Monday, August 22, 2011

Polygamy: I Just Don't Get It

It seems a lot of my blog posts have been inspired by my in-car radio listening. Today, on my way to work, I was listening to Friday's rebroadcast of Tell Me More. The topic was polygamy. Here's NPR's description of the discussion:

Talk of polygamy has spread nationwide, partly due to TV shows and news coverage of polygamist leader Warren Jeffs' sexual assault conviction. But some see polygamy as a lifestyle rooted in faith. Two open polygamists discuss why they've chosen such lifestyles, what burdens they bear, and how they feel about pop culture's depictions of polygamy.

It's true. There is a cultural focus on polygamy right now. From Warren Jeffs' conviction to shows like Sisterwives and Big Love, people are talking about this. So why not hear about it directly from the people living this life, right? Of course, I come to this discussion with my own set of biases, but I tried to be a good little liberal and reserve judgment. The female polygamist in the segment, Julie Halcomb, had this to say when she was discussing how she came to the practice:

Well, having been in a monogamous marriage, I realized how lonely it was, and how everything always fell on me as far as the housework, the raising of the children - at that time, just one child.

Everything was my responsibility, as my husband was a truck driver and he was always gone, and I hated it. I hated being alone. I had friends. My family was within 20 minutes of me, but there was something missing.

After my ex left, I started researching, and I grew up in a mainstream evangelical church, and I had read the Bible. I went to a Bible college. I studied the stuff, and it always seemed odd to me that, for some reason, it was OK in the Old Testament to have plural wives and to have these large families, but somehow, over time, the practice had stopped. And I wanted to find out more of why it had stopped, because it seemed to make sense. It seemed to be a logical thing, that one woman wasn't having to take care of everything.
Whoa, whoa, HOLD UP! I see a glaring problem in her logic. She's saying that she turned to polygamy because all the household responsibilities fell on her. But what I would say is that this situation could have been easily remedied with a less strict view of gender roles and a more equal balance of power in the existing marriage. In other words, all she really needed was a dose of feminism.

This is so strange to me, because throughout the segment she seems to see polygamy as the only logical solution to sharing responsibilities. She fails to see that her own antiquated notions of what it means to be a wife directly contributed to this problem. Because she is so convinced that all the household and child-rearing responsibilities are a woman's, her next "logical" conclusion is to bring more women into the equation to help out; not to seek a greater balance of power between women and men.

That's the problem I really have with polygamy: it's all too often rooted in misogyny. In my good liberal mind, I can agree that it's fine to let consenting adults do what consenting adults want, but this set up is nevertheless problematic. (And it would be remiss to not note that the most radical of these situations don't even involve adults.)

In reality, we're not talking about various adults choosing various polyamorous situations. No. We are talking about one man taking on multiple wives. And let me make one thing clear...that is not just "polygamy." That is polyGYNY and it's always polygyny. Time after time, the adherents of these practices truly believe in the superiority of men, which dictates that they take multiple wives.

In fact, let's get back to Halcomb's discussion about her own living situation:

We actually will sit down - just like, actually, it shows on the "Big Love" series. We will sit down, the three of us wives, and talk through things. And how do we do this? How do we balance this? What needs to be done? And just talk about it...

But we don't ever do anything without his permission, nor do we do anything above his head. If he tells us, no, out of respect and under the religious principles as far as he is the head of the household and we are to submit to his authority, it's not the authority of, yes, sir, I'm going to do whatever you say, sir. But when he makes that final decision, OK. I'll go with it.

(Emphasis mine.)

Well, there you have it. Even someone who has the specific agenda of trying to show that polygyny is "normal" (her word, not mine) admits that when push comes to shove, their husband has the final say. I guess what ticks me off most about that is that you would think in a pluralistic relationship, there would at least be some degree of democracy, majority rules kind of stuff. You know, four adults in the family, and if three of them feel one way, the fourth one is out of luck.

But no, the husband makes the final call.

So I could sit over here in "reserving judgment" land and continue to pretend not to have a problem with any choice that any consenting adult makes, but that would be a lie. When a relationship is inherently rooted in rigidly traditional gender roles and a little bit of misogyny, I just can't get behind it. It's the same problem I have with Michele Bachmann's submission. Yes, all adults have the right to live their lives and arrange their relationships in any way that they see fit, but that doesn't mean that I have to agree with those choices.


  1. Looks to me like you have a problem with the rigidity of the gender roles, which I certainly understand. There are people who I think should not be together. Heterosexual, monogamous people. But that is their choice to make. If a woman truly wants to enter into a polygynous situation, she should have that freedom just like she should be able to marry two men, or two women, or a man and a woman. Let people have the relationships they want, as far as the law goes. On the personal level, discourage people from making self-destructive relationship choices.

  2. Hey there--I think if you take another look at my arguments, you'll see that I don't have a problem w/ polyamorous situations, I have a problem with misogynistic, oppressive polygyny. It really gets at the question of free will. How can women raised in these worlds freely "choose" this lifestyle?

  3. Considering the history of of multiple wives world wide historically, the scales have never been balanced. For if they were, then maybe there could be a legit argument. Too often women-to different degrees- are used like cattle. In Himalayan models of polyandry, the men are still free to leave unlike most women. Low self esteem, brainwashing & religion are the hallmark excuses men use to justify this the need to stick it everywhere. If you see Lisa Ling's piece on OWN on this issue she just gave a one sided view instead of a balanced one making it seem like just 'ONE BIG HAPPY FAMILY". Freedom to love who you want is essential but this where I draw the proverbial line.


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