I've been putting this one off for years because it felt too overwhelming. But at long last, please enjoy my recap of the 1969 BYU cinematic masterpiece, Pioneers In Petticoats, a film that asks the question: What if we made The Handsmaid's Tale, but this time the oppression is the protagonist?
We begin with narrated exposition. It seems that in 1869 in Salt Lake City the protected saints in the mountain west are thriving. Coachman's hasn't closed down yet. David Archuleta is still straight. God is with them.
But unfortunately, so are a bunch of heathens who came to town during the gold rush and have now introduced “worldliness” to the Mormons.
Brigham Young had invited artists to come to Salt Lake City to share culture. “Despite rigid rules, sophistication crept into the Salt Lake theater,” the narrator says in a tone of disapproval.
This somehow led to saloons and fist-fighting. Also “slang from the east” made its way into the saints’ vocabulary, thanks, presumably, to reruns of Jersey Shore.
Then people started buying sewing machines and making slutty outfits, as worn by these trashy women:
The harlots of Zion even began putting “flowers on their hats” and wearing the most alarming and sexual item of them all: “petticoat after petticoat after petticoat.”
Brigham Young finally couldn’t take it anymore, so he decided it was time to crack down. “His sons were not an immediate problem” because they had education and missions and building the temple “to keep them occupied.”
But his garbage daughters? They had “far too much time for frivolities!”
And this is where our story begins.
One day Brigham rings a bell in his home and roughly 200 of his teenage offspring frantically run down the stairs to greet him.
The beginning of this movie was all filmed in the actual Lion House (where BY resided). My husband and I took his mother on a guided tour of the Lion House a few years ago, led by two very defensive sister missionaries who gave us a long and forceful impromptu lecture about why polygamy was a good thing despite our having not asked about this.
Anyway, a young girl who belongs on the STAGE, then loudly objects to her exclusion to the meeting Brigham has called. Her brothers tease her: “FATHER wanted to talk to the WOMEN folk. YOUR’E just a GIRL folk!”
The meeting commences while this tall drink of water, one of Brigham's sons, stands outside the door and listens.
Inside the room, Brigham is throwing an absolute rager. He’s explaining to his several dozen teenage daughters that he is going to organize a "retrenchment association" for all the teen girls in the Church so they can “retrench in their dress and manners.” The girls will finally learn that modest truly is hottest.
It appears Brigham Young does not approve of sex. I mean, of other people having sex. See the above gif.
Most of the girls are inexplicably thrilled with this new charge to strip their lives of joy. But not this one.
Her name is Annie. She cries to her unlimited number of homogenous mothers who all appear to have just returned from a funeral. They comfort her with Bible verses about damnation, as one does.
Suddenly Annie is called to the sitting room to greet her friend Abigail Harper, this film's central character.
Abigail has apparently recently moved to a small town with her father and she is not impressed with her new rural life. “There’s nothing to buy and all the boys have chapped hands and bowed legs,” she explains. Abigail ain't got no time for scrubs or rickets.
Abigail is at the Brigham Young house because her father, a church bishop, was called there for a five-minute extremely inconvenient meeting that definitely could have been an email.
Abigail continues to complain about the ugly malnourished men in her rural village. Then her face gets very serious and she seems to look off into the distance, no longer really talking to Annie. “And the girls are all tattle-tales.”
Abigail then pulls out a fabulous new dress she just bought and I’m not going to lie, this dress is still a banger.
Annie gushes over the dress but then begins to cry. “Father has organized a young ladies retrenchment society” she explains. She says now she can never wear that string bikini tube-top of a dress Abigail has just shown her.
“Such a waste of these golden years of girlhood,” Abigail responds.
Abigail throws a black scarf over her head and plays out the future for Brigham’s daughters, imagining their tragic wanderings through town as old maids. This is when that hot dude from earlier wanders in to flirt with Abigail and boy do I want these two to make babies.
This man’s name is Carl. His personality sucks ass but he’s hot enough to make you half forget it. Carl starts goading Abigail about her moral failings, evidenced by the fact that she has just bought a dress.
Abigail criticizes Carl. “You only think about serious things like religion and such.”
Carl says he wants to go on a mission someday. Ok, Carl. And I want to be a Russian gymnast at the next Olympics. Carl is like 30. Piss or get off the pot, Carl.
“One day, Abigail Harper, you’re going to find out how much the church means to you,” Carl scolds her. By the way, Carl’s voice sounds exactly like that sentence.
