Desert Patriarchy: Mormon and Mennonite Communities in the Chihauhua Valley

As a fifth-generation Latter-day Saint from the dusty lands southwest of Salt Lake City, anthropologist Janet Bennion, who has written extensively about women’s roles in contemporary polygynous societies, begins this study of the Chihuahua fundamentalist colonies by explaining that she, too, is “a desert rat.” As such, she relates to the subjects of her book Desert Patriarchy as both an insider and an outsider. Referencing Clifford Geertz’s Balinese cockfight, she explains that her methodology is to operate “as the interpreter of the culture” by “vividly representing the natives’ voices and the creative images and symbols of their lifestyle and perspectives.” Her thesis contends that while a desert environment does not absolutely create patriarchal, fundamentalist, separatist cultures, its geographic realities do strongly support them. “The roots of this process lie in the teleological relationship of environment and culture: the desert facilitates religious patriarchy and female networking, which in turn create a social structure conducive to isolation and separateness.” She says “the desert has always drawn religious fanatics” who set up societies that are “dominated by patriarchy and informal female support networks,” and that this system of “desert patriarchy is obviously the driving force behind the adaptive longevity of the white colonists in Chihuahua, northern Mexico.”

The study begins with a historical overview of the colonies. Bennion’s descriptions of the Colonia Juárez and Colonia LeBaron are vivid and astute, deftly placing the movements into the historical context of the Mormon experience in America and tracing its roots back to Loren C. Woolley’s split from the mainstream church and establishment of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Drawing from extensive interviews with family members from different factions of the LeBaron family, Bennion constructs a thorough and sympathetic history of the volatile and at times violent LeBaron colony. This unapologetic, first-hand history may prove irksome to some as Bennion’s concern is to describe the group through its own eyes and thus does little to show its alienation from the mainstream church. She uses this same descriptive technique with the Mennonite colony, but with even less historical rooting. Bennion is primarily a scholar in Mormon studies, and her contextualization of the Chihuahua Mennonites is painted in broad strokes, relying heavily on outdated sources instead of the many recent and thorough studies available—the four-part Mennonite Experience in America series and Kimberly D. Schmidt’s scholarship on the lives and work of conservative Mennonite women are obvious omissions.

Purchase this Issue