19th Century Brigham Young Joseph Smith Latter-day Saint History Polygamy

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and ‘A House Full of Females’

I became totally entranced by the diary of Wilford Woodruff and saw new possibilities for doing another book based on close reading of diaries.

After attending a Relief Society meeting in 1857, Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal that “the house was full of females.” As someone who practiced plural marriage instituted by the Prophet Joseph Smith, the comment could have applied to Woodruff’s home life. In this interview, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich discusses how early Latter-day Saint sources shed light on female authority and plural marriage.

Read the book by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835–1870.

Table of Contents

Why did Laurel Thatcher Ulrich write A House Full of Females?

The long answer is that after almost forty years of teaching and writing about early American history, women’s history, family history, and material culture, I decided it was time I did a book on Latter-day Saint history. I grew up with pioneer stories.

I became a historian in the 1970s in part because my work with Claudia Bushman editing the first “women’s issue” of Dialogue, which included essays by both Leonard Arrington and Juanita Brooks, aroused my interest in the subject.

But because my graduate work led me to early American history and Latter-day Saint sources were far away, I had only done short pieces on that topic.

Relief Society comes and goes in this book, but female community never disappears.

The short answer is that I became totally entranced by the diary of Wilford Woodruff and saw new possibilities for doing another book based on close reading of diaries.

How is A House Full of Females different than most other books that deal with polygamy?

The title I chose for the book comes from an entry in the diary of Wilford Woodruff, who sometime in 1857 noted “the house was full of females.” He wasn’t talking about his own house, which was indeed full of females with three wives and two teenage daughters, but about a Relief Society meeting he had just attended at the 14th Ward Meeting House in Salt Lake City.

In choosing that title—and explaining it in the introduction—I asked readers to think about two things at the same time—plural marriage and female authority within the church.

That relationship is the topic of the book. There are books about plural marriage. There are also histories of the Relief Society and other organizations. This book brings those two topics together.

Relief Society, as a formal organization, comes and goes in this book, but female community never disappears.

The subtitle of the book uses the term “women’s rights” to highlight the surprising appearance of women’s suffrage in Utah in 1870. I tried to write a book that would make that emergence less surprising. I’m not sure I succeeded in doing that, but I think I did challenge a few assumptions about the supposed subservience of early Latter-day Saint women.

I have been told by many readers that I succeeded in making a familiar story look different. I hope that has been helpful for some readers.

In what ways is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book like a quilt?

Nineteenth-century quilts were often made by stitching together small fragments of fabric. My book is also built from fragments, day-by-day accounts found in diaries, letters, autograph albums, poems, and minutes of meetings.

I privileged records created in the heat of events, not because I consider those records more truthful than later recollections but because I wanted to understand how people behaved when they had no idea how things were going to turn out.

I treasured every scrap of women’s writing I could find, even using the dated squares on an actual quilt as one of my sources, but I also found important material in the diaries of several men, including Wilford Woodruff, whose consistent daily diaries provided a kind of sashing to hold my story squares together.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich discusses her book, A House Full of Females, on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.

How did Laurel Thatcher Ulrich interpret the source material for A House Full of Females?

I use many processes in interpreting documents. Perhaps because of my prior training in literature, I take written texts very seriously. I don’t use them to collect a set of “facts” but to understand what the writer considers important, what she includes or leaves out.

My book, A Midwife’s Tale, is in some respects a book about how to read a diary! You might want to take a look at that.

So, I do close reading, but also a lot of counting, comparisons with other accounts of the same events, a careful notice of handwriting, etc. Although I find printed transcriptions enormously helpful, I try not to write about a diary without seeing the original.

This wasn’t a world where anyone was primarily attached to a spouse.

What did Laurel Thatcher-Ulrich learn working with Wilford Woodruff’s journals?

If you work with a very long diary, like Wilford Woodruff’s, you discern patterns and become familiar with the writer’s choices of words, and methods of recording things.

For example, it became clear to me after a while that Woodruff didn’t write every day but sometimes accounted for several days in one sitting. Later I found in the Church History Library some of the rough notes he kept while on a journey that he later used to construct very neat entries in his diary.

I wrote a long article about Woodruff’s early diary (published in Foundational Texts of Mormonism, edited by Robin Jensen and others).

How was Wilford Woodruff’s journal both a great Latter-day Saint record and a great American record?

Wilford Woodruff was an immensely curious person and keen observer of people, landscapes, and events! He was interested in everything from displays in the British Museum to rattlesnake dens in Utah.

His diaries are also visually interesting. He kept rough notes in a kind of scrawl (only a few of these have survived) then printed the final entries, employing a series of symbols (maybe today we would call them emojis) to identify repeating themes. He created elaborate title pages for each year and comprehensive summaries at the end.

Woodruff’s diary is both inwardly and outwardly focused. For example, he recorded his spiritual impressions and dreams (sometimes with illustrations). But he also a gave complete description of the clam chowder he and his brother-in-law made on a rocky island in Maine.

Why didn’t Phoebe Woodruff keep a diary?

She might have kept a diary, but if so, it did not survive. Fortunately, a rich cache of her letters did survive.

