Karen Lystra, The Young Woman’s Journal, and Mormon Patterns of Courtship

3 Aug

We plan to have a few more posts on the Pink Dialogue.  In the meantime, however, I thought I would share some of the research that I have been doing.

As I mentioned in a comment to Elizabeth’s post on the Pink Dialogue, I have been reading Karen Lystra’s “Searching the Heart” as part of my research on debates over polygamy during the late nineteenth century.[1] One of the things that I want to do in my research is move beyond studies that focus on how many wives Joseph Smith or Brigham Young had to look at how Mormon men and women thought about marriage and love itself. I am still at the beginning of my research on this project, however, and my thoughts are more like rough gesturings than they are fully formed theses about Mormon understandings of marriage or courtship patterns. Please forgive the rather rambling nature of my thoughts.

Lystra’s book argues that historians have fundamentally misunderstood Victorian culture and have characterized it as sexually repressed, prudish, and conservative.  Using Victorian love letters, she documents a flourishing of private sexual expression that existed beside public reticence concerning sex.  She argues that the intense condemnations of desire we associate with Victorian sexuality were in the minority and were written in response to the specter of intense female desire.  Love letters included paeans to the genitals and breasts of lovers, celebrated female desire, and recounted instances of sexual bliss.  She argues that Victorian reticence about public sexual speech gave these private expressions their meaning and power.

Recently, I have been reading the issues of The Young Woman’s Journal that appeared before 1890 Manifesto concerning polygamy. [2] Although anti-Mormon authors like Fanny Stenhouse, Ann Eliza Young, and William Dixon accused Mormons of being overly sensual, what marks their pages is not an overabundance of sexuality but a lack of sexual expression.  In article on courtship, L.S. Dalton admonishes young girls not to let their suitors put their arms around their waists, stroke their hair, or touch their faces.  To do so without an engagement would be degrading and sinful.[3]

The patterns of courtship advocated in the Journal do not match the culture of love Lystra describes.  Although the men and women who wrote for the Journal recognized the importance of love within marriage and courtship, they emphasized the necessity of subjugating such attachments to the will of God and praying to receive guidance.  Men and women who wished to marry were encouraged to pray to God to sanction of their union.  Any love or courtship that was all consuming — that became more important to them than anything or anyone else – was seen as nothing more than idolatry and lust.

The de-emphasis on physical desire and love can be found in private correspondence as well.  According to Lystra, courting couples used salutations of increasing familiarity as their courtship intensified – “Dear Friend” giving way to “My Dear Little ‘Dot’” and “Dear Lonely Heart.”[4] The Mormon missionary and theologian Parley P. Pratt, however, addressed his letters to his wives with “My Dear Friend,” rarely greeting them with any other appellation in spite of their increasing familiarity.[5] The purpose behind his platonic addresses was born not out of his desire to please God or to avoid lust but out of the practical necessities of polygamous marriage.  Admitting to sexual desire or emotional attachment within polygamous marriages could lead jealousy and bitterness.

Reading The Young Woman’s Journal against Lystra’s book throws into stark relief the changes that had to occur in order for polygamy to be a successful system.  Polygamy was not compatible with nineteenth century understandings of marriage and courtship which emphasized the importance of total disclosure so that two lives could effectively be merged into one.  Multiplying the number of wives involved more than building multiple chimneys and bedrooms; it involved changing the ways in which individual men and women related to each other as husbands and wives and changing the ways in which young men and women approached courtship.  Looking at The Young Woman’s Journal helps us to begin to think about how Mormons approached marriage, love, and courtship, but it leaves many questions answered.  How did Mormons think about divorce?  In what ways was lived experience different from the norms of courtship and love that Mormons established?  How did sister wives relate to each other and conceive of their relationship?

I hope to be able to answer some of these questions in the weeks to come as I continue my research but would appreciate any thoughts that anyone has or anything they have come across in their own research.


[1] Karen Lystra, Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 1989)

[2] In the months before the Manifesto was publicly released, Wilford Woodruff began quietly refusing permission for new polygamous marriages. The Young Woman’s Journal continued to support plural marriage throughout this time period. It published poems lamenting the incarceration of polygamous men and short stories in which the protagonists achieved happiness by becoming second wives. Its authors – Lu Dalton, Susa Young Gates, etc. – were also women who had been reared during the time period when polygamy was seen as the height of religious devotion.

[3] L.S. Dalton, “Love. Courtship and Marriage,” The Young Woman’s Journal Vol. I, No. 9 (June 1890): 315.

[4] Lystra 19.

[5] Thanks to Terryl Givens for pointing this out during the Joseph Smith Summer Seminar this year.

11 Responses to “Karen Lystra, The Young Woman’s Journal, and Mormon Patterns of Courtship”

  1. J. Stapley August 4, 2010 at 7:55 pm #

    It seems to me that, especially in the early 19th century, “friend” was often used as an appellation for family and for ones spouse, both inside and outside Mormonism.

