Auburn University Women’s Studies Speaker Series Book Talk: Polygamy, Women, and Higher Education

I’m sharing the text (listen to audio including Q&A in the link at the bottom of the page) of the book talk I gave at the Auburn Women’s Studies Speaker series today. Please note that components of the talk include portions of other posts and excerpts from the book. 

Hello. Thank you for coming this afternoon to hear more about my first book, Polygamy, Women, and Higher Education. I’m really excited to share some of the life stories of the three women who generously gave their time to talk to me in the Fall of 2011.

But first, I begin by acknowledging that we are, right now, standing on stolen land—the traditional territory of the Muscogee People; and that we are meeting today at a state university who benefited from the labor of kidnapped and enslaved Africans and purposefully pursued racist segregation policies. So, I ask that before we begin, please take a moment to:

Consider this history of violence, displacement, settlement, and colonialism;
Remember the people affected by this legacy;
Reflect on how this history has individually and collectively benefited you;
and Contemplate your responsibility in striving toward meaningful, lasting change (Critical Scholars Working Group, 2019).

It is important to me, and I hope to you, that I make it clear this is will not be a summary of the book. If you’d like to know what is in the book, I hope that you will read it. Instead, as I thought the past month about what I should talk about this afternoon, I started thinking about what I’d want to know about any book that was about a topic was, perhaps, tangentially interested in. I say tangentially interested in because I surmise that there are not many scholars of Mormon fundamentalist polygamy in the room. There are, however, many women’s and critical studies scholars here, and so I prepared this talk for you.

Further, to be clear to those who came to hear more about the nature of a polygamous lifestyle such as those seen in Sister Wives or Big Love, I am sorry to disappoint you. Too often, conversations about women living in or leaving polygamy are reduced to sensationalist snippets of their lives. That is reductionistic and misrepresents their lived experiences. I direct you, instead, to the wonderful memoirs written by women who have left fundamentalist polygamy. They do a better job than I of telling their stories.

Instead, I’d like to talk about the evolution of the research project that led to this book, briefly discuss implications for higher education, and conclude with a conversation about how and why this is important. Because most of us, and again I am making this assumption, don’t live in polygamy. But we do live in a patriarchal society that marginalizes women. So as we think about how we plan to support women leaving deeply patriarchal societies in less overtly marginalizing but still problematic settings like higher education, it is important to consider that our “assistance” must also be interrogated, or we will be helping them to adjust to just another patriarchal society.

Path to the book

The research that resulted in this book began as my Master’s thesis project in Adult Education. The project was my first experience with research, and I beyond enjoyed the process (thankfully, given that I’d spent my entire life wanting to be a professor without knowing exactly what one did). Data collection for the research that informed the book began in the fall of 2011. My MEd was completed in 2012 with my thesis completed shortly before graduation. This book was published in 2018. Six or so years passed between the completion of the thesis and the publication of the book, and while the slower nature of the publication process was certainly an element in that gap, it was only a minor factor contributing to the delay. The bigger factor was my eventual need to completely reanalyze my entire data set through a new theoretical lens, revisit and learn the higher education literature, and develop a more comprehensive understanding of student development theory. That process began the first semester of my doctoral program and continued throughout my coursework and my first two years as a faculty member. In many ways, the book published in 2018 bears very little resemblance to the thesis I wrote in 2012. That is, without question, a very good thing.

The original study explored the life stories of three women who had left Mormon fundamentalist polygamy to understand their readiness for adult education. Using the life story (Stuart, Lido, and Morgan, 2011) method of data collection, framed through feminist theory, three women from two major fundamentalist sects, the FLDS and and UAB, told me their life stories, beginning from their earliest memories to the then present day. As the study was for a degree in Adult Education, I defined readiness according to the contested adult learning “theory” andragogy (Knowles, as defined in Merriam & Caffarella, 1999), although I did not treat it as a learning theory but as a prescriptive list of characteristics of what adult learning settings expected from the ideal adult learner. The five characteristics of the adult learner as defined by andragogy served as a priori codes for data analysis – in my first coding passes through the data, I searched the transcribed life story narratives to identify experiences that might suggest readiness for learning and coded those experiences as one of the five characteristics of an ideal adult learner (yes, this is deeply problematic). Andragogy, aside from being racialized, gendered, and classed, is incomplete-it does not consider the sociocultural context in which adult education takes place in. Because of this, I also coded thematically for what I described as “sociocultural factors,” which included the context of a polygamous life. Analysis followed a grounded theory approach (but, of course, because of the size of the study, the research could not be called a grounded theory study).