Carl was in every one of my mandatory religion classes at BYU. He used to talk about how Nephi was his Book of Mormon hero and somehow every summer he got manipulated into working for a different summer sales scam company.
Also, Carl’s personality is the answer to the question, “what if that gif of the white family in their snuggies became a person?”
Abigail says she’s going to marry a man one day who thinks of nothing but her and will buy her silk ball-gowns and this is the future I want for everyone.
Carl spits, with absolute venom, “and I dare say you’ll pay your tithing with spoiled fruit and sick hens!” Nice burn from prairie Donny Osmond.
But Abigail is not fazed.
I need to move on, but I also wanted to say that I somehow know that if Carl was alive today he would spend most of his free time defending billionaires on Twitter.
I was roommates with many Carls in Provo. They used to wake everyone up for roommate scripture study at 5:30 and they'd write their names on their several milk jugs in the fridge in an unspoken command for others to stay away.
Anyway, Abigail leaves with her father who explains on the carriage ride home that she will definitely have to participate in the Retrenchment Society in their hometown.
Abigail is pissed. She walks into her house to find her mother chopping up Abigail’s dresses and adding extra fabric to make them turtlenecks like she’s about to start attending a lot of stuffy parties full of literary agents on the upper-east side in 1997.
By the way, when my husband got to the dress massacre part of this recap, he gasped, and yelled "this is bullshit!"
And he's not alone. Abigail also hates this.
Up next, the polygamous wives of Warren Jeffs are gathered to discuss the next steps for Abigail’s branch of the Retrenchment Society. “Ever hold in your minds that improvement is your motto and perfection is your aim,” their bishop tells them, introducing a standard that for sure won’t plague an entire religious culture for centuries.
Abigail's father makes her the president of the Retrenchment Society, which, I don't know, feels a little too Invanka for my tastes.
The girls have a planning meeting where they start brainstorming how they are going to advertise the creation of this new group, and guys. This next part. My writing skills are not up to the level needed to adequately describe how absurd the acting and line delivery is in this scene. There are two parts of this film it will be 100% worth it to you to just go and watch. This is the first and it occurs just before 13:00. I am going to be referring to this as “That Scene” for the remainder of this piece.
“I can put a SIGN in Whipley’s store winderrrrrrr!” the first girl offers.
“And I can put an AD in the Weekly GazETTE!!!” The second yells.
ALL of the girls in this ward have a serious coke addiction. I know this to be true.
Abigail has the best idea for spreading the word: just tell the town gossip and “emphasize that it should be kept strictly confidential!”
This they then do. Two of the girls with unplaceable accents find Sister Applebee at the bank and they whisper this absolutely uninteresting gossip to her.
The plan works. Sister Applebee can’t wait to tell everyone in town about the Retrenchment Society.
Up next we are introduced to Nellie Blair. Content warning: Nellie is an abominable chasm of moral turpitude. For some reason.
Look. I’ve seen Pioneers in Petticoats so many times that it’s basically a family member at this point. Hear me when I say, Nellie is the only person in this entire film who seems like she would be an even remotely good hang.
She is not interested in joining the Retrenchment Society and honestly, good for her. I don’t need the likes of Sister Applebee and the fundamentalist Children of the Corn from That Scene destroying this good Christian young lady.
Abigail’s father, the bishop, arrives at Nellie’s home to talk with her. She politely declines a meeting with him and leaves, but the bishop sticks around to have a conversation with Nellie’s father.
“My Nellie is running with a bunch of whippersnappers and they’ve got anything on mind but mutual improvement!” Dad Nellie explains.
Bishop Rhett Butler, whose mustache deserves its own social security number, then scolds Nellie’s father. “Well, it’s been some time since I’ve seen either one of you in church!”
Ultimately, Nellie’s dad forces her to go with him to the introductory meeting of the Retrenchment Society due only to the fact that the bishop has promised there would be “homemade raisin pie” there.
Two questions: first, this is like 1860-something in the desert plains of the mountain west. Are there pies that are not homemade?
More importantly, wtf is a raisin pie and is it full of heroin because why is this something that would entice noted heathens, Nellie and Dad Nellie, to attend a church meeting about how to become uglier?
In any event, they go. I haven’t been to church since before the war, but I remember it well enough to know this is an accurate depiction:
Up on the stand, Abigail starts reading the pledge of the Retrenchment Society. Basically they vow to stop saying the F-word and thinking for themselves.
But when Abigail gets to the part of the pledge about not dressing like a coked-out prairie slut, she crosses her fingers behind her back OH SNAP!
