One Feminist Asks, ‘Is Polygamy Inherently Bad for Women?’

The British Columbia Supreme Court is currently undertaking a fascinating and controversial review of Canada’s polygamy law, which has outlawed the practice since the 1890’s. The law is under review for possible violation of religious rights guaranteed under the Canadian constitution.

Polygamy–whereby an individual (man or woman) has more than one spouse–has long been a divisive issue, not least because it is considered bad for women, sometimes leading to early and forced marriage, incest, pedophilia and other abuses.

Although the practice is widespread across cultures, we know it best in North America as characterized by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a Mormon offshoot.  In 2008, more than 500 women and children were removed forcibly from the FLDS Yearning For Zion ranch in Texas over suspected abuse. Characterized by images of women with ubiquitous French braids, drab-colored dresses and scads of children in tow, such large FLDS communities have come to epitomize polygamy, with residents living cloistered from, and oftentimes outside the legal jurisdiction of, the rest of society.

But is polygamy inherently bad for women?

The practice of taking numerous spouses, in and of itself, doesn’t seem to be the root cause of the problem. After all, there are clear examples of polyandry (in which one woman has several husbands, as opposed to polygyny, with one man and several women), but abuse and oppression of men in these cases rarely, if ever, comes up.

Perhaps instead, the problem with polygamy (or, really, polygyny) is that the legal structure of marriage codifies an underlying discrimination against women.  Reports from polygamous communities often point to early and forced marriage, in which the institution of marriage serves as both a shield for, and weapon of, sexist behavior.

Also, polygamy is often practiced secretively and in cloistered religious communities that exist quite literally outside the norms of broader society. This situation can create impunity for those men who are abusing women.

The uneasy tension between religious freedom and the rights of women lies at the heart of the current case in Canada, which concerns two Mormon fundamentalist polygamist factions in Bountiful, British Columbia.

One of the more lucid points made so far in the trial was by religious studies professor Lori Beaman, who testified, “Don’t look to stereotypes when deciding the fate of polygamy law.” While polygamy has a grave track record when it comes to women’s rights, we should at the same time be wary when people invoke the ‘feminism card’ when a practice happens to lie outside religious and cultural norms.

Beaman continues:

Very often, it’s religious minority practices that are especially flagged as being harmful. Religious majorities don’t tend to come under the same scrutiny.

Agreed, but shouldn’t we be looking more critically at religious minorities in addition to religious majorities? And, really, shouldn’t we be looking at anyone who dares think they can limit the rights of women in this day and age?

While it’s established that polygamy can be a source of oppression for women, to over-simplify the practice and  construe it as necessarily generating abuse seems unproductive. Instead, by attending to the nuances of experience and relying on women’s voices themselves–the Canadian hearing is including  a range of dissonant testimonies–we might be more successful in both rooting out the causes of harm and raising tolerance for alternative lifestyles.

If we are going to pull out women’s rights as the issue here, making the legality of polygamy about the unjust tolerance for women’s rights abuses, let’s really make it about that, across the board.  Let’s use polygamy as one example where oppression remains (albeit perhaps not unilaterally), and an entry point into honest discussions about the many others.

Photo via Wikicommons user Lokal_Profil under Creative Commons 3.0.

Comments

  1. Honestly, I'm on the fence with polygamy. IF the women are of age and make the decision to enter a plural marriage on their own, then afterwards, everyone is happy with the arrangement…I dont see the big deal. And honestly, keeping a house up, taking care of the kids, dealing with hubby's 'needs'…ugh….It is almost impossible to do it all (not all of us are blessed with a husband who helps around the house). I would love to share these duties with another woman. Maybe I'd finally have time to do something for me, like write a novel or take horseback riding lessons…or just a bath- uninterrupted. But that is just me and I'm weird anyway. But hubby is against the idea…

  2. I also presented a feminist viewpoint as an expert witness who appeared at the constitutional case on polygamy at the Supreme Court of British Columbia. However, I reached the conclusion that polygamy is bad for women (see http://www.vancouversun.com/news/canada/Polygamy+…. Other women who fight for women's rights and think polygamy as an institution is a bad idea include Nancy Mereska (see http://www.stoppolygamyincanada.wordpress.com ) and Christiane Pelchat (see http://stoppolygamyincanada.wordpress.com/2010/12
    Shoshana Grossbard

    • Just so you know, your first and third links are broken (take that last ")" out of the end of both of them, and replace it with an "l" in the first link).

