I was born into the Mormon faith, and raised in Lethbridge, Alberta—a city enmeshed in Canada’s polygamist history (more on this in an upcoming blog) with a sizable and politically powerful Mormon population. As a Mormon woman born in 1971, my life course was a pre-ordained path of marriage, motherhood and service—I was born to breed and was expected to devote my energies in unpaid service to my husband, family and the larger Mormon community.
I came of age during a particular moment in history when opportunities for (white) women were expanding, and radical feminist activists were working towards the destabilization of patriarchy in western society. Responding to the left-leaning feminism of the day, the Mormon faith doubled down on traditional gender roles, with a strong insistence that faithful Mormon women would resist the urge of their secular feminist counterparts who sought work and engagement beyond the confines of the nuclear family. As a young child, I was indoctrinated with the message that women who work outside the home, or engage their energies in any projects beyond the folds of the Church were selfish, immoral and in violation of their predestined eternal role in “God’s plan.” As stated by Spencer W. Kimball, the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints from 1973 to 1985,
“No greater recognition can come to you in this world than to be known as a woman of God. No greater status can be conferred upon you than being a daughter of God who experiences true sisterhood, wifehood, and motherhood, or other tasks which influence lives for good. […] Do not make the mistake of being drawn off into secondary tasks which will cause the neglect of your eternal assignments such as giving birth to and rearing the spirit children of our Father in Heaven. […] Let other women pursue heedlessly what they perceive as their selfish interests. You can be a much needed force for love and truth and righteousness on this planet. Let others selfishly pursue false values, but God has given to you the tremendous tasks of nurturing families, friends, and neighbors, just as men are to provide.”
With that in mind, I was raised with the expectation that I would marry and have children and little value or consideration was given to my education. In high school my successes and failures were entirely inconsequential with little notice being given since ultimately such successes and failures would have minimal bearing on my God given responsibilities of wife and mother. Upon graduation I was expected to get a job, find a husband and support him financially through his post-secondary studies until he graduated, at which point I was expected to have children and leave the workforce.
With such a life course laid before me, I was not held accountable by my parents if I passed or failed a high school course. No one ever inquired about any post-secondary educational aspirations I might have—no career planning under the guidance of school counselors was ever offered, and I had no role models to inspire me towards any life path beyond the roles of wife and mother. I married at the age of 21. Being the last of my female high school friends to enter into the state of matrimony, I was considered the final “hold-out.”
Although the gendered expectations of my religious background played a dominant role in reinforcing a traditional life course of marriage and motherhood, my choices were reinforced by the religiously conservative rhetoric of the 1980’s and the rise in political influence of the Christian right. I was part of the first generation of women to potentially benefit from second wave feminism, yet my teenage years during the 1980’s were riddled with conservative rhetoric that took direct aim at the gains made by feminists such as equal rights (specifically the U.S. Equal Rights Amendment) abortion, contraception and homosexuality.
Although the Christian Right had greater political influence in the U.S. than in Canada, our geographical and cultural proximity translates to an unavoidable transmission of ideas. In addition, being Mormon—a distinctly American religion that solidified its place in the Christian Right by adamantly working against the U.S. Equal Rights Amendment, I was subjected to a very politicized and prescriptive message about my ‘natural’ role as a woman. These messages assumed the language of naturalization, and marriage and motherhood, conceptualized from a white protestant ethic, was presented as static, unchanging and God-mandated. Through the consensual institution of marriage, the nuclear family with a wage-earning father as head of the household and a dependent wife to assume the unpaid labor of caring for numerous children, was positioned as natural and unchanging. This discourse presented “traditional” marriage as a universal principle that had always existed and would continue to do so as a manifestation of God’s will.
In contrast to the conservative projection of marriage as being a static, god-ordained institution, historian Nancy Cott has traced the intersectional lineage of sanctioned family formations in the United States demonstrating that this order is gendered, racialized, sexualized and imbricated in settler colonialism.
As stated by Cott, “whether or not marriage is as natural as it is often claimed, entry to the institution is bound up with civil rights” and by “incriminating some marriages and encouraging others, marital regulations have drawn lines among the citizenry and defined what kinds of sexual relations and which families will be legitimate.” Through marriage the rights of citizenship are bestowed delineating those who are welcome into the body politic and those who are excluded. Marriage is a technology of governance that controls sexuality and legitimizes the accumulation of wealth and privilege rooted in an ideology that presupposes the superiority of Christian values and colonial expansion.
