Ok, I’ve talked about this book quite a bit–I’ll probably take a break for a while after this post. (If you’re tired of the topic, perhaps you’d like to see what I wrote over at Mormon Matters: Utah Happiest State in Nation.)
One of the stereotypes of polygamy has been that Mormon men were just horndogs and married women for sex. Another stereotype has been that women joined into polygamy under duress–that it was preached for their salvation. While this is partially true, it leaves out significant parts of the story. Surprisingly, Utah had THE most liberal divorce laws in the nation during the Brigham Young era. In fact, “gentiles” seeking divorce utilized Utah’s liberal divorce laws, forcing the Utah legislature to close a loophole allowing non-residents to obtain divorce in Utah.
I was pleased to learn that if a woman wanted to end a polygamist marriage, she was at liberty to do so. However, divorce for males was much more difficult. Women were much more at liberty to start or end a polygamist marriage than men were. From page 154, (please note that MH below is not me, and is part of the quote–not my addition….) 🙂
In practice, a woman who insisted on a divorce could obtain one. For example, one bishop, in recommending that the president of the church grant a divorce, wrote, “We consider in our opinion that it would not be wise to compel [MH] although her grounds are not just, to continue to be the wife of [CH] inasmuch as she claims that she does not now nor never did have any affections for him.”75 This was also Brigham Young’s position. His clerk stated, “As a rule, the Prest. never refuses to grant a bill on the application of the wife, and NEVER when she INSISTS on it.” Although Brigham Young preached against divorce, he was fairly liberal in granting women permission to divorce.76
Brigham Young was so tired of hearing complaints about plural marriage that on September 21, 1856, he announced that in two weeks he would set at liberty all women who did not wish to stay with their husbands. This was not a new policy to liberally grant divorces, and the conditions of divorce he announced two weeks later were similar to those both before and after that time: women would have to “give good & sufficient reasons & then marry men that will not have but one wife.”77 The purpose of his September 21 sermon was not to announce divorce policy but to offer polygamous wives stark alternatives. The could either be released from their polygamous marriages or they should quit whining. “I want to … do something to get rid of the whiners,” he said. Every woman who stayed with her husband should “comply with the law of God, and that too without any murmuring and whining. You must fulfill the law of God in every respect, and round up your shoulders to walk up to the mark without any grunting.”78 This sermon was preached during the reformation, just as the harsh phase was beginning. This was also the time when many more women entered plural marriage than in any other period. In typical hyperbolic fashion, Brigham Young was telling women they were not fulfilling the laws of God when they entered plural marriage and then whined about it.
[page 155] Because men were permitted to take other wives, he preferred not to grant men divorces. On one occasion when a polygamist applied for a divorce, Young said that a man married a wife for better or worse and had no right to misuse her; he knew of no law to give a man in plural marriage a divorce. Apostle George A. Smith replied, “Pres. Young, it is with you as it was with Moses. There is no law authorizing divorce, but through the hardness of hearts of the people you are obliged to permit it.” A clearer statement of the church’s accommodation to the realities of family life could hardly be found. The polygamist was granted the divorce.79 It thus appears that men as well as women who insisted on divorces received permission for them.
Many women entered into polygamy for economic reasons. Daynes states that it was a way to redistribute wealth, and take care of the poor. In fact, it seems some polygamist marriages were for purely economic reasons. These were called “nominal marriages”, and I talked about them in my previous post.
Wealthier men cold more easily provide for additional wives and would certainly be more attractive to economically disadvantaged women, and those of higher church rank were considered more likely to attain exaltation in the next life and thus provide women with the eternal spouses they needed for their own exaltation.
The church had often been accused that missionary work was a tool for recruitment of plural wives. Daynes concludes that such charges are unfounded. She indicates that polygamy was used to the economic advantage of poor women. From page 127,
The church’s extensive missionary program was often accused of being a recruitment program for plural wives. This was not so: almost as many single men as single women emigrated to Utah.33 Nor did most single female converts become plural wives.
It does appear, however, that the church, with its strong advocacy of separate gender roles, gave different types of financial assistance to women than to men. For poor, immigrant men, it provided jobs on public projects, including work on temples and the Tabernacle.34 It helped single women by providing them ample opportunities to marry, including as plural wives.
One plural wife indicated that this was what she thought the church intended: “Utah in those days was full of girls and women who had come from the European countries and from Eastern states [as converts]. Brigham Young used to say to the men: ‘Marry these girls and give them a home and provide for and protect them. Let them be wives and mothers.’ So all men who could looked upon it as a duty.”35 John Taylor, president of the church, specifically preached that widows should be taken care of through marriage: “[I]f a man has a brother dead who has left a widow, let the woman in that kind of a position be just as well off as a woman who has a husband…. If a woman is left by her husband, let her have somebody to take care of her; if not her husband’s brother, then the next of kin…. We ought to look after the welfare and interest of all.”36
When it was a religious responsibility to take care of the widows and the fatherless and when it was to such women’s economic advantage to marry, the high percentage of plural wives belonging to those categories is not surprising. Mormon women undoubtedly believed in the principle of plural marriage, but women who needed economic help disproportionately practiced it.
