Polygamy, Women’s Rights, and Marital Sexuality: Elizabeth Kane’s Theory

Nineteenth-century polygamy provoked a decades-long national shouting match over the evils and virtues of the practice. It also prompted a fascinating contemplation by Elizabeth Kane of women’s rights and marital sexuality.

Elizabeth abhorred polygamy. While her husband also opposed plural marriage, he steadfastly defended the Mormons’ constitutional right to practice it. In 1869, her thoughts on plural marriage led Elizabeth to write a broader “Theory” of women’s rights and marital relationships in her diary. Both Thomas and Elizabeth firmly supported women’s rights; as a young wife, Elizabeth attended medical school at the pioneering Female Medical College in Philadelphia, where Thomas served on the governing board.

Elizabeth began her “Theory” by asserting that most people accepted a sexual double standard, believing that “men are not made to be as chaste as women.” As “a Christian” and the “single wife of a faithful husband,” Elizabeth rejected this conclusion, and she set out to “prove to [her] own satisfaction that God did not make man less chaste than woman.” She theorized that while man originally was naturally monogamous, “ages of sinful indulgence on his part increased his polygamous propensities.” In response, woman gradually “underwent a physical change” and became “less chaste than other female animals . . . and so fostered the unnatural passions of man.” As a result, both genders grew up receiving an “unconscious education . . . from their elders to look upon their intercourse simply from a sexual point of view,” which warped relationships between men and women.

Elizabeth placed women’s lack of control over their sexuality and child-bearing at the center of her critique of gender norms. She criticized Christians who “consider monogamy right, without ceasing to act as they did when polygamy had become the rule.” Once a chaste man married, she lamented, he “thinks he is right in putting no restraint upon his passions, and his wife is so glad to be sole possessor of his love that she encourages him.” Since they generally refused to prevent conception, religious men “kill their wives or ruin their health by excessive childbearing.” Elizabeth queried, “Is there no remedy? Must we die or drag on lives of pain–or submit to have our husband’s love cease for us, or he become unfaithful?”

The “Marriage Vow,” Elizabeth asserted, should not be “felt by the best women to bind upon them the absolute giving up of their bodies to their husbands’ control.” Couples should prevent frequent conception through abstention (“live together like brother and sister”). She advised women to “retain their husband’s love without kindling their lust” by not “dressing to provoke them.” A young woman often experienced married sexuality as a “fearful shock,” and struggled “to reassert to herself that she is as pure and honorable in her matronhood as in her virgin innocence.” Under Elizabeth’s vision, women would enter the professions and receive the vote. More radically, she called for the castration of syphilitic men, the separation of prostitutes from the world, and the “right of divorce free to every woman whose husband broke his marriage vow, but I would allow neither to marry again.”

Her plan, Elizabeth believed, would preserve women’s health, allow them to see pregnancy as a blessing rather than a burden, and even improve sex: “as they will look forward to the birth of each child as a day to be preceded by a honeymoon of love and happiness even sexual love will last longer.”

When Elizabeth put her theory on paper in 1869, the Kanes had practiced it for over a decade. After giving birth to a daughter, Harriet, in 1855, Elizabeth had tried “to dress in colors and a style that pleased” Thomas, wanting to be “charming in his eyes.” Following the birth of a son, Elisha, in 1856, Thomas and Elizabeth decided “for many reasons to have no children for some years.” To quell her husband’s sexual desire, she “wanted to avoid anything like coquetry to abjure l’amour for l’amitié [give up love for friendship].” She thus wore clothes of “nunlike plainness.” The decision was not without its tensions: “Though Tom thinks he loves me as intensely as ever, I never see . . . his eyes fixed on me with the old loverlike intensity. I wanted to be his sister, yet I don’t like it now.”

Thomas’s sense of gentlemanly propriety revolted against his wife’s plain dress, and tension simmered below the surface of their relationship. In 1860, the Kanes decided they could “righteously be united again,” and Thomas wanted Elizabeth “to go to some expense to adorn myself as a bride.” He deflated Elizabeth’s attempt to wear “heliotrope powder” (a perfume), when he told her the scent reminded him “of some lady he was fond of in his earlier day.” Jealous, Elizabeth sniffed, “No scent for me but the dissecting room.” Nevertheless, her three new “print dresses” seem to have sufficiently pleased Thomas, as they soon conceived their third son, Evan.