The absence of women’s records is not unusual. As I noted in the introduction, one of Eliza Snow’s diaries almost ended up in a bonfire. And one of Zina D. H. Young’s diaries was discovered inside the wall of a cabin owned by descendants—and another in a locked trunk that no one opened for years.

Men’s words mattered to the formal institution in the way they continue to matter to the institutional church today.

Who brought the original Relief Society Minute book to Utah and how did it end up in the Church archives?

Eliza R. Snow brought it to Utah. She used it as a link to Joseph Smith and Nauvoo and as a pattern for restoring the Relief Society in the 1860s in Utah. She passed it on to her successor, Zina D. H. Young, who passed it on to her successor, Bathsheba Smith. Smith’s daughter gave it to the Church archives after her mother’s death.

Unfortunately, it sat there, sometimes under lock and key, for many years. Fortunately, that minute book is now freely available online in The First Fifty Years of Relief Society co-edited by Jill Mulvay Derr and others.

How does Zina D. H. Young’s diary add to our understanding of Latter-day Saint history in Nauvoo?

Zina kept a diary in the period shortly after Joseph Smith’s death that provides insight into the chaos and fears, general and personal, that characterized that period.

It also offers some insight—though oblique—about her relationship with Henry Jacobs. She apparently believed that her loyalty to Joseph Smith required her to leave Henry and join Brigham Young’s large household.

But this is pretty cryptic.

A black-and-white pioneer photo of prominent Utah suffragist Zina D. H. Young who figures prominently in A House Full of Females by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Young Laurel Thatcher Ulrich for many reasons. The Latter-day Saint leader and suffragist appears repeatedly in Ulrich’s A House Full of Females.

The diary is moving in part because it is so subtle and restrained. It does a disservice to Zina to focus on the oft-told story about her relationship with Henry, which sometimes paints her as a victim (of Joseph? of God?).

I also think she felt bound to Joseph.

References in Caroline Crosby’s diary to Henry’s behavior in California suggest he was a bit flaky. He did write to Zina trying to reconnect.

These stories—especially as embellished in later retellings—would make a romance novel. But I suspect there is a lot we do not know.

Why does Zina D. H. Young fascinate Laurel Thatcher Ulrich?

To me, Zina is fascinating for lots of other reasons, ranging from her concern for other women to her descriptive details about the relationships between Brigham Young’s wives:

  • Friendship. Her friendship with a Seneca woman who sent her what was probably an embroidered and/or beaded purse as a token of their friendship.
  • Concern. Her concern for other women
  • Family. Her close relationship with her brothers.
  • Reform. Her interest in creating “reform” dresses (perhaps with bloomers)
  • Descriptions. Her deeply personal and rich descriptions of the relationship between Brigham Young’s wives when they were living together in little cabins. (Somebody recently asked me if one of those wives had an abortion. I read that incident—which I discussed in my book—as a miscarriage.)

What most surprised Laurel Thatcher Ulrich about Zina D. H. Young?

My work with Zina’s diary was part of my larger project in reconstructing the community of women who “restored” the Relief Society. The most important thing I took away from that work was that her diaries were almost lost.! (I tell that story in the introduction to the book).

The Utah diaries that survive are incredibly fragile. I think I described that as being “lace-like” from water and perhaps insect damage. Some pages are unreadable.

Lots of people are curious about Zina D. H. Young’s numerous marriages. What do we know about them?

Numerous marriages? I guess that depends on how you define marriage. Zina Huntington Jacobs was “sealed” to Joseph Smith in Nauvoo but continued to live with her legal husband Henry Jacob, with whom she had two sons. After Joseph’s death, she continued to live with Henry for a short time but they eventually parted and he took another wife.

Zina appears in several chapters of my book through her fragmentary and often cryptic little diaries. Her religiosity and compassion for others radiate through them.

I don’t think she wanted to hurt Henry (who appears later in my book in the diary of Caroline Crosby), but I also think she felt bound to Joseph. Although some have read Zina’s story as a romantic tragedy, this is one place where I think he really helps to focus on the gradual unfolding of the story.

This wasn’t a world where anyone was primarily attached to a spouse. Zina’s diaries reveal her deep connections to her siblings, including her brother Dimick who officiated at her “marriage” to Joseph, and her sister, Presendia, who had a similar relationship with the Prophet—and who eventually left her husband to join Heber Kimball’s household.

But equally important were her relationships with others, including Eliza R. Snow, who had been sealed to Joseph and then Brigham Young.

How did Laurel Thatcher Ulrich obtain access to the William Clayton diaries?

I submitted a formal request to the Church History Library asking for permission to read the original document. I explained why it mattered to my project. Although it took a while, I received permission to read the original diary and take as many notes as I wished. I was delighted to learn that the Church plans to publish the journal.

None of my direct ancestors left the sort of sources I was seeking.

How does Laurel Thatcher Ulrich think that Latter-day Saints will react when the journals are published?

I suspect some members will find it disturbing, but the most disturbing material has long been available. Having the original will allow scholars to learn new things about William Clayton and Nauvoo.

What is proto-polygamy?

