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.)