Two and a half years later, after being “so prudish and good” since the birth of their third child and as Thomas served in the Civil War, Elizabeth wrote to Thomas in a signal they were considering another child, “I am already turning over in my head what I shall wear this spring to fascinate you!” Following her visit to her husband at an army camp, she reflected on their initial discomfort. “Prepared for a cool and respectable kiss” upon greeting, Elizabeth did not even receive a handshake. Rather, when they entered his tent, he caught her “unawares,” she wrote, “in that precious clasp that left me so confused when Aunt Mary came in there was no use in my trying to pretend I hadn’t been kissing you.” Soon after, Elizabeth informed her “passionate paramour” that she was pregnant again with their fourth and final child.

While the Kanes privately practiced Elizabeth’s plan to space their children, they never publicly agitated for the reform of marriage along the lines she suggested. A few years after her theory, Elizabeth visited Utah with her husband and was impressed by Mormon women. Ironically, her only published writing during Thomas’s life–an 1874 book on the Latter-day Saints, Twelve Mormon Homes–defended polygamous women (though not polygamy), the very system which once prompted her “Theory.”

(A modified and more extensive version of this post can be found in Liberty to the Downtrodden”: Thomas L. Kane, Romantic Reformer, 145-48. For her theory, see Elizabeth W. Kane, journal, 11 July 1869, Kane Collection, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, BYU.)

20 comments for “Polygamy, Women’s Rights, and Marital Sexuality: Elizabeth Kane’s Theory

  1. No kidding . Hopefully Elizabeth’s ghost is not whispering her ideas about sex into your wife’s ear when she is asleep.

  2. Fascinating stuff, Matt. Why do you think Elizabeth (or Thomas) ever went public with this reform effort? Did they believe strongly in this sex theory, but were still too “Victorian” to speak publicly about it?

  3. Very interesting post. I find the part Though Tom thinks he loves me as intensely as ever, I never see . . . his eyes fixed on me with the old loverlike intensity. I wanted to be his sister, yet I don’t like it now.

    It seems that many people think that a man has more “needs” than a woman, but I’m not too sure about that. I really like to have my husband look at me with “loverlike intensity.” and I don’t think that it is because I’ve been socialized or indoctrinated to feel this way. I think it is just because I love him, I want to show him my love, and I want to see his love, too.

    Lately I’ve been reading in Jacob 2 – where Jacob chastises the Nephites for having concubines and multiple wives even though it had been forbidden of the Lord. Marital sexuality certainly is an interesting concept, though, and it seems like it is hard to come to terms with our biological desires (or sensualities) and the way it all fits into the Lord’s Plan.
    I guess I just think it is interesting how people (esp women) seem to have a tough time transitioning from celibacy into an active sexual life with their spouse…

  4. Jonathan and BBell: Yea, I’m a little worried about haunting, but hopefully Elizabeth will forgive me. Writing a biography brings up all sorts of questions about the privacy of the dead. My own view is that a biographer should write respectfully and sympathetically and should try to understand all facets of an individual’s life.

    Ben: I’m not sure why they never went public. Elizabeth obviously believed strongly in it; Thomas’s views are less clear. Both Kanes hoped that Elizabeth would become an author (as she eventually did in Twelve Mormon Homes); it’s possible that Victorian norms made Elizabeth less likely to publish on this topic.

    Catania: Thanks for the comments.

  5. Very interesting, Matt. Seems like the lack of contraception technology was a real concern for some in the 19th century, compounded no doubt by the fact that general public discussion of the subject was (I’m sort of guessing here) not available.

  6. Contraceptive devices and practices were available and had been for years, but I suppose most Christians at the time found them sinful (sin of Onan and all that). So they were left with two options – widespread death by children for women, or selective abstinence.
    Any man who had any sympathy for his wife would have practiced at least some selective abstinence. That she took this belief to an extreme is not surprising. Seeing women killed by men who can’t bring themselves to leave well enough alone would do that to a sympathetic person.

