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Mormonism may be a faith with men in the top tiers, but without the earnest involvement of women, especially during the dicey days of polygamy, it would have collapsed.

"Latter-day Saint women built the church that claimed their loyalty. They sustained its missionary system, testified to its truths, and enhanced its joyful performative and playful elements," Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich writes in the final chapter of her new book, due out Tuesday. "Mormon women blessed and healed one another in leaking log cabins ... cried over unmarked graves left on plains and prairies and ... gave birth to the children who sustained the kingdom."

And these women, many of whom shared a husband in "plural marriage," also were among the first to join forces with noted suffragettes such as Susan B. Anthony, who, on her 80th birthday, praised a gift from her Utah friends, saying "it was made by women politically equal to men."

That apparent irony — polygamist wives pushing to get the vote and gaining it before most other U.S. women — seems unbelievable to outside observers (an even some insiders) who even today cannot imagine Mormon women being anything but domineered by men.

In her new book, "A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women's Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835—1870," Ulrich weaves a complicated, more-nuanced view, holding everything up to the light. She hopes readers will take a second look at early LDS women, honoring and recognizing their contributions to the building of their Zion.

Male leaders may have initiated polygamy, for example, but without the assent of hundreds of Mormon women, the practice would not have taken root.

"They had a wholehearted commitment to advancing the rights of women, to take hold and make a difference," the author said in an interview. "These are not passive women. The notion that women were pawns of the [male] priesthood is an extreme reaction to the evidence."

Ulrich will be in Utah this week, signing copies of the new volume Tuesday at Benchmark Books and giving a lecture Wednesday at Salt Lake City's downtown library for the Mormon Women's History Initiative.

This is the first LDS history book by the acclaimed author, who teaches at Harvard University and is likely the most nationally recognized historian in the 15.6 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

More than 40 years ago, a group of LDS women in Boston found copies of the Woman's Exponent newspaper, penned by early Mormon women, in the Ivy League school's library.

"The discovery of the Exponent was transformative in my life. Part of feminism in the 1970s was a recovery of history." Ulrich said. "I thought I would write about it, but it wasn't the right time."

Now, she said, it is.

Why did you start and end your book with the Jan. 13, 1870, "indignation meeting" in the old Mormon tabernacle on Salt Lake City's Temple Square?

It was such a dramatic event and exemplified the framing question of the book: How could women defend polygamy and, on the other hand, emerge in this pivotal moment as interested in women's rights wanting to develop a very, very strong affiliation with [American feminists]? I was shocked to discover that there were more members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in Utah than in any other place in the nation. The fact that the activists reluctantly did embrace those [Mormon polygamist wives] is a real plus. They were able to overlook religious differences and recognize a genuine [LDS] commitment to equality in the workplace, and to letting women make choices about marriage and other issues for themselves.

You write that even before plural marriage was introduced in Nauvoo, Ill., Mormonism already had some unusual marital conventions.

Yes, that was important to me. We always think the cataclysmic change was polygamy. No, the fundamental religious concepts of warning the world and gathering to Zion really laid the groundwork for the animosity that came afterward. In small places, Mormons outnumber their neighbors and that is threatening. And if you are gathering, someone has to go out and find new converts. Men go out and women stay home, taking care of everything.

You argue that Mormonism allowed women to choose when and with whom to have children, which was very freeing to wives fleeing unhappy marriages or those abandoned by men.

In the 19th century, women had to legally consent to marriage — even if it was arranged — but the grounds for divorce were very narrow. It was even difficult to divorce for physical abuse, adultery or desertion. As the frontier expands, people just move. Often it's men, leaving women in a pickle. We have so many examples among early Latter-day Saints of women who had fled husbands. They just got out of town, where they could start life anew. When they encountered the church, there was a warm welcome of that situation. ... They had such a respect for choice.

Plus, Mormons were very liberal about divorce. That shocked me; I had no idea. The numbers are 15 to 20 percent [who had been married before or had left without a formal divorce]. But this doesn't mean, the faith had a free-flowing view of marriage. New marriages were sanctified, not necessarily legal. Their divorce certificate acknowledged they mutually agreed to part and their right to remarry, which was unheard of. There was such a respect for consent that was quite remarkable.

