Unpacking the Polygamy Wound

Most families (and most individuals) lug a couple of proverbial storage trunks around with them. Into these, we pack the unpleasantries. The first trunk hides away the things we hope go unnoticed, often facts about our history we’d rather no one realize or things we’d like to forget. In the second trunk, we store our unexamined behavior and ignorance because out of sight and out of mind seem to belong together. We don’t reach into the first often, but we reach into the other too often. It shouldn’t surprise us that Mormonism also hauls around the same two trunks; after all, Mormonism is a collection of human beings, each linked as family in the way of strong cultures. The existence of these two storage trunks in Mormonism doesn’t diminish the many wonderful things each openly displays, like our love for God and one another. Yet, we can’t fully know ourselves unless we examine the things we’d prefer not to look at, nor can we grow fully.

In Mormonism, that second trunk—the one that stores our unexamined behavior and/or ignorance—has my mind today because it was recently (and publicly) opened. You’ve heard the story. A stake president reached into this trunk and pulled out two common, but rarely-recognized Mormon views he’s been storing—rape culture and might-makes-right thinking. He overstepped when he denied temple recommends to a married couple after each rejected his directive that she cover completely while breastfeeding in common areas of church buildings, explaining that her nursing risked inflaming sexual desire in the congregation’s males.  Abuse of authority: Check. Rape culture: Check.

But when the story became public, I caught sight of a third problematic perspective, wedged right there between abuse of authority and rape culture. I saw polygamy culture.

Because the term is relatively new, I offer a definition. Polygamy culture is rooted in the expectation that, for the purpose of promoting salvation, a male priesthood holder possesses the God-given right (or authority) to manage, direct, control, and define a woman’s sexuality, especially in ways that aren’t specific to that particular woman but that are generalized in begging-the-question-style for all women.

Under that definition, polygamy culture is clearly discernible in the recent controversy. It’s evident in the way this stake president views his calling as divine authority to define for a woman when her breasts are or are not sexual, as well as the way he punitively removes her access to the proxy salvational rites of the temple, all for her own spiritual welfare.

But as the story went viral, I noticed that many LDS women were supporting the rape culture thinking of the stake president, rather than decrying it, and, even more strangely, supporting his punishment of the couple even while admitting he had overreached. This looks like codependency and leaves me wondering in what ways women enable polygamy culture and why.

I began to reflect on the regularity with which I have encountered women who argue that a woman must dress a certain way to protect men from sexual thoughts. I thought about my own history of supporting that thinking. I thought about how women police the sexuality of teenage girls at camp or other church activities, and how I’ve done it as a Young Women’s president. I thought about how women will judge one another poorly when an LDS woman spends too much time in her work-out clothes or wears the wrong sort of bathing suit. This I have done as well. Is this also part of polygamy culture?

In an era when rape culture is clearly defined and rejected by most in contemporary society, why are so many LDS women still holding to it? You’d think, in a religion that values choice and accountability, Mormon women would recognize that men have both choice and accountability regarding their sexual impulses and that women are not, as Dallin Oaks suggested from the General Conference pulpit in May of 2005, magnifying problems for men by becoming “walking pornography.” Yet, we haven’t turned that corner.

Keep that thought in mind and let me take you now to Mormon Trauma Mama, a group which includes mental health professionals who are dedicated to helping sexual abuse victims heal.  Danna Hartline, who is currently completing a Master’s degree in Pastoral Counseling from California Southern University, explains this about a heritage of dysfunction:

When we are talking about trauma, we are talking about families. No man is an island. When you hit a mother, you hit a family. And this is often generational. If we are honest and are careful to not canonize our Church heritage and the people in it, we have to face the fact that there is lots of trauma in our church history—nearly right from the onset—particularly with women and minorities. And studies show that children connect vicariously with the pain and suffering of their parents. And perhaps this is more prevalent than we realize—symptoms of depression, anxiety, grief, for example, are carried down generationally. 

