An Interview with Paula Kelly Harline
What do we know of Mormon polygamy? It's easy to rattle off the references that first come to mind: Big Love, Sister Wives, and Mormons up to no good. What most people know, skims a very fine surface -- superficial, stereotypical, and above all, not from the people, particularly the women, who live it.
Perhaps this is what separates Paula Kelly Harline, author of The Polygamous Wives Writing Club: From the Diaries of Mormon Pioneer Women, a breath of fresh air, given all the sensationalism that floats around the topic of Mormon polygamy. Harline presents the personal writings and letters of Mormon women, who, while considered "good wives," were often on the fringes not only of a Mormon society that had technically banned polygamy, but also of their own extended families. Their experiences, struggles, and day-to-day lives remained hidden, forcing the women to seek support and rely on each other, even through the most tense of moments, most often through intimate letters and private diary entries. Harline has exposed a world that is so very often talked about, yet very little understood, and given a platform to those who could speak of it with authority: the women who made up the nameless, faceless Mormon wives.
What determined your interest in bringing forth this volume of personal writings from Mormon polygamous wives?
I think modern Americans wonder why women would agree to become polygamous wives, because it seems patriarchal and oppressive. As a Mormon girl growing up in California, I mostly felt embarrassed that early Mormon pioneer women, including two of my Utah great-great grandmothers, were polygamous wives, but I also thought they must have been tough women.
In grad school, I was curious to know if Mormon polygamous wives were feminists. As I studied their autobiographies and diaries, I looked for evidence of shared childcare, increased employment opportunity, independence from husbands, and sisterhood. I found some extraordinary examples of these, but I mostly found that late nineteenth-century Mormon polygamous wives had pervasive assumptions about romantic love (like other American women at the time), and they were much more interested in their relationships with their husbands than with their "sister wives." In fact, except in one case out of twenty-nine, they did not call their husbands' other wives "sister wives."
So what determined my interest in bring forth this volume? As I got to know the women through their writings, their feelings seemed so human to me, and I wanted to rescue them from obscurity, I guess you could say. My heart went out to them.
Can you expand on why you have this deep empathy toward them? When you say you want to rescue them from obscurity, why is it that they have become these shadows of say, Mormon history, to begin with?
Their obscurity is primarily due to their gender and class, I would say. They were mostly poor country women who are not politically interesting and, thus, mostly known to their descendants who donated their writings to libraries, and archives -- about half of the women's writings have been published by organizations such as Daughters of Utah Pioneers or the Tanner Fund at the University of Utah. Only over the last few decades have Women's Studies programs taught us to value ordinary women's voices.
Some Mormon people, as one of my daughter's friends said, don't want "to tread" near polygamy. Although modern Mormons take pride in the hard work and determination of their nineteenth century pioneers, they generally find polygamy, based on Old Testament practices, confusing and controversial and have yet to come to peace with the powerful mythical legacy left by some of their foremothers.
What made the women convert? What made them agree to polygamy?
I'll give you an example of a polygamous wife's conversion experience. As a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old girl, one polygamous wife wrote that she had a sort of vision in her room at dusk: she saw two people in a "clear light" and "one of them motioned" to her to "come near to them," saying, "If you would come with us you must take this woman's hand," and then the light faded from the room. After that, she wrote that she had a "calm knowledge" that God would lead her, and she was open to becoming a polygamous wife even though it meant losing her boyfriend who did not believe in polygamy. When she told her parents about the vision, her father embraced it while her mother "worried" about it.
Those who became polygamists, according to historian Richard Van Wagoner, generally believed that the practice was "essential to their salvation," that it could "bring a higher eternal reward," that "God required it of them," and that it would provide "marriage and motherhood to thousands of women who may have otherwise remained unmarried."
It's interesting especially, given the history of polygamy being integrated into Mormonism when it was, and also the reputation that Mormonism and polygamy still hold in American culture today. I think most people think it as of something simple like Sister Wives, but there is a larger culture here, especially one that really works itself out in the pages of The Polygamous Wives Writing Club. What is it you think that people miss out on with Mormonism, but also, the experiences of Mormonism with these particular women you are bringing forth?
I found it interesting to puzzle out deeper significance. I guess I'd like people to know that Mormons were hated and chased from their 1830-northeast-coast beginnings -- even without polygamy. To survive, they had to go west in 1847 and isolate themselves for a while and create Salt Lake City and eventually settlements in Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and California.
In retrospect, perhaps polygamy was one way they survived and thrived. Polygamy was publicly introduced in 1852, and you might think if Mormons were already hated, they wouldn't do something to make themselves more hated by other Americans, but they did. Polygamy not only helped populate Mormondom, but it kept Mormon settlements somewhat isolated and insular until they established themselves and formed a distinct self-concept. The noted sociologist Thomas F. O'Dea asserts that Mormons are the most "clear" example in the United States of a "native and indigenously developed ethnic minority."