Up next, Abigail writes a letter to Carl. She includes a photo of herself in the letter.
I am genuinely so confused about the relationship between Abigail and Carl. They seemed to truly hate one another. And not in a will-they-or-won’t-they kind of way. But, are they, like, dating?
Up next, the bishop is not done harassing this poor man who does not want to go to church.
Bishop is strong-arming the heathen to perform free labor out of his struggling carpentry business on behalf of the church. Dude explains to the bishop that since his daughter Nellie doesn’t want to be a part of the Retrenchment Society, he doesn’t really feel invested in donating his time in that way.
Bishop then says he’ll just go to the other carpenter in town and suggests that that other carpenter is more talented anyway. This bishop’s manipulation tactics could overtake ISIS.
Dad Nellie then agrees to fix a bunch of shit for free.
The Retrenchment Society is hard at work making toys for poor children for Christmas. Then there’s a montage of the humble poors accepting their gifts.
Meanwhile, naughty Nellie is off at the town saloon with a bunch of charlatans!
The saloon goers hear the Retrenchment Society coming by wagon singing Christmas carols, so they decide to attack them with snowballs and it’s honestly hilarious.
Then Nellie sees her father on the wagon and she is very ashamed.
But snowballs can’t stop the Retrenchment Society! No sir. They will continue on doing . . . whatever the hell this is.
Truly. That pioneer era Stadium on Fire scene is four seconds long and there is no explanation for any of it.
The next minute or two is more of the same. It’s hard to explain how odd this sequence is. It’s supposed to be a montage but there is no music tying any of it together. Just quick glimpses of teens learning to dance and being told to get married as soon as possible.
It even includes a very disturbing few seconds that I’m certain I also saw in Midsommar.
Finally we return to Abigail and her letter writing. Abigail is sending a note to Carl. She is not pleased. She has just learned he’s going to Germany for his mission where he will for sure spend two years counting four-second interactions with strangers as "discussions" so he can report inflated numbers to his superiors and increase his chances of becoming AP.
“I have no intention of waiting for a boy who places the church above his affections and devotion,” Abigail writes. She then demands that Carl return the photo of herself she sent him.
“NOT yours truly,” she signs it. BURNNNNNNN.
Side note: why do we always put the complimentary closes at the bottom of letters? I hate having to wait until I get to the end to find out whether the writer was being sincere.
Abigail is shocked when Carl sends the photos and letter back in kind. “Since I can’t clearly recall which one you are, will you please kindly pick out your picture and return the rest.” The bundle contains photos of many women. Honestly, and you know I don't like rooting for the straight man, but 1,000 points for Carl.
Up next, Abigail is wearing that absolutely fabulous dress. Truly, and I say this with not one ounce of sarcasm: This dress should have won someone an Oscar.
I assume Brigham Young did not know they were making dresses like this when he ordered the world to turn into . . . well I was trying to think of something hyperbolic to say here but I couldn’t think of anything more extreme than “Mormon pioneers.”
Abigail’s younger sister, future president of the Eagle Forum or Family Watch or one of the other Mormon terrorist organizations, then walks into the room and expresses absolute shock that Abigail is wearing something so trashy.
Apparently the parents went off to St. George for the weekend to shop at the outlet mall and see a mediocre play at Tuacahn so there are no adults to stop this outrageous conduct.
The younger sister, who is far too invested in this, starts crying hysterically. “I’M GLAD I’VE GOT A SORE THROAT AND CAN’T GO TO THE DANCE. I CAN’T BEAR TO WATCH YOU MAKE A SPECACTLE OF YOURSELF.”
Abigail shows up at the church dance and literally everyone stops what they are doing when they see her because ABIGAIL IS A STAR.
But Abigail's entrance is not well received by the god-fearing folk of this unnamed town. For example, this man is not pleased.
Neither are Olive Oyl's grandma and some dude who made his fortune in ivory.
Eventually Abigail’s dance partner accidentally steps on one her petticoats and that petticoat comes off and apparently this is the most outrageously embarrassing thing that can happen because the entire room erupts in laughter and begins jeering at Abigail.
I want to you remind you that this film’s position is that Abigail is the one who needs to learn to be more like Jesus.
Abigail storms out of the dance and immediately comes across ol’ Snowball Fight Saloon.
Some bi-curious harlot tells Abigail if what she’s wearing is what the church is going for these days, she “just might consider joining!”
