Susa and Alma’s Divorce

In Saints, volume 2, one of the key players was Susa Young Gates. A prominent daughter of Brigham Young who went on to do a lot of notable activities herself, Susa is a relatively well-known figure in Latter-day Saint history. One aspect of her story that received attention in Saints was Susa Young Gates’ divorce with Alma Dunford. The  was an important part of both of their life stories, and an aspect that was the focus of a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk with Lisa Olsen Tait. What follows here is a co-post to the interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).

One of the great difficulties in talking about any divorce is that they affect many parties and involve many different factors. To make matters more difficult in this case, as Lisa Olsen Tait observed, “we have to remember that in those days, divorce was an adversarial process—one party had to file a complaint against the other party establishing grounds for divorce. There was no such thing as ‘no-fault’ divorce.” It can also be difficult to write about situations that lead to divorces when domestic abuse is involved, as was the case for Susa and Alma. People are complicated and have many aspects in their lives to consider, but abuse is also abhorrent and should not be excused. With all of that in mind, Tait wrote that she recently published a study of the divorce because: “I felt it was important to lay out the full story, including some of the ugly details, and to contextualize it in terms of legal, social, and gender norms surrounding divorce among Latter-day Saints in the nineteenth century.”

So, who are the parties involved? In speaking of Susa Young Gates, Lisa Tait explained that:

Susanna Young (as she was listed on the 1860 census) was born March 18, 1856, in the Lion House. (She started going by Susa sometime in the late 1870s.) She was the second daughter of Lucy Bigelow and Brigham Young. . . .

Susie showed great literary talent, and deep ambition, from an early age. She first made a name for herself as a writer of letters and stories published in Latter-day Saint periodicals, and then in 1889 she founded the Young Woman’s Journal (organ of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association) and edited it until 1900.

During that same decade, she became involved in quite a breathtaking array of activities in the burgeoning women’s movement, notably the National and International Councils of Women, which led her to travel to many conventions and meetings where she rubbed shoulders with the leading women of the day. . . .

In the early twentieth century, she became a central figure in developing the Saints’ expertise in genealogy and was a proponent of temple work; she served as a temple worker herself for decades. She founded and edited the Relief Society Magazine from 1914-1922 and served on the Relief Society general board.

She wrote lengthy biographies of her father (published) and her mother (unpublished) and thousands of pages of drafts of a monumental but ultimately unfinished work, the History of Women.

She was involved in everything, though she was rarely president of anything. She was a formidable intellect, writer, and personality, well known in her day. Because of all the writing she did, especially the historical materials she compiled, I often say that all roads lead through Susa Young Gates for a certain period of church history.

Susa Young Gates was an influential and prominent figure in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints around the turn of the 20th century.

Alma Dunford is the lesser-known party out of the two. In introducing him, Tait wrote that:

Alma Bailey Dunford was born in 1850 in England. His family had recently joined the church, and when Alma was three years old, they emigrated to the United States. They spent a number of years in St. Louis, where his father was branch president. . . .

Dunford became a pioneer dentist in Utah. He apprenticed to a Dr. Sharp and then struck out on his own in 1872 at the age of 21. He traveled around southern Utah as an itinerant dentist, providing services in the sparsely settled towns and earning money to pay off the debt he had incurred for his tools. Later he established a successful practice in Salt Lake City and trained a generation of younger dentists as modern methods developed. He was highly regarded as a “fine type of gentleman,” according to his obituary, who left behind “an enviable record of a useful life.”

Yet, there was also a dark side to Alma that contributed to the divorce:

There seems to have been a streak of alcoholism in the family: his older brother, William, married a daughter of Emmeline Wells, and his cousin, Morley, married Susa’s older sister Dora. Both of those marriages ended in divorce, likewise over charges of drinking and abuse. We know so much more now about addiction and alcoholism, and I hope we can treat those problems with compassion and forbearance in terms of judgment.

It’s possible that there were underlying issues for which alcohol was the only medication available. We just don’t know.

At the same time, alcohol abuse and its terrible consequences have been a fact of life since time immemorial, and women and children have often suffered terribly as a result. As a historian, I think it is important that we look at these facts and accept them as part of the human experience. . . .

In the trial transcript it is very clear that he had been violent with Susa and the children and had done damage to the household in some of his tirades. Even when he was not drunk, there was conflict and emotional abuse. They threatened each other with divorce repeatedly, and he taunted her that he would take the children and leave her with nothing.

Susie’s mother came running when she would hear screaming and commotion at their house; it is likely that others in the small community were at least somewhat aware of problems in the family.

While this would be solid grounds for divorce for us today, in the court of public opinion at the time, Susa was largely seen as being at fault. In the general social context:

First of all, women in this era internalized an ethic of “suffering self-sacrifice,” as one historian puts it, in which it was understood to be women’s lot and a feature of their feminine identity to suffer in silence and sacrifice themselves in the service of their husbands and children.

When Alma Dunford started staying out late and coming home drunk, young Susie went to her female relatives seeking comfort and help. All they could tell her was that it was her duty to return home and to bear the suffering she was experiencing. She should try to make home more attractive to her husband so he wouldn’t want to go out. They could tell her nothing that would contradict these central gender norms. . . .

We see this in the Dunford divorce case, especially in the trial transcript, where—despite the fact that she presented evidence demonstrating her husband’s violent behavior—Dunford’s lawyers essentially put Susie on trial for being an unfit wife, mother, and woman. She did not keep the house clean; she did not fix meals on time; she did not fulfill other gendered expectations.

