It could be the first charges against women for crimes with underpinnings in polygamy since the 1990s, when members of the LeBaron family were prosecuted in a series of murders across the country.
"Historically, they were probably viewed as victims rather than active participants," said Georgia attorney Ken Driggs, who studies polygamy and the law, "though the way the statutes were drawn they were probably just as culpable as the male participants."
Utah has put that view of women as victims into writing. When the Utah attorney general's office defended the state's laws against polygamy in a lawsuit filed by the family for the reality show "Sister Wives," lawyers argued physical and financial neglect from husbands makes polygamy inherently harmful to women and their children.
In the food-stamp case, both women have pleaded not guilty. So have their husbands, who also are charged, Hyrum Bygnal Dutson, 55, and Rulon Mormon Barlow, 45.
Aric Cramer, an attorney for Kristal Dutson, on Tuesday said she has "zero culpability" in the scheme.
"Knowing the culture, generally speaking, the men run the show and women are not placed in leadership positions," Cramer said. "I'm not commenting if that's good or bad. That's just kind of their religious belief system."
Historian Ray Jay Davis has written that in the 19th century, 1,300 Mormon men were prosecuted for cohabitation under the Edmunds Act. Prosecutions against women were confined to when they refused to testify against their husbands and were held in contempt of court.
When FLDS President Warren Jeffs was captured by law enforcement in 2006, one of his brothers and one of his wives were in a Cadillac Escalade with him. Neither person, nor anyone else, was charged with aiding him while he fled a Utah warrant charging him for rape as an accomplice.
At the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, registered nurses cared for teenage mothers and their children. Texas law requires nurses to report child abuse. While a Texas prosecutor filed a misdemeanor charge against a physician on the ranch, no nurses were charged. Charges against the doctor later were dismissed.
The private investigator Sam Brower, who wrote the book "Prophet's Prey" and starred in the documentary of the same name, has said prosecutors will have to charge women if they want to break up the FLDS, which he considers an organized-crime syndicate.
Kristyn Decker, a former plural wife in the polygamous Apostolic United Brethren who now leads the anti-polygamy group Sound Choices Coalition, believes women who commit crimes need to be prosecuted, too. She says some plural wives have been enablers for sex abuse by giving their underage daughters to older men as brides.
"We have felt that if more of the women have to pay the penalty for any crimes they commit," Decker said, "they might think twice about what they're doing."
Decker draws a distinction for girls under age 18, saying they are more often victims of polygamous sects.
Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap, who is designated as a federal prosecutor in the food-stamp case, said there was no discussion of whether to charge someone based on gender. Rather, he said, discussions focused on the role suspects had in the scheme.
"We tried to take into account the relative position of the followers doing what they believed they were asked," Belnap said, "as opposed to the upper-level people who were instrumental in carrying it out."
All of the defendants in the latest indictment are charged with one count of conspiracy to commit fraud with the federal food-stamp program and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. The charges carry the possibilities of five and 20 years in prison, respectively.
The two couples operated stores in Colorado City, Ariz. — the Dutsons ran Vermillion Cliffs Produce; the Barlows operated Meadowayne Dairy.
The indictment says both women "participated" in meetings where FLDS leaders directed members to misuse their food-stamp benefits. They then assisted their husbands in operating their respective stores and signed checks transferring food-stamp funds into and out of store accounts, the indictment claims.
The indictment also describes Ruth Barlow as operating the Meadowayne cash registers when the frauds were committed.
A court docket does not list an attorney for Ruth Barlow.
Cramer, Kristal Dutson's attorney, pointed blame Tuesday at her husband. He said his client was just an employee of the produce store and added that the couple were not partners in the enterprise.
"I know how the feds have described it," Cramer said, "but I think that's a little bit creative in the reality of the situation."