“Either a misogynist or proto-feminist”: Women and Polygamy in John Turner’s “Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet”
[Another installment in the roundtable on John Turner's Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet.]
I should mention at the outset of this review that I am not a dispassionate, objective observer when it comes to the subject of Brigham Young and polygamy. In other words, I have a dog in the fight. As a child, my grandmother regaled me of stories of my Uncle Ed’s great grandmother who had divorced Brigham Young and then went on a lecture tour revealing his hypocrisy and tyrannical abuse of his wives. When I was older, I realized that the woman that my grandmother had taken such pride was none other than Ann Eliza Young, the famous nineteenth wife of Brigham Young. The fact that my great uncle’s last name was Webb confirmed the ancestral tie. My adulthood, however, also tempered my feelings about Brigham Young, which had ranged from bemusement at his ideas about Adam-God to disgust at the number of his wives. Although I still joked about what I would like to say to the Mormon prophet if we ever met in the afterlife, I also began realized that he was a man who had loved his children deeply and had experienced a great deal of pain and suffering during his time as a missionary and as a man in Nauvoo. I still remember reading about the aid that he rendered to his daughter Susa after she found herself unable to support herself after divorcing her alcoholic first husband.
As a result of my investment in Brigham Young’s marital relations, I was excited when someone suggested that Juvenile Instructor do a roundtable on John Turner’s new biography on the man who has been called the Lion of the Lord. In some ways, I was not disappointed. Unlike many previous Mormon biographers, Turner tried to foreground the experiences of Young’s wives in his biography. In his chapter on early Mormon missionary work in Great Britain, Turner describes the difficulties that Mary Ann Young encountered during her husband’s absence. When Joseph Smith announced that the Twelve would be leaving for a mission in Britain, Young’s family was so ill that they did not have the strength to get their own water. His wife was expecting their fourth child and would give birth only days before he left for his mission. Although Young worried about his wife and children, he felt that he was called to go on a mission and said that he would go even if he knew that they would be dead when he returned. Turner also explores the experiences of other wives, including Augusta’s disappointment with her marriage to Young and her requests to be sealed to Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith, the difficulty that Zina Huntington had when she was forced to abandon her first husband, and Amanda Barnes’ disappointment with Young’s unwillingness to accept her.
In spite of his willingness to emphasize the experiences of Young’s plural wives, however, Turner never presents an argument about Young’s participation in polygamy or his treatment of women. Instead, Turner presents us with a divided picture, arguing that Young could be portrayed as “either a misogynist or proto-feminist” depending on which quotes a person decided to focus on. In one sermon, Young disagreed with the idea that women were naturally more religious than men and claimed instead they were “dirtier than men” and lied with regularity. “If a woman wont lie,” he argued, “she is a miracle.” At the same time, Young supported women’s rights and encouraged them to participate in public life. His wives spoke in tongues, became midwives, and publicly defended polygamy. He also encouraged young women to travel to eastern colleges where they became educated as doctors. When they returned to Utah, they shared the knowledge they had gained by offering physiology lectures and publishing columns in local newspapers. The picture of Young that Turner paints is a complicated one: Young was at once a man who made deeply misogynist comments that went beyond the ideas about women common in the nineteenth century. At the same time, he gave individual women incredible latitude in their personal lives and supported women’s rights as a whole.
I can understand Turner’s unwillingness to offer an argument about Young’s treatment of women or his participation in polygamy. Young was a complex figure and any argument would necessarily reduce that complexity. I think his reluctance to do so, however, goes beyond a reticence to overly simplify a complicated figure. One of the questions that a biographer always faces is how much to focus on the life he or she is elucidating and how much to focus on their argument. Like many biographers, Turner has chosen to focus on the life of his subject. No one subject becomes the focus of his biography. Mountain Meadows, the succession crisis after Joseph Smith’s death, his dealings with the United States government, his attempts to pacify Native American tribes, and, of course, polygamy all get extended treatment in the book but none become the focal point or are even central to Turner’s argument. Although this approach has its advantages, it also means that we never get to understand the full texture of any one aspect of Young’s life. After I finished the book, I was unsatisfied. I felt like I had been presented with tantalizing glimpses into Young’s relationships with his women but they had never been fully developed or theorized. I quite simply wanted more.
Before I wrote this blog post, I talked with a few other Mormon historians who asked if it was possible to write a good biography that foregrounded the author’s arguments without losing sight of the subject’s life. I believe it is. During my second year of graduate school, I took a class in writing feminist biography. I had tried to write a biography for my first seminar paper and had become frustrated with how difficult it was. During that semester, we read several biographies exploring the lives of Native American converts to Catholicism, African American icons, and a transvestite living in 18th century France. The best biographies that we read that semester used individual people as a lens to understand the larger cultural and historical forces at play in their lives. My personal favorite were Alison Light’s Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, which explored Virginia Woolf’s tortured relationship with the women who washed her sheets and cooked her meals. At the end of the semester, we agreed that the problem with traditional biography was that it focused on individual men (and occasionally women) and disconnected them from their cultural contexts. As a result, these biographies told us little about the world in which they had lived and grown up in.
For the most part, Turner’s biography avoids this trap. It reveals much about nineteenth-century Mormonism. I especially appreciated his section on the Blackhawk War and his argument about the role that Nauvoo played in Young’s unwillingness to countenance dissent. I also appreciated the fact that he spent more time on polygamy and the lives of women than many Mormon biographers who aren’t writing about women are willing to do. In the end, though, I felt he didn’t go far enough. I left his biography wanting to know more about the relationships he had with individual women and the ways in which they shaped his life.