Perhaps during this foundational time, Mormons also inadvertently developed the three prongs of success recognized by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld in [ed. note: the largely discredited] The Triple Package: first, Mormons developed a sense of purpose that made them feel like God's "chosen"; second, they believed they had to do hard things to prove themselves; and third, they practiced "impulse control" and discipline by following commandments.
So in some ways, polygamy may have kept Mormonism from dying out, but it excised an enormous human toll on the thirty percent average of women (and, in fairness, the men) who lived it -- thus, the story is quite complicated.
Can you expand on this complexity of Mormon history? The most common example I can think of is the role Mormonism and Mormon adherents have been subjected to, as well as themselves used, significant violence throughout much of the religion's history. I think your book takes a sympathetic viewpoint, but then it is also struggling to reconcile these women's intimate lives with a religion that could as you say, take a huge emotional and sometimes physical toll? Or the isolation from larger society and how that could be either something of benefit or be devastating.
From the beginning, Joseph Smith and his adherents drew criticism from their neighbors on religious, economic, and political grounds. As early as 1832, Smith was pulled from bed by intruders, stripped, tarred, feathered, and nearly murdered. In 1838, a violent incident against Mormons called the Haun's Mill Massacre occurred. Mormons ended up relocating several times: from New York to Ohio, on to Missouri, to Illinois (where in 1844 Smith was shot while incarcerated for ordering the destruction of a printing press), and eventually to Iowa and Utah.
In the West, Smith's successor Brigham Young told his people, "I want hard times, so that every person that does not wish to stay, for the sake of religion, will leave." Referring to the physical challenges of the mountainous West and the strict commandments Mormonism required, Young said, "This is a good place to make Saints." Although pioneer life and polygamous marriage could be stressful, Young liberally granted divorce requests from polygamous wives.
Brigham Young discouraged fighting with Indians, and Mormons generally wanted to live peacefully with one major exception known as The Mountain Meadows Massacre. In southern Utah in 1857, about sixty local militia men and their Indian allies massacred 120 emigrants traveling to California. This dark episode in Mormon history is still being sorted out by historians.
Perhaps some associate Mormonism and polygamy with violence because of Ron and Dan Lafferty's violent 1984 Utah murder of their sister-in-law and her toddler because she wouldn't accept the brothers' new "revelations" that she consent to polygamous marriage. The two brothers, who had Mormon roots but who were not practicing, were, according to the Salt Lake Desert News, "fueled by religious fanaticism, delusions of grandeur, and a [family] upbringing warped by violence." Those who still practice what they consider to be "Joseph Smith polygamy" are not mainstream Mormons. Mormons quit practicing polygamy around 1900 and would never approve of extremist violence such as what happened in this sad case. Perhaps all religions have the potential of breeding fanatics and crazies who get caught up in the differences between religions and forget the common goal of religion -- to teach love and goodness and peace.
Why diaries and autobiographies? What about these intimate forms of communication resonated with you as a writer?
I've been an avid diary writer since my teenage years -- ever since my best friend told others a secret I didn't want revealed, so I know the level of confidence one can place in diaries. In addition, autobiographies are a way to interpret your life for others.
In The Polygamous Wives Writing Club, I focus on what twenty-nine wives (all married to different husbands) wrote about their marriage relationships. To me, this is where the real story lies: details about conjugal love, relationship balance, spirituality, back-breaking work, religious duty, beloved children, moves from place to place, survival. Collectively, the twenty-nine wives left plenty of material (although there are gaps and silences, too) to tell their stories. At the same time, as any diary writer can attest, personal writings are more "literary texts" than "documentary histories" because writers craft stories that may be "true" to them, but, as bell hooks writes, sometimes "evoke a state of mind" more than "accuracy of detail." But that's what we want to know -- the state of mind, right?
How are you able to sift through the writing and find what to present? Did you ever wonder if the writing was potentially self-censored in a way, that it was possible that the women didn't dare to write or think certain things that wouldn't have been in line with their religious views?
I was pleasantly surprised by women's willingness to admit difficulties they experienced. Polygamous wives who produced this kind of "transgressive writing," as Laura L. Bush calls it, were willing to expose what they really felt compared with what they believed their audience wanted to hear. After complaining, they often coached themselves to get back in the saddle and keep going. They tried to balance their faith and their complaints so that their descendants would understand both.
Did you ever feel that there was discrepancy in content and style between diary entries and letters?
As for discrepancies between autobiographical writings and letters, one woman defended polygamy in a letter to her aunt in the East while not defending polygamy in her autobiography. In general, the wives didn't spend a lot of time defending the practice of polygamy in their writings.