In part because of the theoretical and conceptual lens, especially my use of andragogy to create an “ideal” by which I measured the women who participated in this study (the very thing I sought to deconstruct in my future research), my original findings as reported in my thesis reflected a deficiency approach to the women who participated. For example, Sarah explained that she was happy as a wife and mother and did not currently have a need for additional education. In my analysis and reporting, I categorized her as “not ready for adult education” because she was lacking one of the characteristics of a successful adult learner as defined by andragogy-an internal need for higher education. My approach to the research was prescriptive and restrictive: I approached data collection and analysis assuming that education was a universal good so, therefore, I, in essence, labelled Sarah, who did not see a need for more education as deficient. I measured participants against an ideal that was biased not just by my own interests and research goals but rooted in a problematic view of what an adult education student should look like. This was intrinsically and deeply flawed.

As I described in Gendered Student Ideals in STEM in Higher Education, an ideal is problematic when it is presented as objective and unbiased when, in reality, it is very biased because the ideal is often only truly achievable by those already in power in society (or, in the case of media portrayals of “successful” women, completely unachievable). This is also true when we think about using the characteristics of andragogy to define someone who is ready for adult education. The expectation that someone will have, say, certain background experiences that contribute to readiness to learn labels some experiences as valuable and others as not valuable simply based on whether they support the pursuit of an education. Further, the education one is being told they should pursue may not be built for them, be useful to them, and/or may even be harmful to them because it causes them to reject their own knowledge(s). This is not to say that the marginalization of women in polygamous societies was an experience that I viewed as positive, but there was knowledge that each women learned from their lives there that was valid and very valuable to them. Similarly, not having the specific academic or work experiences that might more obviously translate to a specific adult education setting did not signify any sort of deficiency on their part or even a lack of readiness for adult education.

In essence, I’m suggesting that we need to interrogate the norms we are measuring against in our research and lives in addition to and in tandem with those we might be critiquing. We need to be open to alternatives that do not fit our own constructs of what an ideal outcome looks like and be willing to be personally challenged by what we find when we are truly working from the standpoint of another. That is what I did when I revisited the data through the lens of feminist standpoint theory. Informed by the higher education literature, because participants and I had been talking about their pursuit of attendance postsecondary institutions, not traditional adult education settings. I sought to understand how higher education could better meet the needs of women who left Mormon fundamentalist polygamy, not to identify how women were deficient and needed to change to fit into another gendered, patriarchal system. I conducted life history interviews with three former woman members of fundamentalist Mormon polygamous communities in Utah to explore the impact of life experiences on their readiness for higher education. Participant life histories provided data and meaning behind their perspective of, motivation for, and involvement in higher education. I explored each woman’s story through feminist standpoint theory and viewed the data generated from life stories as separate and equally valid truths, personal perspectives that were necessary in order to gain a deep understanding of their educational backgrounds, readiness for higher education and to provide recommendations to encourage or enhance their populations involvement in higher education.


Three women shared their life stories as a part of this research.

First, Emma was the second child, the oldest girl in her family. She was raised in the FLDS community of Colorado City – the community in the HBO series Big Love most resembles the community there. For the majority of her life in Colorado City, she lived with her brothers and sisters in a three-bedroom trailer on the outskirts of town. Her home was surrounded by weeds and red dirt; she slept in a small room with her four sisters on the top bunk bed that she shared with her baby sister, her three younger sisters slept on the bottom bunk. For a majority of Emma’s childhood, her mother was her father’s only wife. At the time I conducted the interviews, Emma was enrolled in higher education, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Accounting. She’d been married to a polygamous man from another fundamentalist community, and they had three children, but they’d divorced after leaving polygamy.

Second, Sarah was twenty-four years old, married with a two-year-old son and six months pregnant. She lived in a monogamous relationship with her husband and was a stay-at-home mother to her son. She was raised as a member of the AUB, a fundamentalist Mormon polygamous group that did not require their members to live in a geographically isolated community – the polygamous lifestyles most frequently seem on TLC, like sister wives, might be most similar to the community she grew up in. She had always lived in Utah, but in addition to living in the Salt Lake City area, she also lived in Southern Utah, where she was exposed to the AUB’s polygamous community there. The AUB community in Southern Utah was very different from the community in Salt Lake City, more conservative and isolated from mainstream society.

Third, Mary was raised in the FLDS community of Colorado City and had been outside of the community for less than a month at the time of our interview. Mary was single and lived in a “safe house” in Lehi, Utah.


