ten Mormon women became polygamous wives." That is not a small portion of our forebears and they deserve to have their stories told - the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between.

Using the diaries and autobiographies of twenty-nine Mormon pioneer women who lived polygamy in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Utah, Harline has provided an intimate look at what living polygamy really meant for regular Mormon women, not the famous ones, or the ones married to Church leaders, but those down in the trenches from St. George to Smithfield. In each chapter she introduces two or three women, often from the same area, whose lives parallel each others' in numerous ways, highlighting the similarities and accentuating the differences in families that lived a polygamous lifestyle.

This provides an incredibly nuanced view of "the complicated response" of many women to polygamy. Simply put, in the words of one, "I believed that the principle of plural marriage was from God, but it was still hard--it nearly killed me." However, it was often "a way for women who were alone to become part of a family--although this did not always mean that they were well cared for" as "not infrequently polygamy made a family poorer instead of richer."

Most women profiled in the book express their strong dislike for sharing their husbands.  Even "some prominent polygamous wives married to men in the Salt Lake Mormon hierarchy--including some who participated in political rallies--privately acknowledged that they did not like polygamy." At best, some recognized the "gap between the ideal and what can really be achieved." Even Brigham Young stated that polygamy could create "considerable disharmony and financial strain" and acknowledged that for his family, it was "only a mixed success."

What I saw as one of the possible benefits or comforts of polygamy - friendship and support from one's sister wives - was actually rare in the lives of these women who often lived in separate households or resented having to share a home, especially if there was, they felt, an unfair division of labor. "Writers rarely provided evidence that they were friends with their husbands' other wives. Wives of the same husband generally didn't confide in each other or seek each other's company. Although most wives tried to get along, they were generally indifferent toward each other -- in other words, there was minimal female friendship in the same family." While there are some exceptions to that general rule, it stands that "polygamy thwarted female friendships in several ways."

There were some awful examples of coercion related to the practice of polygamy. In one situation, the first wife was opposed to her husband taking a second wife, "but the authorities advised him to do so anyway, saying that she would be reconciled." In another, a fourteen-year-old girl was married to her stepfather, the man to whom her mother was already married. She relates, "I whispered yes not noing [sic] what I was saying." When Catherine Rogers, a third wife, tried to explain to her husband that she didn't want more children than the five she already had, especially while they were living apart and she was having to support them on her own, he disagreed and she became pregnant shortly thereafter. Women tell how they were taught that "there was no way of getting into the Celestial Kingdom [except] by plural marriage." Uncomfortable echoes of what is still happening in fundamentalist sects today.

Even when relationships were not rocky and were entered into by free will and choice, there were often long periods of separation between husbands and polygamous wives, particularly when they were being hunted by law enforcement and had to go underground. And then the Manifesto, which was issued in 1890 to bring an end to new plural marriages, actually complicated matters significantly for many polygamous families of the time.

Using these women's own words really allows their personalities to shine through.  For example, Henrietta Williams, a first wife, was royally annoyed when friends congratulated the second wife, Electa Jane on having the first son born in polygamy because he "ruled the father's house...as though the father was to turn imbecile and could not rule his own house." Her reaction is priceless: "what rubbish some people can invent, giving it for a principle of the gospel."

I appreciated the insights Harline provides into what the marriage relationship is like in polygamous situations and how it differs from our expectations today. Polygamous wives "had tried to reconstruct their understanding of marriage."
They tried to think of marital love differently: rather than 'finding one's soul mate,' they sought to accept 'a righteous person' who 'shared their beliefs,' and 'cultivat[ed] a love for that person.' They tried to move past the 'love-based marriage,' foster an environment of inclusiveness, and undo the assumption that their husbands were the center of their lives. One seasoned  polygamous wife, Vilate Kimball, reportedly advised an unrelated struggling wife not to think about what her husband was doing when he was away, to be pleased to see him when he came as she would be 'to see any friend,' to 'simply be indifferent' to her husband if she wanted to be happy, and to find comfort 'wholly' in her children.
Times sure have changed, haven't they?

Harline raises lots of questions, questions that these women themselves had, that have no easy answers. Questions like "What are reasonable expectations for a polygamous wife for her relationship with her husband?" "Should a commandment of God be so excruciating that it threatens the health of our minds and bodies?" "Was a good polygamous marriage superior to a bad monogamous marriage? Or is there something inherently wrong with polygamy that keeps it from falling short of its seeming possibilities?" "Were polygamous wives content with their sacrifice? Did the benefits of polygamous marriage for the Mormons outweigh the human toll it required and the embarrassment it continues to bring?"

Ultimately, The Polygamous Wives Writing Club doesn't come down on either the pro- or anti-polygamy side, but simply on the side of the women who have now been given a voice. These women deserve a voice, they deserve to have their stories told and their names known. Paula Kelly Harline has given them, and us, that gift. God bless her for that!

The Polygamous Wives Writing Club: From the Diaries of Mormon Pioneer Women
by Paula Kelly Harline
ISBN: 9780199346509
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, audiobookebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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