Daynes talks quite a bit about divorce rates. Polygamous divorce rates are a little different than monogamous rates, but I found talk of divorce interesting, especially this tidbit from page 193,
[Durkhiem’s] statistics show that in societies where divorces are common, wives commit suicide less frequently than elsewhere.;29&; Aside from his erroneous assumptions about women that would not be countenanced today, his discussion shows that women’s circumstances are improved when divorce provides a release from unhappy marriages.
(My post over at Mormon Matters can be related to this as well: Utah is happy.) Anyway, back to the topic. Comparing monogamic and polygamic divorces is not an apples to apples comparison, though Daynes does a good job of coming up with some interesting statistics. From page 160,
Lenient divorce laws did mean that the number of divorces was greater in Utah than in most states in the nineteenth century, although western states in general tended to have higher rates of divorce than did eastern ones. Nevertheless, the number of divorces even from plural marriages was moderate, especially by today’s standards.
[page 161] From 1867 to 1886, the church granted 759 divorces, while the civil courts granted about 2,420 to Utah residents.3 Using only the civil divorces, Wright found that in 1870 Utah’s ratio of one divorce for every 185 married couples gave it the second highest divorce rate in the nation. Only Wyoming had a higher rate, one divorce for every 123 couples. If the average number of ecclesiastical divorces per year is added, however, Utah had the most divorces per estimated married couples of any state or territory. By 1880, Utah’s ratio had risen to one divorce for every 219 married couples, and nine states or territories had ratios lower than Utah’s. With the addition of half the average number of ecclesiastical divorces–assuming that by 1880 half would have sought divorces in both jurisdictions–seven states and territories still had higher rates than did Utah. Nevertheless, Utah had more than twice as many divorces per estimated married couples as the national average.4
All of these calculations assume, however, that Utah had the same number of married couples relative to its population than other states had.5 Given the presence of polygamy, the high proportion of married women, and Utah’s low age of marriage, Wright’s estimates of the number of married couples are probably low. If Utah had more married couples than Wright estimated, there would have been fewer divorces in relation to the number of couples than his figures indicated. Still, it appears that Mormons valued happy marriages over long-lived ones and granted divorces accordingly.
[page 162] Considering the problems with the various measures of divorce rates, Phillip Kunz calculated the percentage of Mormon divorces for the number of known marriages. Using family group records for those who were married between 1844 and 1890, he found that 9.0 percent of polygamists were divorced, while less than 3.0 percent of their wives were. This was still considerably higher than the 0.9 percent of monogamists in Utah during the same period whose family group records indicated that a divorce had taken place. He conceded, however, that the relatives who submitted the family group records might not be aware of or list all divorces.8
Daynes came up with a better method for ascertaining divorce statistics, and discusses her method on page 162. Her conclusions on page 163 show,
Excluding eternity-only marriages and nominal plural marriages, there were 83 divorces among the 465 plural marriages in the Manti plural marriage data set. That is, 17.8 percent of these plural marriages ended in divorce. The percentage remains about the same when individual women rather than the number of marriages are the basis for calculation: 77 (or 18.2 percent) of the 423 women were divorced.10
When a distinction is made between the first and subsequent wives in a plural marriage, these divorces are not distributed equally. Only 15.7 percent of the divorces were obtained by women who were the first wives in plural marriages. In all, 8.0 percent of the 163 first wives were granted a divorce. These percentages are considerably smaller than those for plural wives. Not only did plural wives obtain most of the divorces, but also one-fourth (24.6 percent) of plural wives divorced. Among men, the percentage is higher still, although of course, a man increased his chances for a divorce with each additional wife. Of the 151 polygamous men in the Manti subset, 35.1 percent–slightly over one-third–were divorced one or more times.11 Nevertheless, compared with today’s rate of just under half of all marriages ending in divorce, those rates for polygamous marriages are low.12
Even Brigham Young was divorced. From page 165,
His plural wife Mary Ann Clark Powers, still in Iowa in 1851, wrote him in Utah asking to be released from him because of the “bitter cup” she had drunk during her stay at Winter Quarters.26
Overall, I have really enjoyed Daynes book, More Wives than One. It has been fascinating to learn some of these facts. While I still have problems with polygamy, I think this book set my mind at ease with some of the practices in the Utah period. I really liked the fact that women were free to leave an unhappy marriage, and seemed to have some autonomy in choosing their mate. I liked the fact that the poor and widows were taken care of. Daynes discusses some of the marriage proposals by women to men, and I found those stories fascinating. Comments?