It’s fair to say that the historical record affirms that the early Mormon practice of polygamy was traumatic, especially for women. Love ceased to be the reason for marriage. When an increase in procreation was offered as the motive for polygamy, the value of a woman in marriage was primarily reduced to intercourse. Put those two together and you find unloved women valued for sexual compliance.

That’s traumatic enough. But add to that the perilous sense that your husband may, on any day, announce he is marrying another woman, or, if I’m completely frank, announce he has been assigned to marry another woman. If you were a woman in love, this would be emotionally crippling. If you were a woman unloved, it’s reasonable that you’d feel every inch of your insecure position amplified. No matter how faithful or how devoted to the cause of Mormonism a pioneer woman was, the lived experience of polygamy had to be incredibly distressful and painful. The question now is, are contemporary women still experiencing generational trauma because of Mormon historic polygamy?

This may put some readers in mind of “the mother wound,” which is commonly defined as the pain passed down to a daughter by an unloving mother, pain that is rooted in the experience of life in a patriarchal society. The wounds often manifest as things like a lack of trust and/or confidence, the inability to establish boundaries, avoidance behaviors, and an absence of self-awareness.

I see these as common traits in many LDS women, particularly the boundary and trust issues. After all, when women police the wardrobes of other females, they demonstrate an inability to respect boundaries. When they suggest a girl’s navel or shoulder might tempt a male to sinful thought, they demonstrate a lack of trust in both genders and seem to signify their lack of confidence in their own abilities to keep male sexual attachment in its proper place.

Surely unloving Mormon mothers exist, both now and in the past, but the mother wound focuses on the pain passed down from a specific mother to a specific daughter. In Mormonism, the wound of polygamy is passed down to new generations of women through the veneration of the Mormon pioneer, including to those daughters who do not have a direct line back to the practice of polygamy. Mormon women don’t simply crave the love of our mothers: we work to control our faith-sisters under the direction of men and for their benefit. This, too, is a definitional aspect of polygamy culture.

LDS polygamy most certainly traumatized the earliest generations of Mormon women, even if they escaped the “call” to a polygamous marriage or were not born into one. But the patriarchal system maintained in Mormonism is established on the assertion that priesthood holders possess a God-given authority to manage, direct, control and define a woman’s sexuality in salvational ways. As a result, our system has institutionalized rape culture and then charged women in both families and the Young Women and Relief Society organizations to enact it in the guise of maintaining “standards.”

This is how Mormon women show obedience to God—by enabling their own misuse. It is astonishing that women comply, unless one considers the wounds passed down through polygamy. It’s passed time for a careful and thorough unpacking of the unexamined behaviors and ignorance that is polygamy culture. Only a thorough airing will help heal the wounds historic polygamy has inflicted on Mormon women and help us and our daughters grow forward in healthy ways.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 1 Corinthians 13:12

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4 thoughts on “Unpacking the Polygamy Wound

  1. Merry

    When I read your first post with the phrase “polygamy culture”, I didn’t get it and was a little put off. But I’ve read all of your posts about polygamy culture, thought about them, and I’m starting to accept the term and some of its meaning. Thanks for blogging on such an important issue for us to take out and examine instead of burying our heads in the sand.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Merry. I understand your initial reaction. In fact, it essentially paralleled my own thoughts about whether or not polygamy culture is a “thing.” So much of what goes on in LDS culture seems very similar to what happens in other patriarchal religious cultures. Yet, after a while, I began to pick up on a difference, namely that, in most patriarchal, Christian cultures, a woman may be convinced its God’s will to submit to men, or that women should protect men from the sexuality of women, and so on, but the entrance to heaven isn’t off-limits to women who don’t bow to patriarchal traditions. Its different in Mormonism. Supporting a strict patriarchal heaven is the order (we are told) of the greatest glory in the next life, and that includes polygamy. Women covenant to be a step away from God so that their husband can be nearest Him.

