The Gilder Leherman Institute of American History
Two thousand Mormon women gathered at the Salt Lake Theatre on Saturday, March 6, 1886, to protest the “indignities and insults heaped upon them as wives and daughters of Mormons” in Utah district courts. Under the direction of Mary Isabella Horne, elected president of the protest meeting, 33 women presented personal statements reacting to the legal and political ramifications of the pending Edmunds-Tucker Bill then before Congress, which included the loss of voting privileges and self-government. These women, motivated by restricted religious rights, were prompted to political action.
Following the March 1886 mass meeting, the women compiled the proceedings into a 91-page pamphlet, “Mormon” Women’s Protest: An Appeal for Freedom, Justice and Equal Rights, to distribute in Washington and elsewhere. Originally printed in the local newspaper and then published in pamphlet form, the text includes the news notices prior to the event, transcripts of speeches, resolutions, and poems composed for the occasion, and undelivered speeches and letters written for the event. Women involved included female doctors, teachers, authors and poets, women’s rights advocates, religious and community leaders, and mothers.
Political and social leaders outside Utah were concerned with the Mormon religious practice of polygamy. Plural marriage was adopted in the LDS Church from 1852 to 1890 in an effort to restore biblical practice and encourage family support. Studies suggest that twenty to twenty-five percent of LDS adults were members of polygamous households during this era. Federal injunctions followed within a decade of the public announcement of plural marriage as an official tenet of Mormon faith in 1852. In 1856 the Republican platform shouldered responsibility for ending "those twin relics of barbarism—polygamy and slavery". Republican politicians sited Utah as an example of what happened when territorial citizens governed themselves. The 1862 Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act aimed to prosecute polygamists but proved to be impossible to enforce.
Various legislative actions occurred over the next two decades as Congress restricted political and legal rights based on LDS religious practice, suggesting that Utah Territory be prevented from becoming a state until plural marriage was abandoned. The Cragin Bill in 1868 and the Cullom Bill of 1869-70 were passed to remedy the deficiencies of the Morrill Act. Republicans worked to revoke the voting rights of anyone who believed in plural marriage. Women were compelled to testify against their husbands, and all involved were convicted of "concubinage," fined, and sentenced to prison. The 1882 Edmunds Act removed polygamists from jury and public office, and Congress established a Utah commission modeled after post-Civil War reconstruction government to run territorial affairs.
Mormon women responded en masse. While the Latter-day Saints respected the Constitution, promising to honor civic leaders and obey the law of the land, they felt that these congressional acts violated freedom of religion. The 1886 protest meeting ironically prompted patriotism, where Mrs. H.C. Brown stated:
"We are here, not as Latter-day Saints, but as American citizens—members of that
great commonwealth which our noble grandsires fought and bled to establish—legal heirs to those rights and privileges bequeathed to that heaven-inspired document—the Constitution of the United States. Yes, legal heirs, yet illegally, unconstitutionally deprived of that dearest, most cherished of all."
The public political action of Latter-day Saint women had its roots in the inception of their religious female association, the Relief Society, in 1842. Members delivered petitions to Illinois governor Thomas Carlin in defense of Joseph Smith and his illegal imprisonment. Thirty years later in Utah women reacted to antipolygamy legislation with similar activity. They wrote letters, sent memorials, and urged people to testify before Congress. To show their solidarity and commitment to their beliefs, three thousand women gathered at a "Great Indignation Meeting" in Salt Lake City in January 1870. Throughout the month, the structure of that meeting was repeated in over fifty Utah settlements in their various Relief Society organizations, where countless LDS women publicly defended their right to practice their religion. This public effort led to the pursuit of the vote for women, particularly in conjunction with a popular belief outside the territory that women would then vote to remove polygamy. By February of 1870 acting territorial governor S.A. Mann granted Utah women suffrage, second only to Wyoming. This movement precipitated an 1871 visit of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Utah and created bridges with national women’s organizations.
Meanwhile Utah women of other faiths opposing plural marriage prepared counter memorials to Congress and the President under the auspices of the Utah-based Anti-Polygamy Society, founded in 1878. In 1886 Angie Newman, with the Methodist Episcopal Home Missionary Society and congressional support, built a Salt Lake City home for disenchanted plural wives and their children. They believed their benevolent efforts would arouse sympathy and rescue victimized women. However, the number of applicants seldom reached twenty in any given year, and by 1893 the refuge closed. The eventual passage of the Edmunds-Tucker Act nullified already operative civil rights and duties, including woman suffrage. More than 12,000 Mormons in Utah were disfranchised. In 1890 Church president Wilford Woodruff [only publicly, not privately] abolished new plural marriages, and Utah was admitted as a state in 1896, when once again Utah women gained the vote.
Some historians suggest that the principle of plural marriage had unexpected benefits in politicizing Mormon women. Due to shared domestic responsibilities and the combined efforts of "sister wives," women built and managed cooperative stores and a local silk industry, maintained a grain storage program, established welfare and home industry, edited a major women’s newspaper, attended medical school and developed a women’s hospital with community nurse and midwife training, led women’s suffrage efforts, and participated in public education and higher education. Liberal divorce laws in Utah gave women legal rights; property laws allowed women to own land and maintain their own households. Latter-day Saint women found common cause and gained political experience in pursuing their religious freedoms.