      I read the links, by the way – I can definitely see and understand the points made, particularly in the Vancouver Sun article…but I also think they all simplify the concept of polygamous marriage just a bit too much. Just as the narrative of a monogamous marriage changes from culture to culture, so does the narrative of polygamous marriage. There's no denying that polygamous marriage can lead to tremendous amounts of abuse as an institution, but so can monogamous marriage – the problem doesn't lie with the structure of marriage itself, but in the sexism of the community.

  3. Christine says:

    A few years ago, I was in Kenya for work. I had the opportunity to travel with one of my Kenyan colleagues to her father's home in a semi-rural area. Her father was in his 60s and was polygamous. While traveling there, my colleague told me the past few months had been very difficult at her father's house because his "first wife" had died. I said her father must be devastated and she responded that, yes, he was, but it was his second wife who was the most devastated. Seeing that I was baffled, she explained that the two wives were best friends and were each other's most important support system. The death of the first wife left the second wife with a devastating emotional hole and doubled work load overnight. I had never thought about the support system some women get from polygamy. Now that I am a wife and mother, I can understand the sentiment. I could certainly use a second wife to help me out – and I have a truly equal partner in my husband!

    • I think you're right — the support system that polygamy provides is often undercut by the emphasis on the way that women are exploited. It's a complicated situation for sure, but there is something so powerful about female support systems, and it's pretty incredible to think of an institutionalized one (other than a same sex marriage!).

  4. I left my full response here, because this issue is a complicated one which I couldn't entirely express in a comment (still can't in just a blog-post, but I can take a better shot at it there):
    http://nano-muse.livejournal.com/5042.html

    But, the simplified version is this: Polygamous marriage is not what hurts women – sexism in society is. All the conventions on how polygamous marriage hurt women – allowing and institutionalized underage sex/marriage, nonconsensual sex/marriage, domestic violence, isolating women, keeping them from have jobs, an education, or leading a fulfilling live, ect ect – were all hallmarks of monogamous marriage in our society just a century and a half ago. Because the role of sex and women in society has changed, so has the narrative of marriage, women's role in it. Abuse DOES happen in polygamous marriage…but it happens in monogamous marriage, too, and the cause isn't the structure of the marriage, but the structure of society and the role of sex/gender within it.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response, Miah – this was exactly the point I was driving at. In many ways, I think the discrimination toward polygamy, and the oversimplification of it as a cesspool of abuse, are easy ways to ignore the fact that monagamy and nearly every other model of relationship that a woman might find herself in are just as likely to be oppressive and abusive.

  5. Maybe the solution to problem with the burden of house chores is not having additional female support but having a man with whom you can share the chores. Sounds kind of wired to me to get into a polygamous arrangement just because the man doesn't want to take his share of the household. In that case, it might be better to get an extra male partner :)

    • Yes! That’s what I always think when the “more hands to help” argument is used. If what is most appealing about it is that you have more people to help around the house, then I can’t see the argument for it not being sexist. This argument reinforces the idea that it’s women who must do housework since the only logical solution is get another woman rather than have the husband pitch in more. Also extended families tend to address this anyways. In my culture, extended family is very important and goes a long way towards providing that larger support system/extra hands around the house.

  6. I think it clearly acceptable for their to be polygyny practices. In a Christian based society clearly it has a negative light on it, however if we look at communites local (Philadelphia) or abroad especially in the United States, it happens regardless of it being legalized. Women are still not being treated fairly, and are abused and are co-wives without the title of wife. Those who do it correctly give the practice a good light and those who don't do it correctly (plogyny that is) becomes the stereotypic reason for shunning the practice.

