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The City Journals

Book reveals revolutionary spirit of early Mormon women

Feb 03, 2017 11:40AM ● By Orlando Rodriguez

Benchmark Books is celebrating their 30th anniversary. (Orlando Rodriguez)

By Orlando Rodriguez | [email protected]

Benchmark Books, an LDS bookstore located on 3269 S. Main St, hosted “Evening With An Author” with prize-winning author and historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Her most recent book “A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870,” was at the spotlight for the evening. The intimate space allowed visitors to hear the author speak about the finer points and inspirations of her publication.


She expressed delight at the turnout. “Some of you have already bought my book. I don’t want you to ask for a refund.”


“It’s really exciting when those of us who work in the academy and teach at universities can encounter a public that really cares about their past,” Ulrich said.


She said the title, “A House Full of Females” is a quotation from the diary of Wilford Woodruff.


Woodruff served as the 4th President of the Church from 1889 until his death.


Ulrich explained that Woodruff had visited the Salt Lake City 14th Ward in 1857, the members of which were working on an album quilt at the time. Ulrich mentions the quilt as a nod to fellow historian Carol Holindrake Nielson’s book “The Salt Lake City 14th Ward Album Quilt, 1857: Stories of the Relief Society and their Quilt,” from 2004. The quilt was crafted to raise money for the poor and the Perpetual Immigrating Fund, a corporation established by the church in 1849 to aid thousands of people emigrating to the Salt Lake Valley.


“As soon as I read that, I felt I had the title for my book,” Ulrich said.


Some of the inspiration for the book came from her interest in the dynamic between women in the household and those more active in the public sphere. More specifically those who defended their right to a plural marriage, and made the public know their commitment to their faith.


She also wanted to understand how did they go from ordinary 19th-century women into a religious community that asked them to practice polygamy and what that had to do with their emergence in the national spotlight. The publication recollects diaries, letters, articles and other pieces of information of what everyday life was for these women, and their accounts of what was occurring for the church and the nation at the time.


“What’s different about this book is that it is self-consciously written not for you (Mormons) but for rather a national audience,” Ulrich explained.


She emphasized her focus on women, the relationship between them and men, what that meant for the creation of the church’s ideals over a relatively short amount of time and why these women stood up and defended polygamy. The book spans the early history of the church, from the vantage point of not only leaders but followers of the faith, and the painful challenges they endured while attempting to gather those who shared the faith.


“When we talk about family in early Mormonism, we’re talking about a whole lot more than marriage,” Ulrich said.


Among the indignation from the national eye about the church’s practices, and the physical and emotional suffering these people went through, Ulrich drives forward that these women understood what they could do as a collective. She recollects the founding of the Relief Society and its 20-year recovery following an early disbandment by Brigham Young in 1844, before their journey to the Salt Lake Valley.


The purpose of her book is to help readers understand, through these personal accounts, how these women overcame the obstacles of a patriarchal institution, and how they exercised their religious freedom regardless of persecution.


This book has won the Pulitzer Prize for history, but it is not the only work Ulrich has received accolades for. Her 1990 account of famous midwife and healer Martha Ballard in A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812” also won the same award. She is currently a history professor at Harvard University and in 2006 was appointed the distinct title of 300th Anniversary University Professor at the institution.