There are certain stories that are especially touching -- I found myself deeply drawn to Lucy Flake's story, who at sixteen, was exposed to incredible hardship and challenge, and was really not allowed an outlet for that pain, other than seeing it as "a trial." Were there certain letters or stories or women that you were drawn to more than others?
When Lucy Flake was sixteen, she married Will Flake in Beaver, Utah as his first wife, and they eventually established Snowflake, Arizona. In early marriage, she wrote that she poured her heart out to God in prayer that she wouldn't lose her sick baby, but God didn't hear her like he had in the past, and her baby died. Yes, sometimes religious people see difficulties as "a trial" of their faith that they must swallow, and many polygamous wives used prayer and diary writing as means of comfort.
When Lucy was twenty-four, her husband married an eighteen-year-old girl, and Lucy wrote that she preferred this -- that he take another wife while she was still young, which is curious: did she want to still be vital; did she abhor seeing older men court young potential wives; did she want to share the life cycle with the other wife? To be part of the marriage ceremony, Lucy and her new baby rode 400 miles round trip by wagon to Salt Lake with her husband and the eighteen-year-old Prudence -- that must have put a damper on the new couple's honeymoon.
I suppose I was most drawn to the stories of women who reacted as I imagine I would have reacted in their situation. And, yes, I might have chosen to go to the wedding rather than be left home!
I think there is this idea of what polygamy looks like (or really, looked like) and you really shed light on the fact that most of these women lived pretty impoverished lives and were often very isolated, which is just one of the reasons they wrote. It's like they are all constantly wrestling with this idea of duty and faith, yet trying to make sense out of their lives. Would you say that's something you feel true?
The most striking examples of isolation and poverty occurred during the 1880s, as the federal government enforced anti-polygamy laws. First wives were generally safe, but second and third wives became evidence of illegal activity, and they had to flee their homes and hide, sometimes for an evening, sometimes for years. They sometimes could not even trust family members or Mormon neighbors because during this period, many Mormons turned against polygamy, and polygamous wives began to be marginalized. In 1890, the Mormon Church president officially stopped polygamy, which sort of left polygamous wives in limbo, but eventually freed them up to go home. I think it's fair to say that wives in these situations were weary and, in general, didn't mourn the end of polygamy. Utah gained statehood in 1896, and Mormons wanted to become regular Americans by then.
It's especially hard to see these women grapple with becoming an "older wife," once a new wife is integrated into the family, especially then when these women have to coexist with one another, often without what feeds us in relationships. You tend to argue that polygamy essentially hurt these women and they were a bit like collateral. Would you say that's what your intention was?
One first wife, Lydia Brinkerhoff, wrote that she tried to be a mother and a sister to the young wife, but that it nearly killed her to watch the girl leave with, as she put it, "my husband." As her story continued, though, Lydia seemed to remain the wise head of the family. In an another example, first wife Angelina Farley was agitated in her diary because her husband didn't sleep with her for months after marrying a younger wife, and as the three were living in the same house and sharing things like coffee and garden hoes, Angelina had many complaints and frustrations that she often voiced. Older wives usually felt a loss, even if only expressed privately.
Second and third wives generally felt special at first because they were the new wives, but they usually quickly learned that they couldn't regard themselves as a monogamous wife could. The husbands seemed torn a lot of the time, too, trying to be fair and make their families happy. Most wives eventually replaced their close relationships with their husbands with close relationships with their children, which, in retrospect, fulfilled the Mormons' goal of raising righteous children who would carry on the faith.
Maybe some husbands inadvertently viewed some wives as "collateral," but I don't see them that way because of the self-respect they had to write their stories and have the last word, if you will.
Overall, how do these women's experience vary? You have women who run the gamut of the spectrum, from those who may have been overjoyed at not having to take care of all of a husband's "needs" or sharing housework, to those who ran away or even rebelled against their fellow sisters. Is there a common thread in these experiences?
Yes, they run the gamut of the spectrum, from women who loved the other wives more than they loved their husband, to women who banished another wife from the family property. The common thread is that all of them, no matter their circumstances, continued to do the domestic and outdoor work that pioneer women did at that time -- raising children, keeping gardens and animals, making soap and jam -- and they all continued going to church and believing in God.
How has your own attitude toward Mormonism shifted with this book, if it has at all? Like many religions, the participation in this religion, much less any religion, is usually historically rife with an unfairness to women and minorities and outsiders in general. How does this affect your role as a writer, with this book and beyond?
I've become both more proud of my heritage and less likely to automatically obey an authority figure at church. I've learned that sometimes leaders say things that I don't have to do or believe. I'm not a member of the Ordain Women Movement that seeks to ordain women to the priesthood, but I'm sympathetic to their cause and to the plight of LGBT Mormons. I associate with many Mormons who are very open and loving people, and I hope I'm one of them.