Thematic analysis of the transcribed life histories of each women provided the needed insight to understand Mary, Emma, and Sarah’s readiness for higher education settings. First, Emma’s formal K9 education, although she did not graduate from high school, provided the academic foundation she needed to feel like she would be successful in higher education settings; she felt like she needed higher education to be successful independently; her work and social roles as a mother and household manager gave her the confidence she needed to feel like she could be successful in high education and developed a self-directedness that helped her set and achieve goals; and she had developed an independent self-concept.

Second, Sarah’s formal K12 education experience, while she completed it, did not contribute as it could have to readiness to higher education because she felt like she was only successful because she had help; she did not perceive a need for higher education; her self-concept was tied to her role as a wife; and, her life experiences in work and as a mother could have contributed to success in higher education.

Finally, Mary’s formal K6 education experience was underdeveloped and did not contribute to her readiness for higher education, she did perceive a need for higher education, to become a firefighter and an accountant, which contributed positively to her readiness for higher education, she had non-academic experiences that contributed to readiness for higher education in her limited work experience, and she had an independent self-concept, which also contributed positively to higher education.

My assessment of each woman’s readiness was informed by their own conclusions, as Emma, who had been attending higher education, saw herself as ready; Sarah did not view herself as ready because she did not see a need for higher education and feared she would be unsuccessful without help, and Mary felt ready as soon as she could build the academic background she felt she needed.

Their readiness, however, is better understand when viewed through the lens of the sociohistorical context of a polygamous childhood. Marginalized populations and their knowledge and women are often not accepted as valid within higher education (Hesse-Biber, 2014). As a result, while polygamous women are marginalized within polygamous communities, they are also often marginalized in higher education because their sociohistorical background and gender women views them as deficient in higher education. A formal education experience is difficult to attain when the church has forbidden you from attending school and school curriculum is limited to church-approved doctrine. Perceptions of a need for education are limited when you are taught that the only social role possible for you is wife/mother, both roles that do not require education. Related to social roles, when women are limited to the home or employment roles that are low-skilled, informal, and do not result in a take home paycheck those jobs do not necessarily develop skills or allow for mentorship and confidence building activities that contribute to readiness for higher education. Finally, if one’s value is primarily judged by their relationship to a man, either their father, husband, or the prophet, as it is in polygamous communities, their self-concept is inextricably tied to their husbands, which makes is difficult to develop an independent self-concept.

In addition, the sociohistorical context of a polygamous upbringing meant that women were also socially and culturally unprepared for higher education. Both Emma and Mary described their anxiety over how to dress, do their hair, and wear makeup, basic things that were important in helping them feel comfortable in higher education, and not like they stick out. Additionally, these limited social roles and a polygamous doctrine that forbade contact with those of a different gender left them unprepared for educational settings where they would be expected to work with their peers and have productive non-sexual (and sexual) relationships with members of a different gender.

While I do not seek to generalize across the experiences of polygamous women or even the experiences of Emma, Sarah, and Mary, clear themes emerged across the data. As a part of a marginalized group, Emma, Sarah, and Mary were disadvantaged by their sociohistorical backgrounds, first because of non-formal childhood education, as seen in the childhood education experiences of Emma and Mary, but also because polygamous communities created definitions of self for women that related to a man power figure and a limited definition of social roles that did not extend beyond wife/mother. Additionally, cultural differences, such as values and styles of dress created an often jarring contrast between their lives inside polygamy and outside the community, which created struggles as they learned how to fit in.

Higher Education Programs

It is important that programs create opportunities to develop foundational knowledge (i.e., academic, cultural, and social) and help to develop a self-concept not defined by external factors and expand perceptions of possible social roles.

These distinctions resulted in implications that were two-pronged; future research and programs must address the background experience necessary for a higher education setting (academic, social, and cultural) but they must also address the sociohistorical implications of self-definition created by a polygamous upbringing.

A program or programs that helps former women members of polygamous societies prepare for and be successful in higher education should have the following components:
1. Provide access to/support basic needs
2. Adult Basic Education curriculum, including GED preparation
a. Study skills/metacognition
3. Social/cultural awareness and literacy
4. Mentorship/peer mentorship
5. Work experience
6. Academic counseling and support
7. Bias literacy

These program recommendations ere theoretically guided by Baxter Magolda and King’s (2004) theory of self-authorship and follow Schlossberg’s Transition Theory (1984; 1995). These recommendations encompass adult basic education (ABE), cultural readiness, social roles, and developing an independent self-concept.

