In the face of the controversial topic of polygamy, an advocacy group is trying to build bridges between two worlds that inherently distrust each other.
In the process, the pro-polygamy group Principle Voices has evolved into a political and educational force that is reaching out to people both inside and outside polygamous communities.
"When we first started speaking publicly, it was because nobody was speaking from our perspective," said Mary Batchelor, the group's director. "There's a lot of diversity. There are people who are happy and functional and doing well, blended in society. There are some who are struggling. There are some having difficulty because they are on the receiving end of bias. There are some in abusive situations who don't feel like they can turn to anti-polygamists. We came to the conclusion there was a need for Principle Voices."The group most recently engaged in a public feud with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over the term "fundamentalist Mormon." The LDS Church has repeatedly objected to the use of the term. Principle Voices insists that they are, as they say, "fundamentalist Mormons," with an unofficial census counting 37,000 people in Utah and surrounding states who consider themselves as such.
The group was founded in 2000 after the publication of the book "Voices in Harmony," a collection of essays by women who live in polygamy. The book attempted to counter a steady drumbeat that was anti-polygamy by offering the thoughts of those who are happy in the lifestyle.
"One thing led to another. We thought maybe by organizing, we'd have a little more credibility," said Anne Wilde. "We could also provide an avenue for those in our culture to speak up."
So Wilde, Batchelor, Marianne Watson and Linda Kelsch sought to bring all of the area's polygamous communities together. Many of the sect leaders were skeptical and fearful of what they were trying to accomplish, afraid that exposure leads to prosecution.
"They expected our heads to be lopped off," said Kelsch.
Through persistence, the women were able to persuade 24 leaders and representatives to meet.
"That was a thrill to see people who haven't seen each other for years sit around in my living room," Wilde said. "It seemed like up to that time, the groups stayed to themselves. They realized that we can do this, we can work together, we can make a difference."
Since then, meetings of Principle Voices have become so packed that their coalition had to be limited to a few representatives from each group.
"I'm seeing a great evolvement in my own community," said Kelsch. "My hope is it will continue to grow."
Principle Voices has combatted negative stereotypes by showcasing the normalcy and diversity of polygamy. The group has fielded media requests from all over the world to talk to plural families. Some are willing, even going on "Oprah" to talk about their families. Still, many are not.
"Because of the fact that we are speaking up, it helps them be even more protected because they don't have to and yet the message gets out," Wilde said.
Members briefly launched a magazine, and Batchelor still maintains a popular e-mail list of news items on all things polygamy.
Over the years, Principle Voices has reached out to government agencies and social services workers. They have given presentations to domestic violence hotline operators, prosecutors, child welfare workers and others. Kelsch made an impassioned plea to the Utah State Legislature against an anti-polygamy bill. She later ran for public office but was defeated.
Principle Voices has given the communities some political muscle, although Kelsch said there is still some hesitation for many polygamists to register to vote.
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