At AHA this weekend, Knopf is launching Laurel Ulrich’s newest book, A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870. I imagine bookstores and Amazon will start selling copies shortly afterward. Anybody familiar with early American history knows and respects Ulrich’s work. Her A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (Knopf, 1990), which won Ulrich the Bancroft, Pulitzer, and a MacArthur Grant, is one of the best books ever written in the field. I’ve assigned it both times I taught a course on the early American republic, as it beautifully captures the lived reality of common citizens and the invisible networks of American women. Her other work has been similarly influential. One phrase from a 1976 article, “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” later went viral, a surprising development that encapsulates both Ulrich’s devotion to transforming historical memory in order to incorporate unheard voices as well as a general public eager for that very intervention. (She later wrote a book that, in part, discussed this quote and its impact.)
People were understandably excited when Ulrich turned her attention to Mormon women and polygamy. Interest was further piqued with an article in American Historical Review that exemplified her approach: she teased out the broad cultural and contextual implications of a single quilt created by a Utah Relief Society group during the tumultuous year of 1857. Plenary addresses at the Mormon Historical Association (where she was president in the society’s fiftieth year) and other symposia constantly reminded us of what was to come.
I’m happy to report that the book exceeded my already-high expectations. I received an advanced copy to review for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, which should appear sometime this year. I’ll save most of my words for that, but I wanted to share at least a paragraph:
The subtitle for the book, “Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism,” is somewhat misleading, however. Though the introduction and final chapter that frame the text indeed focus on Mormon women arguing for “women’s rights,” that particular theme is subtle and, at times, subservient throughout the story…And while the jolting paradox of the title—how could women who participated in polygamy simultaneously believe in women’s rights?—is readily apparent, “rights” seems a bit too restrictive for what Ulrich is doing. Further, plural marriage is not always the sole focus of the volume: the early chapters that precede Joseph Smith’s introduction of the practice, as well as the later chapters that focuses on male missionaries abroad and missionary wives at home, are as interested in monogamous relationships as they are polygamous. This is to say, the subtitle of A House Full of Females sells short the volume’s importance: more than a history of polygamy and women’s rights, this is nothing less than a new, revisionist social history of Mormonism between Kirtland and territorial Utah, as seen through the eyes of the women who lived it. Ulrich is asking a provocative question: what would the history of Mormonism during the tenure of its first two prophets, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, look like if its leading men were re-cast as supporting actors?
I can’t recommend the volume enough–it’s an instant classic in the fields of American, social, gender, religious, and Mormon history.
I see she’ll be speaking at Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass. later this month. Will have to go!