  7. Too few fathers in a community's gene pool can't be good for girls or boys.

  8. Robin Allison says:

    As someone who is at least a bit polyamorous, and who knows a lot of underground (mostly pagan) practitioners of group marriage, it is something which can lead to abusive relationships if a) the partners are selfish/jealous or B)immature. I have to wonder if the abuses found in the cases that hit the media would not be mitigated by making it legal. Because benefits/inheritance law/insurance is all predicated on a two partner household, it would be not a simple thing to make any kind of poly relationship truly equal with traditional monogamy. A category of contract marriage made legal, where multiple folks could share in the benefits of marriage with rights and responsibilities spelled out clearly would work. As it is now, if a man has 2 wives, or a woman 2 husbands, the odd-person out legally can qualify for things as say, a single parent, that would not be available were all 3 incomes counted. Same with gay couples that are legal strangers. Children with multiple adult role models do better, and the financial benefits of having 2 breadwinners and one home-maker/full time parent are enormous. But by making this an underground practice, you set the stage for dozens of “single” moms getting their ADC and food stamps, while dad is doing quite well financially. Re-institute common law marriage, so if you find an enclave of folks with child brides all collecting welfare you can make them all pay back every penny, as well as prosecution for anything else they violated in whatever legal contract this form of marriage had as a basis. But put it out in the light, and there won’t be any more % of abuses than we have in traditional relationships. The folks who would use it as a patriarchal ego trio are going to do this anyway, just as the wife beaters and serial monogamous family values folks still abuse either verbally or emotionally their traditional one spouse.

    If I could legally wed both my husband AND my wife, I’m not sure it wouldn’t hurt our income, but I would love to be able to do it. But society isn’t ready yet in the US. I just don’t see that exploitation is a necessary result of polygamy, and much harder if there are formal legal protections in place.

    • Joe from an alternate universe says:

      Robin,

      Great post. The financial impact was the first thing I though about regarding this subject. These people should be able to support themselves.

      The problem you mentioned with government support payments already happens even when it’s just one man moving from one woman to another. And in France and England your prediction has already come true. Both countries have discovered Muslim men practicing underground polygyny and the wives are on government support. People there are outraged. I think these woman are not telling their goverment who the father is. In the U.S. to get support payments you must name the father and the governemnt goes after him for money. So in reality it shouldn’t be a probelem.

      I don’t know how you hand custody arrangements should someone or all leave the marriage. The courts do not have to honor any prenuptual contracts regarding who gets custondy and visitation. With three or more parents everyone getting equal visitation or custody rights would be extremely difficult and maybe not good for the child. Imagine the possibility of visiting three or more parents on rotating weekends.

    • Good point. I guess I also see a distinction between polygyny and polyamorous. People who practice polyamorous relationships and describe them as such always seem to me to be much more committed to gender equality and respecting each member of the partnership. When the topic is discussed under the label of polygyny it seems to reveal more limiting roles. This might just be semantics, but that’s just my impression. And you mentioned jealousy, which reminds me of another thing that has occurred to me about polygyny and that is it necessarily requires women to put aside feelings which would be totally natural in a monogamous relationship, while the man is not required to do the same since his wives are restricted to having sex with him. Everybody having the right to have sex with everybody else would seem much more fair to me. Is that polyamory? Also I wonder then if the person who is feeling jealous might actually not be a polyamorist in that case. Since I think in the context of a monogamous marriage it’s not selfish or jealous to not want your partner to have sex with someone else. I would like to hear your opinion since it’s your lived experience.

  9. I grew up Mormon and was taught that polygamy had been removed from earth for now, but was the way of Heaven. Which sounded more like Hell to me.

    Women seem to make all the sacrifices so men can have unlimited pleasure. “Soul mate” seems impossible.

    In polygyny men have more power, and in polyandry women do. I see that as a problem.

    But prohibiting polygamy isolates and stigmatizes, leaving practitioners without alternate voices to consider options. I’ve written a bit about this in my blog. http://broadblogs.com/2010/12/09/are-polygamist-w

    • Ane Marie says:

      I have always imagined that Mormons would be sexist…polygamy no matter the coutry or society,is.It always more encouraged than polyandry,and women are usually hard punished if sje dares to mate with an other men,while men can have lot of wives,like you described.

      To be honest,this is like domestic violence,if we don´t fight with laws,hwta can be done? people don´t give up sexist behaviour with education only,the strong sexist in industrialized countries is the proove.