I discuss each component in detail in the book – for the purposes of this talk, I’ll focus on my recommendation that a program include bias literacy.

Bias Literacy

Especially important through the lens of critical feminist theory, I recommended that women also have the opportunity to explore and understand the patriarchal nature of society – not just the polygamous society they left, but also the one that they are entering. Given polygamous doctrine about persons from different cultures and the roles of men and women, it would be helpful for women to develop an understanding of their own biases. To do that, I recommended that a program to help women assimilate into society includes bias literacy. Bias literacy is the ability to identify personal biases and create a plan of action to reduce those biases (Carnes et al., 2012). Bias literacy programming addresses, “root causes of persistent and recurring gender bias. It is also unique in its approach to understanding implicit bias as a habit that can be changed by adapting approaches proven effective in changing other habitual behaviors” (Carnes et al, 2012). Research has found that instituting bias literacy programs for STEM faculty at the college level has a positive impact on equity, leading faculty to an increased involvement in activities that promote gender equity (Carnes et al., 2012; Charleston et al., 2014). Especially as we consider the possible struggles for women leaving polygamy and entering society, it is important that they examine their own biases and understand the nature of the society that they are entering. This is important for readiness for higher education because it helps to address the implications of the sociohistorical of a polygamous upbringing and polygamous doctrine; it may help them to critically examine their own assumptions about appropriate roles for women and persons different from them. This might allow them to expand their ideas of what is possible for women, developing perceptions of a need for higher education for their expanded view of possible social roles. Additionally, as they will need to work with persons different than them, bias literacy could help them to critically examine their assumptions and give them tools to interrogate their assumptions about others, helping them to work them and also promoting social justice.

I hoped that including bias literacy in my program recommendations would help each women understand biases and the systems they were leaving and also entering so that they could make informed decisions about if and how they chose to adapt and select new practices, beliefs, and ideals.


While the research reported on in this book was conducted in 2012, I have not seen a significant change in polygamous communities, especially as the FLDS moved their faithful to Texas and then instructed them to scatter across North America. The practice of Mormon fundamentalist polygamy, aside from those stories featured on TLC, has become even more secretive as a result. The implications of this research extend beyond program recommendations for women leaving polygamous societies. Those implications extend to how this research could inform the support of other women in higher education and recommendations for future research.

However, while the population of focus for this project was Mormon polygamy, my findings and the literature suggest that parallels could be drawn between the experiences of women in polygamous relationships across religions as well as for women from other religious, patriarchal, closeted communities. First, while the sociohistorical context of a polygamous life is unique, polygamy is not limited to Mormon Fundamentalist polygamy, as many other cultures practice polygamy. Specifically thinking about the development of an independent self-concept, one separate from a man power figure, a focus on the development of self-authorship through mentoring and work experience might be helpful for women from a different patriarchal polygamous background. Second, women with a non-formal academic background or an academic background that does not inform success in higher education would benefit from ABE, GED, and ACT test prep; social and cultural awareness might be helpful for any woman coming from a background that is different from the United States, especially those from non-Western cultures. Third, bias literacy is something that all persons, regardless of gender should attend to think critically about their biases and actively work to contradict them.

For years after I finished this research, I was woken up by nightmares about the experiences of women living in and escaping from polygamous communities. While I cannot speak for all women still living in polygamy, nor am I attempting to generalize across polygamous communities, many of the life stories of women who have left polygamy included experiences of abuse, rape, domination, and sadness. With this knowledge, it is hard not to be biased against a system that has systemically marginalized and abused women. I cannot disconnect how I feel as a woman from how I feel as a researcher. However, although I find it hard to imagine how a Mormon polygamous society could be positive or empowering for women, it is not my intention to promote an anti-polygamy rhetoric or argue against the decriminalization of polygamy in this book. My bias is not against the practice of polygamy per se, but against closeted Mormon polygamous sects if they promote underage marriage, a patriarchal society, and sexual and child abuse. Instead, I am more concerned about women, current and future, who are struggling to economically survive in Utah. My ideological background precludes me from pretending any lack of bias; I am firmly opposed to any reported abuses without polygamous communities. However, my goal is not to condemn or judge, but to empower, and through my time spent with each woman, I am confident that the information provided is both valid and useful in a discussion and analysis regarding higher education and readiness.


What do these findings mean in the broader context of higher education in the United States?