You found many examples of physical objects — including signed quilts — that helped tell stories of women beyond what was in the written record. Why focus on those?

It helps you get inside people's values, especially women. For example, you can tell what kind of education by what kind of needlework they do. Women might learn to spin a comb or weave but to do sketching, really nice cursive writing, or certain kinds of embroidery, revealed that they had had some kind of education.

What were the surprises you found?

One of the biggest was the perpetuation of spiritual gifts. People think it was a charismatic religious culture in Kirtland, [Ohio] but then was brought under control. I sure didn't see that. It remained a very important part of women's culture among Latter-day Saints. The phrase that [Mormon midwife] Patty Sessions [a plural wife of church founder Joseph Smith] uses in her writings is "had a good time," which could mean having a party but it often meant had some kind of spiritual communication. [LDS women's Relief Society President] Zina Diantha Young promises that if she receives this [divine] communication, she will share it. From the church's early years forward, these women bless one another — not just for physical healing, but blessings of encouragement and sustenance that help people get going.

One of the foundations of nearly everything is the relationships the women had with one another. We spend so much time worrying about who commanded them, not realizing they're commanding themselves. Theirs was a culture that valued reticence and soft-spokenness in women, but they are not weak women. When we focus exclusively on the formal organization of the church, we lose the continuity of female spirituality from Kirtland to Salt Lake City. In the interplay between the formal and informal [forms of communal faith], the latter is sometimes lost.

Other examples of women's collective strength?

Mormon women asked for the vote and receiving the vote was about women's rights. The explicitness of that cannot be ignored. Sure, it couldn't have been done if men had been in opposition, but what this shows is that men and women were united around the desire to protect this community [from federal legislation stripping them of their rights].

That doesn't mean all the men and women liked polygamy. Read Phebe Woodruff's [plural wife of Mormon prophet Wilford Woodruff] sardonic letters. She would not have been disappointed if polygamy had never happened, and a lot of men would have been happy not to deal with it as well. But that doesn't mean the community wouldn't come together to defend [their practice] when it was attacked from the outside.

Why didn't you weigh in on whether Smith was inspired to institute polygamy?

My job as a historian is to understand. You can make an argument either way, but not through scholarship. It's hard to get inside a marriage but possible to sympathize with [Smith's first wife] Emma. In Joseph's own behavior ,there are things Latter-day Saints should be concerned about.

My Nauvoo chapters were difficult to write because the whole focus on polygamy has been on Joseph. Wading through the piles of documentation, it's very difficult to know what the heck was going on. It was secret, and you can't write about a secret. You can make hypotheses, but I tried not to.

Only four or five sources originate from that period; most of the arguments about Joseph come from later memoirs.

What amazes me, to me the most powerful finding — new to me — was the incredible loyalty, reverence and sanctification of Joseph by his former wives [after his death]. They continue to meet [in Utah] on his birthday to celebrate it or meet to read over the Nauvoo minutes. This little circle of women become a kind of spiritual core, almost an unrecognized quorum. They use that reverence to sustain themselves as some people are pushing back against them. You can look at it cynically, but it's hard not to recognize the depths of feeling in it. It's really central to what happens with the Relief Society. Those minutes are sacred to early Mormon women and have not been recognized by the church in general.

Is there a message in the book for contemporary Mormon women?

Not an intentional one ... but I came away with immense respect for the resilience of both Mormon women and men. There is certain humor in [some of the men's] earnestness, but also I was impressed by their commitment and willingness to give up so much to perpetuate the church. It's not the same as my understanding of what it means to be a Latter-day Saint ... but I felt so much empathy for the people who did really remarkable things in terribly difficult circumstances with the power of faith.

I love the Wilford Woodruff quote [paraphrased as] "If we, in our resurrected bodies, could visit other planets, we would feel really sad if they hadn't written a record of their lives."

Researching this book, I visited another planet and recognized these people as human beings, but it was a different world. That's what we have to realize before we decide [Mormon history] is the nightmare we want to get away from or the model we want to follow. It's neither one. ... We should have to think about what aspects are useful in our own world.

Twitter: @religiongal

Hear the author

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich will discuss her work Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at Benchmark Books, 3269 S. Main, Suite 250, and Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Salt Lake City's Main Library, 210 E. 400 South.