Both Christian doctrine and English common law are historically inflected in the legal features of marriage in the U.S. As such, Christian common sense took for granted both the righteousness of monogamous marriage, and the political ordering of marriage insomuch as a husband and father was the head of a household representing himself and his dependents in the civic world. “By consenting to marry, the husband pledged to protect and support his wife, the wife to serve and obey her husband. The body of the marriage was understood to rest on this economic skeleton as much as on sexual fidelity.” With strong analogies to government by consent, an influential and founding principle of “just” U.S. governance in the late 18th century,  upon marriage it was considered both natural and unquestionable that women should be ruled by their husbands.
Through the system of coverture, a women’s legal personality, economic assets and future earnings became her husband’s property. Marriage was thus akin to governance insomuch as the husband ruled over his wife in the same fashion that a ruler governed his people. Wifely obedience was expected in exchange for the benefits and protections of the husband.
Domestic governance and political governance were consequently intimately linked, and marriage in the American republic became the vehicle by which virtuous citizenry would be formed. As such, marriage is not so much a private affair, but a configuration of state government forming a contract between 3 parties—the husband, wife and state, in addition to being a status that a couple enters which grants access to special rights and privileges.
Cott argues that the prescriptive gendered roles of marriage and its implications in state governance were reinforced through the underlying belief in the superiority of monogamy and inferiority of polygamy. Somewhat ironically, it was the early practice of Mormon polygamy that cemented monogamy as quintessentially important to claims of citizenship as the political and judicial branches of U.S. government were forced to deal with the “Mormon problem.” Utilizing a linear narrative that drew upon secularized understandings of the inevitable progress of civilization,
Mormon polygamy was racialized and associated with uncivilized “Asiatic and African” people. Legal theorists such as Francis Lieber wrote in 1827 that monogamy is one of the pre-existing conditions of civilized white men, “Strike it out, and you destroy our very being; and when we say our we mean our race—a race which has its great and broad destiny, a solemn aim in the great career of civilization.” As such, racial rhetoric distinguished between the barbaric practice of polygamy, and the Christian civilized practice of monogamy. This discourse was utilized not solely for the purpose of stamping out the practice of Mormon polygamy in Utah territory, but was also employed in immigration policies that restricted polygamists along with paupers, the insane, felons, and those with loathsome or dangerous diseases from immigrating to U.S. soil.
Underlying this rhetoric was the concern that the “character and stability” of the U.S. “free republican form of government” depended on the “character of the citizenship” and could not incorporate into its body politic the ignorant, criminal, and dangerous. Polygamy, as a racialized practice of sexual sovereignty was deemed incompatible with American values due to its association with ‘barbaric’ and ‘uncivilized Native American, Chinese and Muslim cultures. It was also considered on par with slavery since it was assumed that women would not willingly consent to polygamist relationships, and therefore their participation was assumed to be by force or coercion. Abolitionists and Republicans in the 1850s effectively condemned both slavery and polygamy by associating them with barbarism.
Upon emancipation, slaves that were once denied the legal status required to enter contracts, including the contract of matrimony, were now highly encouraged to marry. The responsibilities of work and marriage were presumed to promote industrious work habits in men, thereby ensuring the enfoldment of former slaves into a productive element of the body politic. Civilizing freedman through sexual regulation, particularly through the institution of marriage was prioritized and the federal government “positively pushed legal marriage on ex-slaves and urged them to create or reconstitute male-headed nuclear families.” Encouraging “African Americans” to marry allowed the state to regulate the sexuality of former slaves. The civilizing discourse of the day took aim at the apparent want of chastity and modesty of African Americans positing the presumed natural promiscuity of blacks corresponding to a racialized hierarchy of morality. Marriage was thus a government intervention in the management of a barbaric population and state laws were quickly passed outlining how freepeople could legally marry or register their existing relationships making other forms of sexual relations misdemeanors and punishable by law.
