The horrifying discovery that Mormon founding mother and proto-feminist Eliza R. Snow was repeatedly sexually assaulted brought attention to the problematic aspects of sexuality in Mormonism. This finding is especially striking in the context of polygamy during the notoriously uptight Victorian era. Imagine enduring and surviving this experience in secrecy, and only recorded as dark whispered conversations among trusted women around kitchen tables. No counselors, no rape kits, no police reports, no justice, – that was the reality of women’s sexual vulnerabilities until fairly recently.
As tragic as Sister Snow’s experience was, contemporary accounts often ignored the parallel reality of women of color in the 19th century. Native American and African-American women were not even considered as legally human at the time; in post-Civil War America, the frustrated promises of the Reconstruction era still left African-American women with the same vulnerabilities, and the systematic forced displacement of the entire Native American nations further erased the presence of women of color. We will never know how many women of color, often considered public property, were victims of sexual violence. The few stories we have, again handed down as whispered conversations, are only hints at a broader context where women of color were fair game for predators.
Even now, the repercussions still linger. Because of interlocking and overlapping legal structures, Native American women experience high rates of rape and sexual assault with little recourse. The Mormon church is not immune; recently two Navajo siblings filed suit alleging that the church did nothing to stop sexual abuse while they were placed in a church program for Native American children. Given the church’s own checkered history on addressing sexual abuse and racism, one can imagine the multiple layers of secrecy and shame when a Mormon person of color is subjected to sexual assault.
We will never know how many nameless, invisible, non-white women, then and now, who underwent the same fate as Sister Snow. We can only guess – and remember, “for and on behalf of.”