Therefore, they implied, anything else that happened was her fault. If she had been more attentive or kept a cleaner house, he would not have become angry or sought refuge in drink. This kind of double bind was a fundamental fact of women’s lives for generations.

It was a lot of pressure and was part of the living hell that Susa experienced, but meant that at the time, she was seen as being largely at fault in the divorce.

Reading about those cultural expectations helped to make more sense of a comment from President Lorenzo Snow. In his famous addresses, he gave some remarks to women that I have always found to be disturbing:

Once in a while a woman would come to me with the information that she had been abused by her husband, and she wanted a bill of divorce. What has your husband done? I would ask. Well, he had done such and such things. Have you ever done wrong? said I. Well, she thought perhaps she might have done wrong sometimes. “Have you ever prayed that your husband might be a better man?” She did not know that she had prayed for him very hard, because at times he had been so abusive that she could scarcely exercise much faith in that direction. “Well,” said I, “you go home and think about it; see if you have not been unwise sometimes and offended your husband; and go into a secret place and pray for him.” . . . “Then,” I said to her, “if things do not get better in about two or three months, come to me again and I will see what I can do for you.” . . . Sisters, I do not say but that your husbands are bad—just as bad as you are, and probably some of them are worse; but, never mind; try to endure the unpleasantnesses which arise at times, and when you meet each other in the next life you will feel glad that you put up with those things.

Telling someone who is enduring abuse that they should just try to be nicer to their abuser is victim blaming. I still find it disturbing to read of a Church leader stating that, but in the context that Lisa Olsen Tait shared, it was apparently a pretty standard view for the time and place.

In the end, “The divorce was granted, as we know. The couple’s property was divided up in a way that is hard to characterize as fair.” But, life went on and became better for the people involved in time. For Susa:

In a real sense the divorce enabled her to move on with her life and fulfill her potential to an extent that might not have happened otherwise.

In practical terms, when she remarried she sought to master the homemaking skills that she had previously lacked, and she took great pride in cooking, sewing, cleaning, and caring for her family. This undoubtedly contributed to the success of her second marriage but also helped her heal from the wounds of her first.

For Alma, life eventually became better as well:

According to his daughters, he finally overcame his drinking problem late in life, after raising his children to abstain from alcohol and to be active in the church.

After his divorce from Susie Young, he married Lovinia Clayton (a daughter of William Clayton), and they had ten children together. Dunford was a loving, indulgent father who took great pride in his children. He was generous and friendly and a man of high integrity and ability.

This part of the story also receives some attention in Saints 2, where it talks about how Susa and her daughter Leah had disagreements over Alma: “Alma had become a kind husband and father who provided well for his family and raised them in the Church. Leah loved him and viewed him differently than her mother did.”

For more information about Susa Young Gates’ divorce with Alma Dunford, head on over to read the full interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk.

3 comments for “Susa and Alma’s Divorce

  1. Sad that this still happens in our church, meaning unhappy marriages that probably should end, but stay married because of church beliefs in temple covenants. I have often wondered if God will be happy for those who “stuck it out” or will He be disappointed we didn’t find a true celestial marriage on the earth? Which is the greater sin? I have family that should have divorced years ago that felt they should stick it out only to divorce later. Cant help but think delaying the inevitable is not the right path in marriage. Life is too short and eternity is too long for a bad marriage…And will a bad marriage here really continue there? I doubt it. It must be the ordinance AND the
    proper relationship to be valid in the next life. I think too many saints just rely on the ordinance. IMO.

    Super happy that things (hopefully) are much, much better for the sisters in marriage than back in the day. You poor souls!

  2. REC11, you make an excellent comment about too many members relying on the ordinance.

    They some how believe all of their problems will magically disapper when they move into the next life.

    After reading what Lorenzo Snow told the women who came to him for advice I can see why they do so.

    We have been told over and over that our Heavenly Father is a lovingly father.

    One that would not give His children a stone when they ask for bread.

    He will not force us to live in unhappiness for eternity.

    If we are unhappy now, living in a Temple marriage with some one who is down right awful, I do not believe we will be expected to stay with them for eternity.

    We have been told to not develop earthy bad habits, drug addictions and others because these will follow us after death and onto resurrection.

    So why would our lack of love and deep affection for the person who is not worthy of it, some one who treats us badly and does not respect us not follow us also.

    L Snow seemed to think that all would be magical and wonderful if the woman would just hand on until she died to the monster she was married to.

    Very sad.

    I believe Brigham Young himself had two of his wives divorce him.

    He also married several women who were divorced from their first husbands and some who he married that were not divorced but still married to their husbands when he was “sealed for all time and eterity” to them.

    Things in pioneer territorial Utah seemed to be rather slapdash when it came to the laws of marriage.

    It seemed to be pretty much whatever Brigham Young said it was.

  3. Maybe all those who were sealed here get to pick again there? That would make the most sense. Your point about BY and the slapdash of marriage is another reason for members not to take what we believe now as doctrine regarding how the next life plays out in marriage. We did adoptions in the temple along with sealings along with marriages. We did polygamous marriages for time only. Some did not comply to the celestial law of marriage, once called polygamy. Now we pretend it is one woman and one man married in the temple. They all cant be right. If the doctrine was multiple wives that JS started then, as we are taught all the time in the church, doctrine doesn’t change.

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