When considering the role of marriage in the so-called “civilizing” of the “barbaric” freepeople, two special caveats require attention— the government’s particular focus on male marital privilege and the government’s interest in preventing interracial marriage. For black men, the roles of father and husband to rule over wives and children was considered a personal liberty endowed by nature and God. Through marriage, black men accessed their entitlements as husbands and fathers to rule over wives and children thus elevating their citizenship and reinforcing “the earlier view that a wife was not self-governing because she did not control her own labor [or body].” In addition, legal measures quickly took aim at limiting interracial marriages— reflecting the theory of polygenesis. “According to the theory, black and white races were created separately and unequally, each with distinctive physical and mental characteristic: mixing them would produce weak, probably sterile offspring and degrade both races.”
The government’s connection of marriage to citizenship through racialized discourse that focused on civilizing barbaric populations also focused on Native Americans. Once again federal policies took aim at “civilizing” Native Americans as potential citizens. The primary marker of civility and the corresponding granting of citizen status meant “instituting faithful monogamous households, turning Indian men into farmers motivated by the work ethic, and urging Indian women toward norms of modesty and domesticity.”
The U.S. government (Canadian policies will be explored in a future blog) took liberties to control the sexual mores of Native women and men under the guise of citizenship. The conjunction of male citizenship through property ownership (land, wives and children) are clearly articulated in the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 which dissolved the collective ownership of tribal land in favor of individual plots to be granted to each native family with conferment of U.S. citizenship upon the male household heads who accepted the allotments.
As a supposed “civilizing” process, the Dawes Act not only legally facilitated the expropriation of Native land, but also subverted Native American women’s roles and communal ways of life. Once again, the linkage between sexual mores and practices at odds with protestant morality were governed through the institution of marriage. More than a private commitment between two persons, marriage was the means by which citizenship was conceptualized and granted for non-white/racialized men. Under this arrangement women were assets and monogamy was a practice denoting civility and the worthiness of men to enter the body politic.
These same gendered, sexualized and racialized ideologies that link marriage to citizenship and the stability of a ‘just’ governance continue today, and is a corner stone of the Christian Right reflected in the Mormon discourse of my formative years. One year prior to my marriage, Gordon B. Hinckley a high-ranking member of the LDS leadership who would later become president of the Mormon faith said the following, “The strength of the nations lies in the homes of the people. God is the designer of the family.”
Hinckley’s statement sits comfortably in association with national building rhetoric of the mid 19th century wherein “a rhetorical relation had been set up between the institution of marriage and the success of the national compact so that what undermined one put the other at risk.”
Hinckley’s comment undermines a linear temporal logic that thinks of racism and sexism as the exclusive domain of the past. As Amy Brandzel argues, “citizenship is an anti-intersectional temporal structure that situates normative and nonnormative subjects within time.” Citizenship not only determines who will be included in the body politic (and the degree of privilege various levels of inclusion imply), it also demarcates the excluded. In the settler colonial project of the Americas, excluded are the savage and barbaric—those marked by race, gender and sexuality as markers of nonconformity.
In the ongoing colonial project, my role, as a good Mormon woman, was to marry, submit my will to my husband, and bear children in the name of God and nation.
- Spencer W. Kimball, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. 1979. “The Role of Righteous Women.” General Conference Address, October 1979. Available at: https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1979/10/the-role-of-righteous-women?lang=eng ↑
- Cott, Nancy F. 2000. Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation. Cambridge:Harvard University Press at 4. ↑
- Ibid at 7. ↑
- Ibid at 12. ↑
- Ibid at 17. ↑
- Ibid at 12. ↑
- Ibid at 116. ↑
- Ibid at 114. ↑
- Lieber, Francis. 1827. As quoted in Cotts Supra note 2 at 115. ↑
- Cott Supra Note 2 at 139. ↑
- Ibid at 140. ↑
- Ibid at 117. ↑
- Ibid at 81. ↑
- Ibid at 88. ↑
- Ibid at 89. ↑
- Ibid at 94-95. ↑
- Ibid at 95. ↑
- Ibid at 98-99. ↑
- Ibid at 121. ↑
- Ibid at 122. ↑
- Ibid at 123. ↑
- Hinckley, Gordon B. First Counselor in the First Presidency, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Da Saints. 1991. “What God Hath Joined Together.” General Conference Address, April 1991. Available at: https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1991/04/what-god-hath-joined-together?lang=eng ↑
- Cott Supra note 2 at 77. ↑
- Brandzel, Amy L. 2016. Against Citizenship: The Violence of the Normative. University of Illinois at 137. ↑