Polygamy, Women’s Rights, and Mormon Women


Old Tabernacle on Temple Square

One of the first women’s rights demonstrations in United States history took place in 1870 in Utah Territory. The Relief Society held an Indignation Meeting on January 14th in the Old Tabernacle Building on Temple Square. Several other meetings were held as the sparks continued to fly and the women stood firm in their convictions. Mormon women had had enough of running from state to state seeking protection and security. In the western wilderness they thought their troubles were over, but the persecutions continued.

Polygamy was an accepted, practiced doctrine of the Mormon Church. Not everyone believed in it, and not everyone was asked to live it, but those who did felt very strongly this was the will of the Lord in living the New and Everlasting Covenant given through Joseph Smith in the Nauvoo Temple.

Beyond our complete understanding, Mormon women lived by this way of life because of their desire to obey and their hopes for an eternal salvation. They also found it handy to work, as sister-wives, in the raising of their children and performance of household, and other responsibilities. Mormon women were extremely busy, even in the 19th Century, and having shared responsibilities helped them accomplish all their many tasks.

The United States Government was beginning to notice those far westerners, and as growth continued along the westward path, it was necessary to find a way to control the Mormons before they got out of hand. Writing and presenting several bills to Congress was a sure way to do it.

At the time, there were known Mormons who were choosing “Babylon,” in spite of their precious religion, and were ready to go after “Pres. Young and those Mormons.” And non-Mormons, who had traveled to the vast desert, reported that the women were being enslaved by their tyrannical, abusive Mormon men. Persecution reared its ugly head again. But a surprise awaited those in Washington.

Back in Nauvoo, when Joseph Smith organized the women, he taught of holy doctrines where women would receive immeasurable power. He turned the key of power and knowledge over to the women assuring them that their voice was important to the Lord, and to the Church. The women took all this to heart and when it came time to defend polygamy, and all they held dear, they were ready to express their view in a singular stand of protest.

The women’s defense of living the religious law of polygamy turned into the right for women speaking up, placing demands, and holding to the rights of the liberties of this country.

In 1862 the United States Congress passed the Morrill Act, which prohibited plural marriage in the territories. Because of the Civil War, this law was not enforced very well. However, although President Lincoln had signed the bill, he adopted the policy of leaving the Mormons alone. When asked what course he intended to pursue with reference to the Mormons, Lincoln replied, ‘When I was a boy on the farm in Illinois there was a great deal of timber on the farms which we had to clear away. Occasionally we would come to a log, which had fallen down. It was too hard to split, too wet to burn and too heavy to move, so we plowed around it. That’s what I intend to do with the Mormons. You go back and tell Brigham Young that if he will let me alone, I will let him alone.” (Quoted in Gustive 0. Larson, The “Americanization” of Utah for Statehood, San Marino, California: Huntington Library, 1971, p. 60.)

In 1867 the Utah Territorial Legislature asked Congress to repeal the Morrill Act. Instead, interest grew as to why the law was not being enforced, and the Cullom Bill, an attempt to strengthen the Morrill Act, was introduced.

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded the National Woman Suffrage Association in May 1869. With all this talk of rights and freedoms and government, it’s no wonder the Mormon women latched onto what these two women were doing and wanted to be a part of it. It was the perfect vehicle to get what they wanted: the right to live their religion as they saw fit.

Cullom BillThe Cullom Bill propelled Mormon women into political activism. This bill stipulated that anyone believing in polygamy would be denied the right to vote or serve on a jury.  The bill was outrageous and offended Mormons and friendly non-Mormons alike.  {Deseret News, 9 March 1870)

Two events marked 1870 as the turning point for Mormon women. First, in defense of their right of freedom of religion, women held an Indignation Meeting in the Old Tabernacle on Temple Square. Additional mass meetings were held throughout the Utah Territory. Several thousand women gathered. Instead of standing idly by, the women were determined to have their voices heard. Reporters from New York and Washington were in Salt Lake City to record the event.  Second, the next month, Governor S. A. Mann, the non-Mormon Utah Territory governor, signed the woman suffrage bill for Mormon women to be assured a voice in politics.

For the first time, Mormon women were given positive feedback on their resolved voices. The Ogden Junction, on March 23, 1870 stated, “If the Cragin and Cullom [bills] have no other good effect, they have drawn out the ladies of Utah from silence and obscurity, exhibited them before the world as women of thought, force and ability, who are able to make strong resolutions and defend them with boldness and eloquence.”

Because of the voices of these Mormon women, the Cullom Bill did not pass. Several years later polygamy would gradually end with the passing of the Edmunds-Tucker Bill, in 1887. This act disenfranchised the women of Utah, losing them the right to vote and setting them backward. Wilford Woodruff, who received a revelation where the Lord showed him what would happen to Utah and His people if they did not renounce polygamy, signed the Manifesto. Finally, in 1896, Utah became a state and Mormon women were once again given the right to vote.


Information gathered from:

“In Their Own Behalf: The Politicization of Mormon Women and the 1870 Franchise”, Lola Van Wagenen, Dialogue 24:4, 1991.

“The History of Polygamy”, Jessie L. Embry, Utah History Encyclopedia.