      Polygamy culture, as a concept, is developing. But as a friend recently told me, once you start thinking about it, you begin to see it popping up a lot. Mormon feminists still have some thought work to do, but its definitely a “thing.”

      Thank you for reading, especially when what I say makes you shake your head. Its all about the conversations.

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  2. Katrina

    “A thorough airing” would certainly help this article, as so much information is missing, either by ignorance or design. Reading the journals of faithful saints who sometimes struggled with every principle of their faith (missions, cross-continental travel for the gathering, self-reliance, fidelity to spouse, the law of consecration, the building of temples, the law of tithing) clarifies this whole question of their being a “polygamy wound.” Some saints received strange visions before they’d even heard of Joseph’s new (ancient) doctrine. These saints readily accepted polygamy because they felt they had been spiritually prepared for it by God. If you read the minutes of the large meeting of women polygamists about the government’s treatment of them, you will also discover that they were more upset by the government’s abuse than by the practice of polygamy which they all unanimously stood up to support. It seems just as hard to believe for me as for you, since we don’t have the benefit of being able to walk a mile in their shoes. However, we do know that many of these women were highly educated, including some doctors and teachers and politicians. Also, the fact remains, though it is often ignored, that the majority of polygamist marriages had no sexual component whatsoever (men being asked to marry old widows and children) as a way of claiming stewardship for their physical and spiritual nurture. Similarly, the sealing power was often used to unite two men or two women to make them family as they had left their biological families and wanted to be united to this family of choice in a Zion society. Motivation matters. This article seems to assume quite a lot without understanding primary sources that are free online for anyone to search out.

    My own family wounds come less from polygamy and more from running from hostile natives, crossing the plains on foot, and never having enough to eat. The lack of a husband (as happened when he was called repeatedly away on missions) was worse in the journals than too many wives. In fact, the wives comforted each other and were grateful for the intimate companionship of sister wives and children. I wouldn’t claim to speak for Muslim polygamist women because I have no idea of their experience, so it is equally unfitting for you to speak for Mormon polygamist women while ignoring their own words and experience.

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    1. Thank you, Katrina, for the comment. I’m probably better read in early Mormon history than most LDS and am also familiar with the claims you make. I am a convert, but I married into a family whose ancestor drove Orson Pratt’s wagon into the Salt Lake Valley, which, as you know, was the first wagon to reach the aimed for destination. That gives me no privileged information, except access to unpublished family history (not journals) and an interest I may not have otherwise developed in early Mormon history.

      I’ve read of the visions. I know about the odd servant/brother/sister sealings. I also know that Joseph Smith married women who were currently married to someone else and that he did consummate those unions. Some plural marriages were not consummated. I also know Joseph married women for years before he told Emma, his only legal wife, about plural marriage. I also know she used the Relief Society to send women she didn’t realize were polygamist (because she didn’t know of polygamy) to investigate rumors that Sister So-and-So may be involved in an illicit relationship when Sister So-and-So was in a polygamist marriage with someone other than her legal husband. Its messy. Even if early LDS polygamy was divinely sanctioned, its implementation was often cruel. It isn’t a fair representation of the historical record to look only at portions of the polygamy record that reflect what you want to understand about polygamy.

      And for the record, if polygamy is in your family history and if the husband was repeatedly called away on missions, leaving multiple wives and children without support or protection, that reality, to my mind, defies the law of Sarah, which approves polygamy only for the raising up of seed unto God. If the man is gone, how are the babies to be made? Serious question. As I said, its messy.

      As to the accusation of intentionally omitting some things, of course. Every writer of short pieces must pick and choose what will be said. In my eyes, a blog post is part of an on-going conversation. I have more to say and hope others, like yourself, participate in the conversation. Again, thank you for reading.

      Regardless, I respect your stance and, along with you, encourage any interested in LDS history to continue their study. Good people with good minds can have differing take-aways.

      Like

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