We continued Morgan’s birthday extravaganza on Saturday morning. Jessi had an open house in her garage, and my personal highlight was meeting and conversing with Kathryn M. Daynes, the pre-eminent scholar on Mormon polygamy. She is Jessi’s neighbor, and Jessi knows I have been studying polygamy and grabbed me as soon as Kathryn showed up.
Kathryn said a lot of interesting things. One thing that has bothered me is D&C 132 which refers to women as “virgins” and basically says a man can marry as many virgins as he wants. I really don’t like the fact that women are reduced to their sexual status and don’t believe God views me in this light (not to mention my qualms about the actual revelation on polygamy). Anyway, in my better moments I can now turn to Kathryn’s interpretation of this scripture. She explained it by saying that Joseph Smith was responding to the accusation that the women entering into polygamy were “whores.” Back then, Kathryn explained, you were either a respectable woman or a whore, and polygamist women were considered the latter.
When she said this, I realized that the word “virgin” might be intended to connote polygamist women’s respectability and uprightness before God, rather than just reducing them to their sexual status. That makes the word a bit easier to swallow, I think. (Of course, in my own studies, I have come across Joseph Smith quotes that substantiate my earlier interpretation of this scripture, but I am so, so grateful to have this counter explanation, thanks to Kathryn.)
I also liked Kathryn’s approach as a historian. She said that her intent was to understand polygamy and the people who chose to practice it. She was not simply doing history to prove polygamy was a mistake, but rather to understand it. I think that is a really admirable attitude.
She also explained a lot of ways polygamy worked in a pioneer society. The one that we hear most commonly is that it allowed women to be taken care of who otherwise would have had to fend for themselves. She said this was actually a true attitude among many polygamists. Her own great-grandfather was scorned because he took multiple younger wives. Apparently this did not go over well with his fellow polygamists who thought that the purpose of polygamy to care for older women who otherwise would have to be alone.
I also asked her if she thought the Church would re-institute polygamy. It had never occurred to me that the Church would ever even consider such a thing until I a) studied polygamy this summer and realized it could easily happen again and b) noticed an upsurge in polyamory among my friends and understood that polyamory is going to be the Next Big Thing. Our laws are going to change in my lifetime, and then the Church will be free to re-institute polygamy…so will it or won’t it?
Kathryn said the Church won’t re-institute polygamy because women are a lot more financially independent these days and don’t need a man to survive economically. She also said our society is set up for duets, be it homo or hetero-sexual, and that it will be very hard to change that set-up. I personally disagree that it will be that hard to change the societal set-up, and I also think on of the reasons we hear cited for polygamy was to increase the number of church members. That last reason could be easily, easily cited today in the case of re-institution.
Anyway, the gist of that part of the conversation was that I felt unconvinced that the Church won’t re-institute polygamy, and that was kind of a let-down. I was hoping for some mind-blowing, totally convincing argument for why we will never have to do this again, and I don’t feel like I heard it.
But Abe swears to me that we will never practice polygamy, and he also keeps telling me to cross that bridge if it comes (and he thinks it will never happen). I am trying to keep my anxiety on this point in check. When my daughters are old enough, I am going to teach them that they are not chattel, that they deserve the kind of marriage Abe and I have, and that unless they have a mind-blowing vision from God and actually either hear God’s voice or see an angel telling them to practice polygamy, that they are never, ever to practice it. I am going to give Ammon basically the same talk and tell him that unless he also has a vision and sees angels that he is never, ever to marry more than one woman. I am so thankful Ammon has Abe’s example on how to treat women, and I hope Ammon grows up with a bone-deep understanding of gender equality.
And after all that, here are some cute pictures of Clarissa hanging out on the Boppy.