    I think that there are interesting contrasts in sexuality. On the on hand, you have folks like Zina telling Eastern papers that Mormons don’t believe in romantic love; and on the other, you have folks like George Watt writing effusive love letters to his wives.

    • amanda5245 August 4, 2010 at 11:30 pm #

      Jonathan – Thank you for your comment! I appreciate getting comments to help me figure out what I need to think through more deeply or spend more time explaining.

      No doubt many Mormons and non-Mormons used “Dear Friend” as a greeting in their letters to their wives and husbands. I think what Lystra found in love letters in the Huntington Library is that the use of this greeting tended to be replaced by more personalized and intimate salutations as a couple’s relationship became more intense. It wasn’t that it was never used, but that it was used far less frequently the longer a couple had known each other. My point was that using a variation of “Dear Friend” was one way to decrease jealousy between plural wives and that it points to potential incompatibilities between nineteenth-century understandings of love, which emphasized finding one’s completion in another person, and polygamy.

      The point you make about George Watt and the varied sexuality of nineteenth-century Mormons is an important one. There are large gaps between discursive sexuality and lived experience. I’ll have to read either Watt’s love letters or the biography Ronald Watt published. I wonder how Watt negotiated any potential jealousies between his wives and how common his emotive style was between nineteenth-century Mormons.

      A lot of Mormon women and men did seem to find polygamy to be incompatible with romantic love. I think it was Fanny Stenhouse who wrote that her entire being would have to be so changed that she could no longer recognize herself before she could imagine being happy as a plural wife and watching the man that she loved love another woman. As much as we might question Stenhouse’s portrayals of polygamy, there is an air of truth to her statement here. When women like Zina talked about romantic love, as you point out, they tended to dismiss it as a part of Mormon courtship. I think they did so out of a recognition that loving someone so intently that they become your reason for being could be a problem in a marriage where the husband would be having sex with other women and might leave for extended periods of time on missions. This, of course, does not mean that Mormon women did not love their husbands, but it does mean that Mormons tended to emphasize childrearing, devotion to God, etc. over romantic love.

  2. J. Stapley August 5, 2010 at 3:59 am #

    I tend to agree with your assessments of romantic love. But I also tend to think that my agreement isn’t born of anything like systematic study. It just makes sense to me that Mormons would de-emphasize romantic love. I also think that a broad study would likely reveal some great surprises. George Watt’s bio was one such surprise to me. How much of this was going on under the surface? I just happened to be reviewing my notes from Martineau’s diary and he includes a very interesting description of polygamist courtship (p. 62 in the BYU edition). Has anyone looked at this already? It seems odd to me that I can’t think of anything off the top of my head.

    • amanda5245 August 5, 2010 at 4:19 am #

      Not that I’ve found. There are two summer seminar papers that I’m trying to find the references for but have proved unsuccessful thus far. I also plan to start e-mailing people to see if they know of anything. So far it seems like most work on marriage in the nineteenth century as it concerns Mormons is more about responses to polygamy or the reasons why Mormons began to practice polygamy. I am sure there has to be something that looks at how Mormons understood marriage, courtship, etc. but I haven’t found it yet.

  3. Lisa Tait August 5, 2010 at 4:42 pm #

    When you read the YWJ, be careful to read admonitions such as Lu Dalton’s in dialogue with the fiction. Even though the purpose of that fiction is often to warn young women against unsuitable marriages, there is an unmistakable thread running through it that assumes there is such a thing as “true” love and that it should be passionate (though of course it was not considered appropriate to go into too much detail in print). Look at the climax scenes in “Seven Times” or “John Stevens’ Courtship.”

    If you’re looking for a post-manifesto shift in how these things are portrayed, I’m not sure the YWJ is the best place to look because it began publication only a year before the manifesto. In my reading (I just finished a dissertation on the YWJ), the biggest shift after the manifesto was some semi-hysterical rhetoric about how there were not going to be enough men to go around and the girls needed to prepare themselves to be old maids for the gospel’s sake. But meanwhile, they kept writing stories that revolved around romance, usually with a climactic love scene that featured breathless kissing.

    Are you planning to look at the Woman’s Exponent, too? You might find some useful material for comparison there or in the other periodicals. Good luck! Sounds like a great project.

  4. de Pizan August 15, 2010 at 12:37 am #

    “How did Mormons think about divorce?”

    I’m currently reading In Sacred Loneliness about Joseph Smith’s wives, and what is interesting is how frequent divorce seemed to be among early Mormons, or at least the set represented in the book. Quite a number of these 33 women divorced husbands, whether because a spouse was non-Mormon or disaffected, or whether because of a polygamous union that didn’t work out. Also interestingly is that some separated from husbands and remarried without any record of a divorce. And then in addition to the polygyny, there was a lot of polyandry going on with some women married and living with one husband, but were then sealed to another for eternity and apparently consummating that marriage as well, but continuing to live with that first husband. Marriage during those early polygamy years seemed to be a pretty fluid concept!

