Many states still followed the common law Doctrine of Coverture, which declared a woman civilly dead once she married. It’s not just…
GROSS: So she had no legal rights over her money, her property. She had no ownership over them.
ULRICH: Her money, her – her money, her property – she couldn’t sue or take a case to court except under a father or a husband – so dependency. The right to divorce – although divorce laws were greatly liberalized in the 19th century in most parts of the country, it was definitely – you had to prove either adultery – it took a while for physical abuse to be grounds for divorce.
.. Utah had no fault divorce from the beginning. It was very, very open and pretty common. And particularly, I think that made plural marriage workable. If you didn’t like it, you could leave.
.. It’s a very different world than we imagine. And so instead of comparing plural marriage in the 19th century to our notions of women’s rights today, we need to compare plural marriage, monogamy and then other institutions that really distressed people in the 19th century, like prostitution for example, different kinds of bigamous relationships.
So Mormons would argue, many American men have multiple sexual partners. They’re just not responsible. They don’t acknowledge them. They don’t give them dignity. They don’t legitimate their children. So polygamy is a solution to the horrendous licentiousness of other Americans.
.. So one of the things you’re famous for is a phrase that you originated in – I think it was like an academic paper in the 1970s – and the phrase has since shown up on like T-shirts and bumper stickers. I know you’re asked about this all the time, but the phrase is well-behaved women seldom make history.
Now, knowing your work, knowing that you write about, quote, “ordinary women” who kept journals, and you’re trying to understand what the lives of, like, ordinary women were in their time, I interpret that quote as meaning if you’re just looking at history, you won’t understand the lives of ordinary women because ordinary women seldom make history. But I suspect that that has been – that quote has been interpreted as ordinary women seldom make history so women don’t be ordinary, do something special so you can make history. Don’t be ordinary.
.. Yes. It’s been turned upside-down. On the other hand, you know, I was an ordinary girl from Idaho who got involved in the feminist movement and I’ve been on a collective bargaining team, and my former university, you know – I’ve done a lot of not very well-behaved things. And so I guess I embrace both sides. I embrace the contradiction of that crazy accidental slogan.