153: Dr. Janet Bennion – Living Among Mormon Fundamentalist Polygamy as an Anthropologist

May 20, 2010
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Janet Bennion is an associate professor of anthropology at Lyndon State College in Lyndonville, Vermont, specializing in alternative sexuality in nontraditional religious movements in the Intermountain West, specifically among Mormon fundamentalist polygynists. She has a Ph.D. in Anthropology from University of Utah and a Masters in Social Organization from Portland State University. Her doctoral expertise lies in cross-cultural perspectives of sexuality, gender and society, and women of the fundamentalist world.

Her scientific publications include two major ethnographic works and two comparative analyses of Mormon polygynous women, as well as many peer-review journal articles. Women of Principle: Female Networking in Contemporary Mormon Polygyny (Oxford University Press 1998) offers an in-depth study of gender roles and sexual norms in the Apostolic United Brethren sect in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana, cataloging women’s conversion stories. This ethnography shows that while abuses do exist, some women achieve ironic ascendance and satisfaction in fundamentalism. Desert Patriarchy (University of Arizona Press 2004) presents her theory explaining the role of the desert environment (Chihuahua, Mexico) in the development and maintenance of a patriarchal gender ideology. Her model identifies several factors — male supremacy, female network, non-secular education, imbalanced sex ratios, alternative sexuality, and circumscription — which work to facilitate the longevity of desert patriarchal communities.

Janet Bennion is an associate professor of anthropology, specializing in alternative sexuality in nontraditional religious movements in the Intermountain West, specifically among Mormon fundamentalist polygynists. She has a Ph.D. in Anthropology from University of Utah and a Masters in Social Organization from Portland State University.

Her doctoral expertise lies in cross-cultural perspectives of sexuality, gender and society, and women of the fundamentalist world.

Her scientific publications include two major ethnographic works and two comparative analyses of Mormon polygynous women, as well as many peer-review journal articles. Women of Principle: Female Networking in Contemporary Mormon Polygyny (Oxford University Press 1998) offers an in-depth study of gender roles and sexual norms in the Apostolic United Brethren sect in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana, cataloging women’s conversion stories. This ethnography shows that while abuses do exist, some women achieve ironic ascendance and satisfaction in fundamentalism. Desert Patriarchy (University of Arizona Press 2004) presents her theory explaining the role of the desert environment (Chihuahua, Mexico) in the development and maintenance of a patriarchal gender ideology. Her model identifies several factors — male supremacy, female network, non-secular education, imbalanced sex ratios, alternative sexuality, and circumscription — which work to facilitate the longevity of desert patriarchal communities.

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22 Responses to 153: Dr. Janet Bennion – Living Among Mormon Fundamentalist Polygamy as an Anthropologist

  1. HELEN CANNON
    May 20, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    Congratulations Janet! These are amazing achievements, but your greatest achievement is having raised two beautiful and amazing daughters. We are stunned by them–their beauty and brilliance, and we want to give credit where credit is due…

  2. May 20, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    I likey

  3. May 21, 2010 at 12:44 am

    Another fascinating interview. Absence apparently makes the heart grow fonder in sick ways when it comes to parenting.

  4. May 21, 2010 at 1:53 am

    My bad for commenting before finishing listening. It’s called ménage à trois, John, but the real keeper has to be Janet’s: “When Viagra came out, there was an amazing transformation in polygamous society.” OMG. Too funny.

  5. Allen
    May 24, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Because a relative of mine joined and then left one of the fundamentalist polygamist groups (Harmston group in Manti) I have tended to stereotype all polygamists into the same mold that you see in the FLDS. I appreciated learning about the diversity that exists within many of the polygamist groups. Thank you for a very insightful podcast.

  6. Bill
    May 24, 2010 at 7:53 pm

    One of my problems with polygamy has always been that wives are seen as rewards for righteous living. Modern day fundementalist communities seem to reinforce this. The more righteous you are, the more wives you can have. Seems a bit demeaning to the women. As if women don’t have enough things that demean them!

    One simple things that leads me to believe that polygamy will not be practiced in the eternities is that I am not ready to believe that there will be twice as many women (3x?, 4x?,…) as men in the celestial kingdom. This would seem to conote an inherent inequality among the sexes that I can’t agree with. Maybe that is just my simple mind, but it seems fairly straight forward to me….

  7. David
    May 25, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    Bill, regarding plural marriage in the eternities: I read somewhere that extra plural wives for righteous men in the Celestial Kingdom would be drawn from the lower kingdoms.

  8. George Windes
    May 26, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    Dr. Bennion,
    Thank you so much for the overview of polygamy and the diversity found there. Several decades ago I had a writing project where I contact Rulon and Owen Allred, Leroy Johnson, Joel and Ervil LeBaron (w/ several other Firstborn leaders, especially Bill Tucker). My correspondence lead to personal visits with several of (and some of their wives). I corresponded with/visited several non-polygamist Mormon schism leaders as well.

    In all cases I was treated respectfully. My questions were answered. I am of mixed Native American heritage and that factor may have played in my favor with some of the leadership. It was a time when “cities of refuge” were being talked about, the building of the “City of the New Jerusalem” envisioned in the near future. The LeBarons especially taught that Native peoples would accomplish that task.

    I have kept dozens of letters, pamphlets, booklets, leaflets, books, etc., from the various groups, including 19 years of Truth Magazine. Perhaps John needs to have a Podcast on the problem of hording at some point (ha!).

    If I were to do donate that library, do you have a venue you could suggest?

