The Life of a Polygamous Woman

The various pictures of heavily-clad women — many carrying small children and boarding buses — following a weekend raid on a polygamous compound in Eldorado, Texas, has spotlighted again the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Days Saints, especially its female members.

As authorities try to unravel what could be the country's largest child abuse case in the nation's history, some wonder how and why women in the cloistered community led by the jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs were silent for so long.

More then 400 women have been evacuated from the compound after officials got a phone call from a female member claiming sexual misconduct.

The women spend much of their days caring for children on the compound's 1,700 acres. The women till gardens, quilt and often were forced to marry while still in their teens. The main compound is concentrated along the Arizona-Utah line but several enclaves have been built elsewhere, according to The Associated Press.


Former members said it's the power of persuasion and control that keeps the women captive.

"He is their God. He's told these people, 'I am Jesus Christ,'" said former church member Flora Jeffs, speaking about Warren Jeffs' control.

The isolation of the group, which broke off from the Mormon church after it refused church demands to ban polygamy, shows in the members' attire. Women wear hand-sewn garments, their extremely long hair pinned up in braids, and don ankle-length dresses, as if from another century.

Jeffs, who was convicted of being an accomplice to rape, had strict rules when it came to his followers.

He allowed no television, radio or Internet access. Even laughter was forbidden.

"He said, 'No children's books with animals doing people things. Nature is OK. Disney is not,'" said former member Lori Chatwin, who left the group four years ago.

However, he did allow iPods, which people could use to listen to hours of his sermons, and his control extended beyond what people could read, see and wear. He also controlled who married whom and, he claimed, who got to go to heaven.

Women who don't like the rules are told to "keep sweet."

"Keep sweet, it's exactly that. No matter what, it's a matter of life and death. You don't ask why. You don't do anything except do what you're told," said former member Pam Black, who was married as a teenager while she was in the sect.

Even with those rules, many women remain loyal to Jeffs.

"I have a right to worship any damn thing I want; wear any damn clothes I want," said one female follower.

That type of fervent support for Jeffs and his church may make it difficult for Texas authorities to crack the code of silence among the women who were taught to distrust the outside world, even those who voluntarily left the ranch.

"Everything that they've been taught as members of this group is going to stand in the way of their being moved by the authorities to be helpful," said Bryn Mawr College social psychology professor Clark McCauley.