  7. Thomas Kane was obviously a far nobler gentleman than I had thought, to have cooperated with his wife’s eccentric attitude.

  8. I’m glad to be home, Matt, and finally able to read your post — it was blocked by the COB filters!

    In whatever comments about polygamy that she may have recorded, did Elizabeth ever acknowledge that plural marriage could make it easier to preserve a woman’s health and all the other blessings she found in a woman’s abstaining without putting any hardship on the man? or did she so object to a double standard or a husband’s passion that she objected to polygamy on those grounds, too?

  9. I’m glad my wife and I live now and not then. My wife concurs – except on days when she wishes I had been both then.

  10. Oh, and the following quote is hilarious:

    “Nevertheless, her three new ‘print dresses’ seem to have sufficiently pleased Thomas, as they soon conceived their third son, Evan.”

  11. This was so interesting, thanks. What an interesting person, this Elizabeth Kane.

    I don’t know about others, but *this* husband probably wouldn’t be dissuaded from the…ahem…marital act merely by my wife dressing with “nunlike plainness.” Good thing for the more widespread distribution of contraceptive options today. My heart aches to read her ask, “Must we die or drag on lives of pain–or submit to have our husband’s love cease for us, or he become unfaithful?”

  12. Wow. I don’t know how SHE lived with her “eccentricities.”

    Read 12 MH years ago. Good read.

  13. Hmmm. I guess I don’t see Elizabeth Kane as all that eccentric. As I understand the post, she based her views upon three points:

    1. A rejection of the sexual double standard.
    2. A realization that pregnancy and childbirth are very difficult for a woman, and that we ought to be concerned about a woman’s health and well-being.
    3. A belief that women should have more control than they then did over the frequency of sex.

    What’s so nutty about any of those things? Points 1 and 2 are right out of our church handbook now.

    In the mid 19th century, childbirth was very dangerous. Mortality in childbirth occured at a rate of 400/100,000, compared to a rate now of 8/100,000. Abstention from sex for years at a time sounds odd to us now, but in a time when respectable people used no form of contraception whatsoever, that was the only way a woman could control the number of children she bore.

  14. All: Thanks for the comments. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I want to make clear that by all appearances Thomas and Elizabeth had a loving and devoted marriage. They exchanged affectionate letters with each other whenever one of them was away from home. Here’s the text of a letter that Tom wrote Bessie (as they called each other) on March 22, 1852, during their courtship. Tom was writing from “this low crowded business den” of Independence Hall, where he worked as his father’s judicial clerk. He had recently told his family of their engagement.

    “I gave my Father your Message:
    And I love you.
    And he is content:
    And I love you.
    And I have told my Mother:
    And She loves you.
    And Bessie [Tom’s younger sister]:
    And She loves you.
    But I shall not send the letters I have already written Walter & Charlotte [Bessie’s siblings]:
    For I love you.
    You are a silly child:
    And I love you.
    And should not write to single gentlemen:
    And I love you
    Mrs. Ellis says so:
    And I love you.
    And I am sorry thats all:
    For I love you,
    And, And I love you so much that I begrudge every line of all this that does not tell you only and simply how much and how dearly I love you, my own dear darling, and will love you, now, and hereafter, evermore, forever and ever.
    I am your Cousin no longer
    I shall never again be your friend
    I am your sweetheart.”

    (Mrs. Ellis was a nineteenth-century author of etiquette books. This letter is found in the BYU Kane Collection.)

  15. Ardis: I’ll try to tone down my posts so you can read them at the COB! Elizabeth didn’t talk much, if at all, about these health concerns in her critiques of polygamy. She primarily spoke about the sexual double standard and how polygamist wives would never know the type of love, companionship, and partnership she and Thomas shared.

  16. Matt, I’ve learned that you can get just about anything through the COB filters as long as the title doesn’t include any one of about 3,219,324,667 verboten words. Including “mustache” for some (to me) unfathomable reason. Or “bust” (I tried to help someone yesterday search for information on the little 19th century statuettes of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and learned that that word was on the no-no list).

    Wonderful, wonderful love letter!

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