    • BenjaminNShaffer
      November 2, 2011 at 5:51 pm

      May I suggest myself… Only because I am engaged in scanning and making such documents available online. I would be happy to obtain these documents so that I can scan them and make them available as PDFs or e-books. This would make them available far more widely than most avenues. In the alternate I would give Them to the internet archive, or directly to the AUB. 

  9. George Windes
    May 26, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    Janet,

    Excuse my senility. I read my posting and realized I had overlooked the most tragic of my schismatic contacts. David Longo, who believed in Fundamentalist teachings and eventually led his wife and large brood to destruction was also a correspondent. I was actually in Salt Lake when the climax of his psychosis came. Such a shocking event. Such sadness.

  10. Rob
    May 28, 2010 at 6:53 am

    Amazing interview. I hope to find more information about Dr Bennion’s stay with the Allreds. (Thanks for the above references.)

    This interview has prompted hours of discussion in our home and with extended family. (I think it is time to get a link to this site in the ward newsletter – seriously.)

  11. May 30, 2010 at 7:58 am

    I love this kind of stuff. It really helps to be able to empathize and truly (at least try to) understand how another group lives.

    George – I would donate your collection to the Marriott Library at the University of Utah. Contact the Special Collections Department — they have a huge collection of Mormon-related material and your stuff would fit nicely in their collections.

  12. George Windes
    May 31, 2010 at 9:47 pm

    Swearing Elder, thanks for the donation suggestion. It makes good sense. Two long epistles from Rulon C. Allred and
    the leader of the Cutlerites in Independence are especially insightful. Allred had mastered the act of chirography.

    PS: I like your “SE” title. I have been thinking of “Snoring High Priest” myself.

  13. Ella Menno
    June 1, 2010 at 4:58 am

    @ David

    “Bill, regarding plural marriage in the eternities: I read somewhere that extra plural wives for righteous men in the Celestial Kingdom would be drawn from the lower kingdoms.”

    Holy cow, reference please. Since polygamy for eternity is Hell for me if this is correct then I’m screwed no matter what. If I’m righteous I get polygamy, if I’m not I get polygamy. There is no hope!

  14. Janet Bennion
    June 2, 2010 at 8:37 am

    Thanks so much for your comments about the interview. I believe polygamy to be one of the most complex and interesting marriage forms. I see you agree. Above all, realize that not all polygynous marriages are the same. Some can be wretched for men, for example. I just got off the phone with a key informant (an independent who left the Allred Group several years ago). His first wife has cancer, his second wife left him for a lesbian companion, his third wife is struggling to help bolster his dying business, and he is going through a mid-life crisis. In this way you can see that the problems you have in a monogamous marriage seem to become compounded with the addition of several spouses. Everyone has baggage they carry into a relationship. Imagine dealing with four sets of baggage issues!

    George, I am coming to Utah June 18-20. I’d love to get copies of your Rulon journals before you take them to the Marriott Library. Is that possible? I would truly love to analyze your material for a new project. Perhaps we could work on it together?

  15. George Windes
    June 3, 2010 at 2:02 am

    Hi Janet,

    Unfortunately (or fortunately) I live in Orange County, California. My out-of-state travel is mainly confined to Santa Fe, N.M. My oldest son, Spencer, lives there, an activist in environmental issues. I get to Okmulgee, Ok., occasionally, where I hold tribal citizenship. I’m the West Coast reporter for our tribal newspaper.

    My data from Dr. Allred consists of two hand written epistles, approximately 6 to 8 pages in length each. He was quietly recruiting me to an active participation in fundamentalism (after I approached him). I do have a couple of follow-up letters from Owen, in more recent times. Today I came across HOUR OF CRISIS – DAY OF VENGEANCE, by Ervil LeBaron, May 1974. It was his most important work. Another rare volume, THE GOVERNMENT OF GOD, which sought to be, AN ANSWER TO THE CHURCH OF THE FIRSTBORN OF THE FULNESS OF TIMES, by the Utah Church. The Mexican church could afford but few copies of GOVERNMENT, the quality of paper was poor.

    Let me reflect on this. I will possibly just copy those items you are interested in (maybe do some scanning as well).
    I do have a partial database of my collection somewhere. I am attempting to downscale my collections/hobbies.
    I would like working with you, thought I readily admit to a slowdown in “lengthening my stride.”

    SHALOM.

    • Amy Dymas
      August 19, 2011 at 1:02 pm

      Hi George,

      I’m working on an important Ervil LeBaron document right now and would love to see these documents. Is there any way you could email them to me?

      Amy

  16. June 17, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    Thank you for this podcast. It was so interesting and enlightening.

  17. Kucing
    August 21, 2010 at 9:56 am

    This also comports with my experience in AUB. I love those people. They are good people. Among the best. So many lies about them. I am pleased that the TRUTH is given to us by this good anthropologist. Truly, plural marriage does empower women. No, they are not the brainwashed group.

  18. Caitlin
    August 21, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    Hi, I’ve just started listening to your podcast, and I love this episode. I’m a non-Mormon fascinated with Mormon history and culture, and I find the fundamentalist groups and LDS relationship to them very interesting. It’s really great to hear an anthropologist talk about these things, and the differences between the different fundamentalist/polygamist groups. Fascinating stuff! I would be really interested to hear Dr. Bennison or a researcher like her compare or just discuss the modern polyamory movement in relation to Mormon polygyny.

  19. October 24, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    This seems like a fair and compassionate look at this subject, thank you for your work. I am personally in a polygamous relationship that is not associated with any particular religion – it just works for us, and has for some time now. It is a rich life with much intimacy. I can’t imagine being in a monogamous relationship again, having done this.

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