From the Archives: Sex Scandals, Feminism, and Touring the States

13 Aug

For the last couple of weeks, I have been doing research at Girton, the first women’s college in Britain.  Located just outside of Cambridge and surrounded by acres of grass, trees, and gardens, the college was founded in the 1860s by Emily Davies, Barbara Bodichon, and a host of other Victorian feminists who were dedicated to the education of girls.  The buildings are made of red brick and are a bit drafty, even in the midst of the British summer.   The other day I found in the papers of Bessie Rayner Parkes a bit of information related to Mormonism.  Parkes and her father were discussing a sex scandal involving one of their friends Emily Faithfull.  Faithfull had been forced to take the stand in a divorce trial, in which she was accused of having improper relations with both the husband and the wife.  Perhaps the oddest story to come from the trial was that the husband had crawled into bed with Faithfull and tried to have sex with her, while his wife was sleeping just inches away in the same bed.  Parkes felt that Faithfull had committed irreparable breach of propriety, and other women involved with the feminist movement worried that the two would never be friends again.  Of course, the case brought Faithfull quite a bit of notoriety.  She was rumored to walk around in men’s clothing and insisted on defending her choices by writing fictionalized accounts of her life.

Faithfull’s identity as a feminist and experiences as a result of the divorce case inspired to undertake a trip to the United States to try to understand the position of women.  She, of course, made the obligatory stop in Utah, where she attended Eliza R. Snow’s 80th birthday party and interviewed polygamist wives.  Faithfull was disgusted by what she saw in Utah and gave anti-Mormon lectures once she returned to Britain.   Although her book is just as acidic and vituperative as Fanny Stenhouse’s, it’s focus is different.  Unlike other anti-Mormon writers, Faithfull was quite open to the possibility that nineteenth-century understandings of domesticity needed revising.  She worried about the effect that property laws, which denied married women access to their earnings, had on the ability of women to survive within abusive relationships and wanted to provide women with the opportunity to work.  Her concern with Mormonism was not necessarily the multiplication of marital bonds but with the fact that men retained control over property.

Faithfull was not the only women with a scandalous sexual past to visit Utah in the 19th C.  Theresa Longworth Yelverton had been involved in a sex scandal in the 1850s, when she had secretly married an Irish peer only to have him marry another woman and then deny that their marriage had ever occurred. The laws of Scotland, where Theresa claimed the marriage had taken place, added ambiguity to the situation.  In Scotland, a marriage needed no witness, no clergy, and no legal documents to be valid.  All a couple had to do was declare their marriage.  Longworth claimed that she had had sex with Yelverton after he had married her in a secret ceremony and that her reputation would be ruined if the judge refused to recognize the validity of their marriage.  During the trial, Yelverton’s lawyers read letters that Longworth had sent to the Irish peer, which painted her as a sexual voracious young woman who had given herself to the Irishman long before any promise of marriage and who had acted as the pursuer rather than as the prey during their courtship.  Although judges in Ireland would accept her marriage, those in Scotland denied it.  Longworth denied the status of being a legitimate wife in parts of Britain but not in others traveled to the United States.  She found Mormonism far more congenial and barely escaped, according to her account, without the noose of polygamy around her neck.

Although quite different, the books that Faithfull and Longworth published about their experiences suggest that they saw Utah and the United States as a type of laboratory in which different relationships between the sexes could be tested.  Neither had been particularly pleased with traditional understandings of domesticity or wanted to defend it absolutely.  Responses to Mormonism in the 19th C were part of a much larger debate about sexuality and marriage.  In the second of the nineteenth century, feminists and more traditional scholars alike were worried about a supposed surplus of women that existed in the Victorian period.  Spinsterhood, poverty, and even prostitution were seen as likely outcomes for such women who had to rely on their family members for support.  Polygamy was offered, and not just by Mormons, as a possible solution.  Looking at the writings of Faithfull and Longworth reminds us of the complexity of nineteenth-century understandings of domesticity.  Polygamy was often placed against the Victorian angel in the house in contemporary newspaper, and the historiography surrounding Mormonism has drawn on this juxtaposition to talk about the ways in which Mormons were racialized by their contemporaries.  It is important to remember, however, the image of the Victorian angel in the house was always under assault and was much more fragile than she appeared.

For the works of Emily Faithfull and Theresa Longworth Yelverton on Mormonism, see Emily Faithfull, “Three Visits to America” (1884) and Theresa Longworth Yelverton, “Teresina in America” (1875).

2 Responses to “From the Archives: Sex Scandals, Feminism, and Touring the States”

  1. Liz August 24, 2011 at 2:10 pm #

    Check out Quinn’s Same-Sex Dynamics Among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example. It’s on google books.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Duchess, Homosocial Relationships, and Patriarchy « Scholaristas - September 2, 2011

    [...] be useful to use her thesis to think about the relationships between Mormon men and women.  When Emily Faithfull visited Utah in the late nineteenth century, she focused on the ways in which women supported and [...]

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