There are a couple of unhelpful comments about how Abigail is dressed like someone who is asking to be sexually assaulted. Then a seminary teacher shows up to pass around a chewed piece of gum as an object lesson before explaining that dinosaur bones came from other planets.
Nellie is there and she won’t tolerate the bullying. “Lay off! All of you,” she yells at them.
When I tell you that everyone in this scene has such a strong 1960s Utah accent that my grandma just got pregnant, you need to believe me. One dude says “adventure” so Utah County that Maverik now has to send him a royalty check.
The heathens try to get Abigail to go into the bar, but Nellie, sensing Abigail’s hesitation, encourages them to just walk Abigail home. Abigail doesn’t want to be coddled, so she insists on going into the saloon.
Abigail goes inside to dance and this is apparently an evil event even though it honestly looks identical to the church dance from which she just came. Except that people aren’t being shitty to her here.
Unfortunately, yet another Rhett Butler is there. And you can tell he’s bad. For some reason.
Abigail tells her new naughty crew that she doesn’t drink. “FATHER says it’s SLOW POISON!” she warns them.
“The slower the better,” this dude with sideburns that belong on a sex offender registry responds.
FYI, alcohol was not actually fully banned in Church policy until many decades later (1921). Brigham Young opened his own whiskey distillery and early saints would sometimes drink beer and other alcoholic beverages. Utah used to be more fun. And more terrible. I feel very conflicted about a lot of this.
Abigail rejects an offer “to learn the latest dance” because “it’s not proper!”
This woman tells Abigail the Retrenchment Society is nothing but a waste of youth!
Abigail is now distraught about the situation in which she has found herself. She repeats in her mind the oath from before about not being a floozy as she looks around the saloon. Suddenly she hears a voice in her head.
“One day Abigail Harper you’re going to find out how important the Church is to you!”
Just as a creepy old drunk man starts to hit on Abigail, she stands up and demands that one of the snowball dudes walk her home. He refuses, and that’s when Ol’ Mustache from a few minutes ago swoops in.
He offers to escort Abigail back to her house. She accepts. I’m not sure why she has decided an absolute stranger is in the best position to protect her from absolute strangers, but ok.
As Abigail and her new suitor get outside, the town gossip drives by in her carriage and sees Abigail walking out of the bar with a gentleman and she is not pleased.
America’s Most Wanted puts Abigail in his carriage. As they drive away, Naughty Nellie comes out of the bar with her boyfriend, explaining that she wants to follow them to make sure Abigail is safe. Again: Nellie, notable heathen who spends all of her time not thinking about mutual improvement because she's too busy running around with whippersnappers, is the only truly good person in this entire film.
Abigail, who has clearly never seen Taken or any after school specials in the 90s, volunteers out of nowhere that her mom and dad are out of town and the house is devoid of any parental supervision.
“Just you at home!?” the creeper asks.
“And my two younger sisters,” Abigail offers, like she’s a waitress at Chili’s listing the specials of the day.
Predator starts trying to kiss Abigail. She resists. There’s a scuffle. It’s honestly stressful. As he chases her to the porch of her house, Nellie and her unnamed boyfriend arrive to save Abigail. The perpetrator escapes and drives away in his carriage. No one thinks to take a picture of his license plate with their phones.
Abigail, who actually acted the attack scene decently, then goes back to melodramatic roadshow mode.
Nellie goes to comfort Abigail. She offers to stay with her, but Abigail dismisses them now that she’s home safe.
There’s a long scene with the most dramatic music I’ve ever heard in which Abigail wanders the house with a lantern. I think this may be the obligatory repentance montage.
Eventually she makes it to her sister’s bedroom. The child says she can’t sleep “because you didn’t say prayers with me like mamma does.” She also explains that she is distressed because her cat ran away. Then they pray.
“Dear God, help me retrench so I can grow up to be like Abigail,” this fetus monotonically pleads.
I need a new cut of this film where it is acknowledged that the villain is the Retrenchment Society and the patriarchy from which it was shat.
I am so close to becoming a Taylor Swift lyric.
As the child climbs into bed she asks, “oh Abigail. Does Heavenly Father really watch over runaway cats?”
“Oh yes. He does,” an extremely breathy Abigail whispers.
I wonder what the film is trying to communicate here? Can’t quite sift through the deep hidden metaphors.
The next day Abigail and her parents put on their comfiest clothes to have a formal meeting in which Abigail tells them everything.
“Everyone in town knows you were seen coming out of the dance hall with a stranger,” this father, who just learned that his daughter was nearly raped and murdered last night, pivots to the most important matter at hand.