  10. In Saskatchewan Canada multiple spouses are legally sanctioned by the government.

    • Joe from an alternate universe says:

      Janice,

      How does this work? Are the sister wives or brother husbands each just married to the one person? Or are they all married together? Or do they make some sort of contract? What about custody and visitation if someone leaves? Property? Sorry if this is annoying; I’m a nerd and do it naturally.

      joe

  11. nikitabluewriter says:

    As someone who was in a polygamous relationship since age 17 (NON-Mormon, and ABUSIVE), and as someone who has made contact with many, many other polygamists during the time I was "incarcerated," HERE'S WHAT YOU'RE MISSING: Polygamy (especially when *added to* an already sexist, patriarchal society, where girls just hang their heads and *admit* they're not as great as guys) ASSUMES that the women are worth less than the man. No matter under what circumstances you find polygamy, trust me on this: ALL male-centric, multiple-partnered relationships have *very* dogmatically-embedded messages of woman's second-class status.

  12. Someone just emailed me and asked when I started writing for Ms. I responded that I didn’t know what they were talking about….they thought I was lying. There are far too many of us Jessica Macks out there!

  13. It’s called the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, not the Canadian constitution.

  14. The only reason that I have a problem with Polygamy is that I think it lessens a woman’s worth. In a marriage of equal partners, the man and the woman are equal – meaning 1/2 and 1/2 of the marriage.

    If a man has multiple women, then wouldn’t that make each woman worth less in the marriage? It is no longer a marriage of equal partners.

    I think this is why this is such a feminist issue.

  15. Liza Null says:

    I am against polygamy but I will say that the actions the State of Texas took against the FLDS sect were wrong, and even a Texas judge, upon hearing of the conditions under which these childre were being held by the Child Protective Services arm of the DHS agency of Texas, DEMANDED that every single child be returned to their mother IMMEDIATELY, and every single child was returned to its mother, except for one little boy who had to be hospitalized in Intensive Care for a few days for treatment of dehydration and shock, after he was left strapped into a stroller in the Texas heat for the majority of the day and was given no water and no food for several hours. The child was “removed” from the Child Protective Services staging area by ambulance while the remaining children, over 400 of them, were “processed” by a handful of CPS workers.

    The little boy in Intensive Care was returned to his mother much later. His mother was NOT ALLOWED to visit him while he was in the hospital, for fear her presence would “influence” his responses to CPS inquiries, which, granted, were few and far between due to his coma to keep his brain from swelling. Nevertheless, in an effort to protect their position, the State of Texas managed to hang on to this child, and one other child.

    NO EVIDENCE of child abuse, sexual or otherwise, has ever been uncovered at the FLDS compound in Texas.

  16. Ane Marie says:

    yes,it is.Women who agree with polygamy probabily had avery sexist education,and it has nothing to do with if she is graduated ina respectfull university or not.It has to do with the sexist culture.Not surprisiling,i just see men in the wb defending such pratice,regardeless what we women feel about it.
    Monogamy is the only fair possibility,even when the partners betary each other,but at least,they are equal in terms of opportunities.

  17. I think we do have to take the voices of women who were abused in polygamist plural marriages, and child sexual abuse survivors of prepubescent marriages every bit as seriously as we do within the context of monogamous relationships. Unfortunately, in North America, it seems to be the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints that is pressing for legitimisation of polygamy, and such instances of abuse appear tolerated and prevalent. I would therefore accept that polygamy should remain illegal- although polyamory is clearly based on feminist and egalitarian premises that preclude abuse, and should not be.

  18. My country allows polygamy (1 husband several wives) and I can honestly say that for every one happy polygamous family there are 10 that are not, and most of the time its the women. I do think that a women’s worth becomes less in polygamy, there are other women in the relationship if the husband has a problem with one he just goes to the other. It is hard to have monopoly on anything when you have other women competing with you, they don’t even have to compete with you just there existence ensures that. The husband always has the upper hand if you happen to be his favorite wife then you get more of him emotionally, physically and financially otherwise you will always be the underdog. Moreover it places more value on male’s sexuality vs female’s sexuality. And the wive’s have to deal with more family responsibilities since the husband have to work more to provide for the family. Also when speaking about polygamy most people think about a man with several women and not the opposite which is polyandry , polyandry is usually a taboo subject, most cultures around the world do not follow it or accept it, religions usually do not allow polyandry, biologically it is not as suitable for women I’m not talking about sex but pregnancy it is not that practical to do a DNA test to know the father every time you get pregnant. The odds against a recognized polygamous system for women are high. I think feminist should help women be more independent, have values and morals, for women to voice their opinions and concerns and follow it with ACTION not just words, instill more values in men regarding women, stop objectification of women as sexual objects, help women have more self esteem and not settle for ill-mannered men that may end up abusing them.