More broadly, feminist theory informs understanding of the current state of higher education as one situated within the current society power structure that privileges white, middle-class, man power and knowledge (Elias & Merriam, 2005). Not only are women marginalized within the field of higher education, but so are persons of color and lower economic status; “this alienation . . . occurs when White, man, Western cultural norms of individuality, debate, and competitiveness, which are antithetical to the norms of many other cultures, dominate the classroom environment” (Baumgartner & Johnson-Bailey, 2008, p. 46). Values such as cooperation, passiveness and informal forms of childhood education are often viewed as deficient within the man power/knowledge paradigm that is privileged in higher education settings (Baumgartner & Johnson-Bailey, 2008; Elias & Merriam, 2005).

In this institutional climate, reinforced by higher education structures and discourses, women are viewed as deficient. Learning in higher education is a “historically specific mode of coming to know the world around you based on the ideological forms and appearances of capitalist social relations” (Carpenter, 2012, p. 30). According to feminist theory, success in higher education settings requires that women reject their knowledge as deficient and to relearn according to knowledge defined by a “capitalist, patriarchal, racist, heterosexist world” (Carpenter, 2012, p. 30).

We have to be careful any time we find ourselves starting to critique a patriarchal system without critically examining the system we are making those critiques against. That is not to say that we cannot.

Indeed, we must.

But we can’t assume a universality of norms and must acknowledge and accept that our own system of values, especially if we are conceptualizing them as an ideal, are also biased, even if that means they are biased to our own positionality. This is especially important from a position of privilege, like mine.

Today, the US Supreme Court is hearing arguments on a case that is, at its core, an attempt to legislate an ideal—this ideal is an imagination, an imagination that there are only two genders and one sexuality. We know this is not true. Sometimes, today, the hidden discourses of an ideal can clearly be seen through legislation that tries to write out anyone who does not conform. If it wasn’t already clear, ideals can be directly dangerous to persons who don’t conform, whether that is through legislation that tries to make the visible invisible, emails spouting hate and death threats, and the violence perpetrated on LGBTQ+ persons every day. The systems and structures constructed to reinforce that ideal have become clear, and, as such, it also becomes clear what we must work to deconstruct and reconstruct.

This is where feminist poststructuralism is an especially helpful lens. There are, undoubtedly, systems and structures that are less gendered than others. Altogether, it is fair to conclude that higher education is less overtly gendered than a Mormon fundamentalist society. But higher education is still gendered, and recognizing that as we are considering how to make higher education better prepared to receive and educate women leaving polygamy is key. This will help to ensure that our research and recommendations will not only help them but will also help to make the structure of higher education less gendered for everyone.

That, I believe, should be the ultimate goal.

Thank you.


Baumgartner, L.M. & Johnson-Bailey, J. (2008). Fostering awareness of diversity and multiculturalism in adult and higher education. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 120, 45-53. DOI: 10.1002/ace.315.
Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2001). Making Their Own Way: Narratives for Transforming Higher Education to Promote Self-Development. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Baxter Magolda, M. B. & King, P. M. (2004). Learning Partnerships: Theory and Models of Practice to Educate for Self-Authorship. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Carnes, M., Devine, P. G., Isaac, C., Manwell, L. B., Ford, C. E., Byars-Winston, A., & Sheridan, J. (2012). Promoting institutional change through bias literacy. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 5(2), 63-77. doi:10.1037/a0028128
Carpenter, S. (2012). Centering Marxist-Feminist theory in adult learning. Higher education Quarterly, 62(1), 19-35.
Merriam, S. B. (2001). Andragogy and self-directed learning: Pillars of adult learning theory. New Directions of Adult and Continuing Education, 89, 3-13.
Charleston, L. J., George, P. L., Jackson, J. L., Berhanu, J., & Amechi, M. H. (2014). Navigating underrepresented STEM spaces: Experiences of Black women in U.S. computing science higher education programs who actualize success. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 7(3), 166-176. doi:10.1037/a0036632
Elias, J.L. & Merriam, S.B. (2005). Philosophical Foundations of Higher education. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company.
Hesse-Biber, S.N. (2014). Feminist research practice: a primer. Sage: Los Angeles, CA.
Schlossberg, N. K. (1984). Counseling adults in transition: Linking Theory to Practice. New York: Springer Publishing.
Schlossberg, N. K., Waters, E. B., & Goodman, J. (1995). Counseling Adults in Transition: Linking Theory to Practice. New York: Springer Publishing.
Stuart, M., Lido, C., & Morgan, J. (2011). Personal stories: How students’ social and the cultural life histories interact with the field of higher education. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 30(4), 489-508.

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