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Laurel Thatcher Ulrich out with a new book about Mormon women

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is a historian’s historian. For more than three decades, she has dazzled her profession with archival discoveries, creative spark and an ability to see “history” where it once appeared there was none to be seen. Her most famous book, “A Midwife’s Tale” (1990), focused on what seemed for generations to be a useless source — the prosaic, detailed diary of an 18th-century New England midwife. Out of these centuries-old jottings, Ulrich conjured an entire social world centered on women’s emotions, experiences and labor. It was one of the most celebrated historical works of the 1990s, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and required reading for any self-respecting history graduate student. To an unusual degree, Ulrich put her stamp on a particular historical method: She went in search of women’s daily lives before the Industrial Revolution, and she used the personal diary as her point of entry.

This approach figures prominently in Ulrich’s latest book, “A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870.” This time, there are several diaries, all of them written by men and women who lived through the perilous early years of the Mormon Church. These intimate sources survived through a variety of means: tucked away in tin bread boxes, stashed in basements, hidden in log-cabin walls. Through them, Ulrich seeks to uncover how women experienced the strange and controversial new practice of polygamy, or “plural marriage.” ...

“A House Full of Females” is sensitive to the difficulty and confusion that accompanied early plural marriage, with its implied loss of status for women. But the book also tells a more complicated tale about women’s on-the-ground experiences. While some women objected to plural marriage, Ulrich notes, others sought it out as a means of securing economic stability or of escaping from abusive marriages. Still others came to embrace plural marriage as a form of communitarianism, in which women shared domestic burdens and labor. Ulrich describes friendships and rivalries between wives (themes that will be familiar to any viewer of HBO’s “Big Love”). She even makes a case for plural marriage as a vehicle for a form of feminist consciousness-raising. Although outsiders referred to Brigham Young’s home as his “harem,” Ulrich writes, “it could also have been described as an experiment in cooperative housekeeping and an incubator of female activism.”

As evidence for this budding political sensibility, she points to the little-known fact that the territory of Utah granted women the right to vote in 1870, a full half-century before the federal constitutional amendment. Unlike Wyoming, the first to approve woman suffrage, Utah was already majority-female at that point, and many of those Mormon women supported both suffrage and plural marriage. ...

Read entire article at NYT