That term comes from Kathryn Daynes’s excellent book More Wives Than One. She uses it to contrast polygamy as practiced in Nauvoo with its later development under Brigham Young.

Unlike later plural marriages, Joseph Smith’s were not recorded, not performed in public, did not involve cohabitation or, as far as we know, financial support, and may or may not have involved sexual intercourse.

Because they involved more than two persons, they were polygamous. But they were very different from the publicly acknowledged system that developed in Utah.

How did Latter-day Saint polygamy begin? Is there a record of God commanding it?

That is either a very complex or a very simple question. I will go for simple. It began with Joseph Smith who said that God commanded it.

Did Brigham Young think that Emma Smith’s opposition to polygamy led to Joseph Smith’s death?

Some of his statements suggest that.

Why might focusing too narrowly on polygamy be problematic?

One reason is that it tends to overtake a much larger story about how early Latter-day Saint women built the kingdom.

How has Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s perception of Eliza Snow changed?

I always knew she was important. I now understand her as a complex, multitalented, political genius of sorts. Through determination, skillful deployment of her advantages, and impressive patience, she managed to nurture a powerful set of women leaders who laid the foundations for so much that is most impressive about the Latter-day Saint faith.

I thank Jill Derr, Maureen Ursenbach, and the many scholars who have worked with them over the years to develop an amazing archive of documents that could so easily have been lost.

I don’t think people realize that women’s affairs were not really considered part of the Church’s mission to keep records during the early years. That may have been a good thing, but it also met that without a corps of stronger leaders much of what we know about the church’s female founders might have been lost.

I guess that depends on the person asking.

Why did the pace of Relief Society records slow down after 1857?

I wish I knew. Aside from the Nauvoo Minutes, there was no Relief Society organization beyond the Ward level. A lot of reaching out that Eliza Snow did was informal and unofficial.

I think we have to assume that most records that were kept before the late 1860s were probably lost. Those that we have today often survived in personal collections.

What I do know is that many of the diaries that I relied on for the period before 1860 more or less disappeared, so it is not so much Relief Society records that slow down, but women’s records more generally.

Paper shortage?

A lot of relocation?


Demanding new economic opportunities created by the opening of mines in Idaho and Montana leading to new demand for foodstuffs that some women processed? (I am thinking here of Patty Sessions’ dried peaches.)

How did the women in your book go from regular 19th-century women to a community that asked them to practice polygamy?

Although their role in national politics began in 1870, I was interested in how their earlier experiences gave them the power to stand up to Congress and assert their rights. Almost all of the women who participated in the famous “Indignation Meeting” of 1870 had arrived in Utah before 1850.

Collectively they reflected the entire history of the Church from the 1830s onward. Women like Eliza Snow, Phoebe Woodruff, Patty Sessions, and Caroline Crosby had much in common with other literate, white women of their era, but their willingness to embrace a radical new religious movement put them on the outer edges of what was respectable.

They were not only sustained by religious faith but also by bonds with other women that were economically, organizationally, and spiritually sustaining—bonds that allowed them to push beyond patriarchal constraints in remarkable ways.

What’s the biggest outstanding question in polygamy today?

I guess that depends on the person asking. I am pleased that younger scholars doing work today are finding new ways to approach the topic. I am thinking for example of Hannah Jung’s work on court testimony by plural wives.

I would also like to know much more about the aftermath of the Manifesto for families. My father told me that he never saw his grandfather and grandmother in the same house. If one arrived, the other left. That is because his grandmother, who was the mother of all the children, was a second wife, and legally they were not allowed to cohabit.

Some men took that rule very seriously. But I have no idea about the long-term economic consequences for the general population.

What were some early Latter-day Saint sources that Laurel Thatcher Ulrich enjoyed working with?

Some of the richest material in my book came from letters exchanged between the apostles sent to England and their wives in Nauvoo.

Fortunately, Phebe Woodruff’s letters from this period survived, providing a very rich and quite poignant account. And all this happened pre-polygamy!

Did Laurel Thatcher Ulrich feel a connection to the past when working with original sources?

I have felt deep personal connections with many historical sources. I don’t think my experience with Latter-day Saint documents was different in that regard than with other sources—although I think the skills that I gained in reading materials from periods and places for which I had no direct connection helped me to read Latter-day Saint documents more deeply.

Unfortunately, none of my direct ancestors left the sort of sources I was seeking, but I did find a way to add their names to the story in appropriate places, in a sort of “Where’s Waldo” kind of way.

How might our understanding of Church history change if we were more versed in original sources?

I think careful readers might begin to see both the remarkable complexity and the human fragility of early Latter-day Saints. They might also become more sophisticated readers of secondary historical writing (including my own).

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About the author

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Professor emerita at Harvard University. She is the author of several historical works, including A House Full of Females and A Midwife’s Tale, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize and Bancroft Prize. Ulrich also coined the famous quote, “well-behaved women seldom make history,” in a 1976 American Quarterly article about Puritan funeral sermons.

Further reading

Related sources

  • A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835–1870s (Book)
  • Review: A House Full of Females (Book Review)
  • A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812 (Book)
  • More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910 (Book)
  • Digital Access to Wilford Woodruff’s Journals (Article)

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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