  19. All I can say is that I agree with you Sofi and some of the other women here on this page. You all are smart and strong sounding. It is refreshing to hear that some women in this world do not fall for antything. Thanks ladies for saying what I could not say as clearly.

  20. Polygamy is patriarchal to the core. I am disgusted that several feminists are actually calling it a woman’s “choice.” It was distressing to find some feminists agreeing with the recent Utah polygamy ruling. However, many of us were outraged.

    • I just wish that women could open their eyes and know that they are vital and important and do have choices about things that affect them. Yes, women do have the right to enter any type marriage they want, but they should not be allowed to know about the other marriage choices as a young women and be able to make their own choices, without fear of repercussions. I believe that because most of them were brought up in polygamist environments as children, that they have already been indoctrinated, are too far gone in that particular mind control, and are too afraid to go against the practice. We as women tend to accept virtually all of the man made doctrines that are created in this country. Whatever the man created rules tell us to do, we acccept as law.
      Four examples of man made doctrines that women obey:
      1. The not so recent craze about allowing a woman’s dad, brother, father in law, and other males to come into the delivery room and watch her birth, many times in the nude. Women accept that this is okay, will argue that the vagina and breasts are not private during birth, and that their families are just excited about the new baby. These brainwashed women also, tell those of us who want privacy during birth, that we are selfish. And guess what, some normally strong women will give in to these practices.
      2. The practice of allowing the inlaws to come into a wife’s home and taunt, criticize her, override her parenting choices, all with the husband saying, “That’s just the way they are”, and “It’s no big deal.”
      3. So called christian female marriage counselors on the internet, writing long scolding articles, telling women that they are bad, bad, bad, and they are to do whatever the husbands say, all in the name of ‘Wives must submit and respect”, even though the husband is a big time sinner.
      4. Men owned and controlled media, that convinces women to pose nude, topless, and do gross acts of porn that degrade the female only. Then spreading the false belief that only men are shown nude in the media spaces.

      Women have got to change their gullible ways. Men do not accept things women want them to do, infact they fight and strongly resist things we want them do accept. therefore, women must strive to be a stronger gender, not to change men, but to get respect for ourselves and our young vulnerable females who are coming behind and watching everthing we do.

  21. Those who assume that polygamy is simply a case of “consenting-adults” are assuming that all concerned are coming into the relationship from a place of equity. They are not. Not from a societal standpoint, not culturally and in most cases not economically. I absolutely agree with Sofi, Kathy, and others who have voiced opinions that are not blind to the circumstances which inform our environment. Even if we dismiss our need for reflected appraisals and assume that the self concept of any woman is determined solely on her own merit, what fully actualized person would assume that they are not an equal partner worth the undivided devotion of a mate? And the idea of having another “wife” to “help” with housework and child rearing only further emphasizes the sexist nature of the relationship. That society devalues the feminine role of motherhood to the extent that one accepts the idea of sharing the role with a “sisterwife” as a “solution” to the life-balance conundrum is very telling. This is ABSOLUTELY a feminist issue, “consenting adults” or no. Presently, this post-modern idea that real feminism means campaigning for any/every underdog is to dilute the message entirely–just another example of women sacrificing their own worth for the cause of others as the angel in the house. Stay on task. We are being sold sexism as “free choice.” It’s the inherent sexist patriarchal perspective being re-packaged as feminism via personal freedom. It is the opposite of progress. If we want to talk about perfect absolutes, instead of assuming that “consent” is the ultimate form of feminism, imagine a world where women’s need are truly accommodated on terms that treat her as a fully realized and complex, pragmatic, emotionally relevant and honest human being. Imagine a world where male privileged does not advise the subconscious and every person is equally validated and valued. Ideally, love should have no power structure. In polygamy, it’s impractical double speak to claim that the husband is not the dictator.

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