    • Angie August 15, 2010 at 5:37 pm #

      How common was all of this? Or was the system of polygamy well-organized overall?

      • de Pizan August 15, 2010 at 10:11 pm #

        Just from Joseph Smith’s wives, of the 33, 11 of them were already married civilly to another man when they married Smith for eternity. 3 of them had non-member husbands, but the other 9 had husbands in good standing with the church. Generally, they were married to their first husband for time only in the temple, but Smith for eternity. So then after Smith’s death, his apostles were supposed to marry his widows in a kind of Levirate marriage and any children that came from that Levirate marriage were considered to be sealed to Joseph Smith (which is on reason why Brigham Young and Heber C Kimball married so many women, as the 2 leading apostles, they married the majority of Smith’s widows). So then again the women would marry one of the apostles for time and often be resealed to Smith for eternity–but they often continued living with that first husband after marrying the apostle, so might have two simultaneous “time only” husbands. I count around 17 of those 33 women as separating or divorcing from one of their “time only” husbands at some point, whether that was their original husband, a Levirate apostle husband, or another altogether (sometimes the women might marry in a Levirate marriage, but never live with that husband, and those time only marriages seemed a little more fluid and so that may be why there was a separation but no formal divorce before marrying another man).
        It’s a rather small selection though to know how common this was church-wide. And I’m no expert at all, but I’d be inclined to speculate these polyandrous marriages may have dropped off after the move to Utah and polygamy became more settled.

  5. Angie August 15, 2010 at 5:34 pm #

    As opposed to our current “anything goes” culture, the everyday realities of polygamy must have required the participants to “bridle their passions.” The wives could not indulge their desires as often as they may have wanted, because they were sharing one man. And the man could not focus on one “favorite” without making a mess of the whole system. I’m guessing that they all had to tell themselves “no” all the time.

  6. amanda5245 August 16, 2010 at 3:39 am #

    Thanks for your comments, everyone! I’ve been a little missing in action lately as far as the comments since I’ve been finishing a paper which is related to this post but not directly.

    Lisa – Thanks for the comments and suggestions. I find the stories quite perplexing. One of the things that stands out to me about them is that several seem to be about the importance of following the advice of one’s parents in regard to choosing a spouse. It seems as though girls who disregard their parents’ wishes often end up mistaking lust for love in the stories while girls who follow their parents’ guidance often find true love with someone who they originally thought was boring in a few cases but ends up sustaining their interest. There seems to be some anxiety about the choices that young girls were making in this time period and their willingness to give into strong feelings. I am sure that this concern was spread across American culture in this time period, but it seems as though it might have been particularly resonant in Utah in this time period as a result of the changes that had recently occurred (i.e., the opening of the railroad, the influx of Gentiles, etc.)

    Re: Frequency of Divorce

    As I far as I’ve heard, divorce remained quite common in Utah. Fanny Stenhouse accused Brigham Young of pocketing the money that he received from such divorces. Young supposedly once joked himself that Utah’s divorces provided his wives with their “pin-money.” People have speculated that one reason why Brigham Young would have been so willing to grant divorces is that they acted as a safety valve for those people who found polygamy impossible to live in or who had married too quickly.

  7. Lisa Tait August 16, 2010 at 5:43 am #

    Amanda–Yes, there is a very strong generational dynamic in the YWJ. I would argue that the stories were not so much about marriage in any realistic way as they were about the older generation’s fears about the younger generation. They were not about the choices the girls were actually making; they were about the choices their mothers feared they would make. In some stories, marriage is incidental, even though the plot seems to focus on it. The story is really about the need for young people to listen to their parents. And all of this was fueled by a sense of generational crisis that was a direct response to the profound and wrenching changes taking place in the culture. After all, one of the main arguments in favor of polygamy was that there were not enough good men to go around. Now that polygamy was no more (officially), there were still not enough good men to go around, and a sense of hysteria set in about the marriage prospects for the young women. They would have to choose to be “old maids for the gospel’s sake” (to quote the climax of one of Susa’s stories). The lucky (or most righteous) ones would find their foreordained mate. But it was very uncertain, and the mothers were sure that their daughters were extremely vulnerable to the allure of “outsiders”–men who would seduce them for the thrill of it and then abandon (or murder) them. There was a whole web of communal rhetoric that developed on the topic, and the stories have to be read as an extension of that rhetoric. There is also a broader context for this, as the end of the nineteenth century saw the development of the idea of “adolescence” as a discrete life stage (culminated in G Stanley Hall’s book in 1904). And young women were being transformed from “young ladies” to “girls” (to quote the title of Jane Hunter’s book) as the new worlds of school and consumer society helped to redefine their lives, which meant a reduction in the influence of their mothers and the fading of the traditional intergenerational pattern of female socialization.

    Sorry–I’ll stop now. But I’m very interested to hear more about your work as it progresses. Let me know if I can help you with references.

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