Abigail decides that the only thing to do now is to resign as president of the Retrenchment Society.
GUYS. GO TO THE DAMN POLICE. YOUR FUNDAMENTALIST GIRL SCOUT TROOP CAN WAIT.
Next, the Retrenchment Society meets to discuss the Abigail Scandal.
One of the girls is literally crying because Abigail had “flushed cheeks and crimped hair” at the church dance.
Just then, Abigail enters and the girls take their seats.
Abigail stands at the front and begins to beg for forgiveness.
This one is ready to pull out the pitchforks.
Some of the girls start proposing that Abigail be removed as president due to having turned into walking pornography over the weekend. They are most upset that Abigail was seen coming out of the saloon.
Abigail agrees to resign just as Naughty Nellie walks in.
Abigail then gives a testimony about Brigham and the Retrenchment Society while offering to step down. But Nellie isn’t having it.
She walks to the front and dismisses Abigail like a total boss. “I got somethin’ to say,” she hisses at the teen girl squad.
Nellie tells the girls that she saw “Abigail stand up for what’s right” at the dance hall “and no matter what you think she did she has nothing to be ashamed of!” Nellie explains that she followed Abigail home and saw the man attack her.
Once again, no one seems alarmed that a predator is on the loose in this small town.
Remember earlier when I said there were two clips you absolutely need to go look up when I referenced That Scene. No? You’re too drunk now to understand anything I'm saying? I don’t blame you. I am, too.
Well, this is the second part I need you to go watch. This is really important to me. This next clip is like a piece of my own human fabric. I have watched it so many times over the years. I used to rewind it and play this five or so seconds over and over again. I want this clip projected onto a jumbotron at my funeral. I would vote for this clip as president if I could be sure it was born in the United States. The woman in this clip shouldn't have to pay taxes and we should be required to let her get off planes first and clap when she does so like we do for returning soldiers.
It starts around 39:00. Please go watch it.
And since I don’t trust that you will, I’m going to at least include a gif of it below. But the gif really doesn’t do it justice.
“But that’s not the only thing,” scary Sarah Silverman says. “Abigail’s disgraceful appearance at the ward dance is reason enough to remove her from the presidency!”
It’s somehow over and under acted. The line delivery is so chilling and odd that I sometimes think I’ve dreamed it and I have to go and pull it up and watch it 20 more times. I love it with every fiber of my being. I want to have "that's not the only thing" tattooed onto my ass.
Nellie remains undeterred. “Surely you ain’t gonna let her resign!” she says.
Then she tells them if this stupid organization isn’t really about helping one another become better then what the actual hell is this all for. #teamnellie
There’s some true award-winning dialogue between the girls who decide that the Retrenchment Society is about mutual improvement. And then this one moves to re-sustain Abigail as president. But she looks like she’s being threatened by the Taliban as she does it.
Someone seconds the motion and then Abigail is apparently president again even though the motion is not voted upon. Where are the bylaws of this thing? This can’t be right. I don’t think this is legitimate. I’m suddenly very invested in the organizational structure of the Retrenchment Society.
Oh wait. I jumped the gun. They vote. It’s basically unanimous. Phew.
Abigail cries and then tells the girls she has so many big plans for the future of the Retrenchment Society! Then she tasks each person to invite a new member to the next meeting. How many non-Mormon teen girls are in this tiny rural Utah town in 1869???????
Abigail then publicly invites Nellie, which this honestly feels like Abigail just gave everyone a huge assignment and then quickly took the lowest-hanging fruit.
Nellie is ecstatic. For some reason.
We are then taken to some future day where . . . the lost kitten has been found!!!! WHAT COULD THIS MEAN STOP HIDING THE BALL PIP!
Suddenly a Native American family speaking offensively broken English appears to quickly announce that this cat won’t run away again “because she know other cats need her.”
These people have never been introduced and their four seconds of screen time are not explained.
Abigail and her father take off via wagon to go to General Conference as a girl runs alongside them and says, “Bishop! Tell President Young OUR ward has the BEST Retrenchment Society in the WHOLE TURCH!!!”
I want a follow up scene where the Bishop shows up to the Lion House, knocks on the door, and repeats this message to Brigham. “I don’t know man. She asked me to pass that along. Do you have a message I should send back to her or are we good here.”
Anyway, the film ends with everyone in the town waving goodbye to the wagon.
There is no closure on the Carl and Abigail situation, but I think we can assume they went on to become the founders of an emergency preparedness MLM in Utah County.