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'Out of the shadows': FLDS women's journeys to independence

An in-depth FOX 13 News 360 report
Posted at 9:33 PM, Apr 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-30 12:43:19-04

Women who were born and raised in polygamy or plural marriage communities in Utah and beyond — Where are they now, 15 years after the imprisonment of Warren Jeffs?

Many have moved on — leaving the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), finding their own path. Some have come back to their communities to help in their own way.

Shirlee Draper started the non-profit organization Cherish Families, which provides services to thousands in plural communities.

"Oh my gosh!" Draper said. "I mean, we have come so far! Just huge, huge progress."

Her organization offers housing, healthcare, mental health services and legal advice to those in polygamist cultures — giving them "the resources and tools they need for generational success," according to their mission statement.

"We're leaps and bounds ahead. Just in the diversity in the community! On the whole, I feel like our community's doing great. We're moving forward in a progressive direction and it's good," said Donia Jessop, the mayor of Hildale.

Jessop is the first woman in that role in its more than century-long existence. Hildale was once run along with the twin town of Colorado City, Arizona — known collectively as Short Creek — under FLDS leader Warren Jeffs.

Jeffs was head of the FLDS church before his arrest in 2006 and eventual imprisonment. Jessop left the church under Jeffs, but she has since returned to this community to help her people, she says.

Mary Jayne Blackmore's story is similar to those of Draper and Jessop, but she was raised in the polygamous community of Bountiful in British Columbia, Canada.

"So many of us [are] now out in the world, making our way, and it’s a rich story and a rich heritage," Blackmore said.

She, too, has since returned, no longer religious or part of a plural family, but to be a part of the community where she was raised. She returned the teach the children in their school, and hopefully open their minds and help them "go be free."

Blackmore is currently on sabbatical from her role as a teacher and vice principal to publish her book, a memoir titled "Balancing Bountiful: What I Learned About Feminism from My Polygamous Grandmothers."

"As a young woman, I was highly influenced by these women, and I saw them as vital and powerful," Blackmore told FOX 13 News reporter Amy Nay, "but it took years in my journey to be able to look at her life and see ways that she had, I would say, advocated for women and herself and improved the lives of those around her."

Her grandmother was one of five wives who had 31 children. One was Mary Jayne's father, Winston Blackmore, who then had 150 children. Mary Jayne was the fifth.

At 16, she was wed in a church-assigned marriage, and they had two children. They followed the FLDS prophet to Utah, but it was at a sermon they attended when Mary Jayne said she realized this was no longer for her.

"I was holding my six-week-old son in my arms and Warren Jeffs was at the pulpit giving this prayer to ask for the destructions of the enemy of the priesthood," she said, "and for me, everything about the experience was so different than the world I grew up in."

She and her husband left the faith and eventually divorced.

Mary Jayne said she thought polygamy might just eventually fade out, but it has not. Instead, she says she's seen a real shift within those who are still practicing. She also said she is starting to see more choice — something that hasn't always been there for many.

"Choice. Choice has been the big thing," Jessop commented in agreement. "Just to be able to choose. I tell people, every day I wake up so excited just to be alive. And it’s simple... I get to choose the clothes I wear today. I get to choose where I go, who I talk to, and that might seem like a simple thing, but for me and a lot of my friends, it’s a big thing."

Jessop, who says she was locked out of city offices on her first day on the job and had most of her staff quit in protest, is now running for a second term.

"Just getting people’s minds wrapped around that there’s a woman in that leadership position — that’s been good!" she said.

Jessop married her childhood sweetheart when she was 17 and had 10 children. She says she left the religion when church leadership decided they would remove her 9-year-old daughter from her family and place her with another.

"That's when I said, 'I'm done. You're not taking my children away!'" she said.

She and her husband moved to Santa Clara, about an hour away from where she was born and raised, but she says what felt like a world apart.

"It was an interesting transition! We had to figure out how to live in this big wide world!" she said.

After four years away, Jessop says they decided to move back.

"I didn’t go back to become mayor. I went back to help rebuild the community and found out that there were four seats open," she said. "We started a grassroots coalition, and the rest is history."

Jessop says for her, coming "out of the shadows" has meant pursuing her passion and assuming a leadership role — something she hopes more women will do.

Draper says that is something that just hasn’t happened in the past with this population. She says when she left a plural marriage with her four children — two with special needs and all four under the age of 10 — she thought she would never look back. But she has since turned her life's mission into helping others, giving them the tools she wished she would have had.

"I had no rental history, I had no credit history, I had no income, I didn’t even have a bank account!" she said.

Draper's group now provides a number of resources, but also community education.

"We’ll provide a parenting class, a healthy relationships class, a financial literacy class, and women’s self-protection and things. You know, whatever families need," she said. "The work I do is to bring people out of the shadows, into the sunlight. It’s the best disinfectant!"

Recent changes in Utah law have lessened penalties associated with polygamy, and Draper says that has been a good thing — enabling people in possibly abusive situations to come forward and report possible crime.

Resources for others in these situations can be found at