Feminist critics of polygyny—also called plural marriage, consisting of one man and more than one wife—have enumerated the ways that it is bad for women. Feminist scholar Susan Moller Okin argued that polygyny is fundamentally about men controlling women.
Likewise, media coverage of polygyny often decries the ways that polygynous wives are indoctrinated and brainwashed. For example, coverage of the TV documentary series Three Wives, One Husband about a Mormon fundamentalist family in Utah described how this “demoralising peek at polygamy in action afforded the chance to [gape] at otherwise ordinary Americans collectively brainwashing themselves.”
The author describes the “mind-bendingly irrational” justifications that the wives give of why they would choose to practice plural marriage, such as preferring to share a good man rather than having a bad one to oneself.
The underlying question is: why would a woman choose this patriarchal family structure in which she has to share her husband with other wives?
In my forthcoming Gender & Society article, I provide an answer by examining the ways that the husband and wives relate to one another that enables women’s choices. In 2014, I conducted ethnographic research in Utah, including 21 interviews with 36 participants who were in current or former plural marriages (some interviews were one-on-one, and some were with the husband and wives as a group). Mormons began practicing plural marriage in the 1800s, when Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormon Church) and included plural marriage as a religious commandment.
In 1890, the Mormon Church abandoned the practice, after which a Mormon fundamentalist movement grew that sees plural marriage as a requirement to enter the highest levels of paradise. An estimated 38,000 to 60,000 people live in plural Mormon fundamentalist families in North America, predominantly in Utah.
My research addresses whether plural marriage is bad for women and children. For some, it definitely is. Sally, for example, had said yes to bringing in a second wife when she was still in her early 20s. Later, she realized her mistake and left both the religion and her marriage.
For her, “the very dynamics of polygamy and that triangle of the male being up here, and the females being down here, it doesn’t matter how hard you try but there will never be equality.”
Her account reflected others, speaking to their constrained choices that allow husbands to control multiple wives. Families in which the husband exerts his power and in which there is strife among wives can lead to violence, such as stories of wives abusing each other and other wives’ children.
In contrast to plural families that breed rivalry and contention, I found that harmonious families perform gender in ways that are complementary. Studying these family interactions, I found men performed a “conciliatory masculinity”—a masculinity that combines traits such as leadership and non-normative ideals of emotional labor and conciliation, and women a “homosocial femininity”—strong bonds between women that attenuate the power of the patriarch, to build and sustain a balanced family life.
Specifically, the necessity to meet all the wives’ needs circumscribes the husband’s power. For example, Amy discussed how, when conflicts arise between her and her sister wife, they will often take this to their husband to act as mediator because they understand that “he loves her, he loves me.” The husband is compelled to perform this kind of emotional labor to make sure that everyone’s needs are being meet. In general, he cannot make family decisions without listening to the perspectives of all wives if he wants to have a harmonious family life.
Similar to evangelical Christianity, Mormon fundamentalism establishes men as the head of the family. Conciliatory masculinity necessitates a high standard for acting as head that is shaped in relation to femininity. Husbands make sacrifices to spend time with their large plural families, such as declining promotions at work that would demand too much time or watching less TV to spend time with children. Sacrifices such as these are usually expected of women, not men.
Samantha, a second wife in her late 40s, explained that being head means being a worthy husband to each wife, an objective that requires more sensitivity and emotion work than most monogamous men perform.
She stated emphatically, “I told a reporter once, ‘You will not meet a group of women that have higher expectations for men.’” Ultimately, wives expect men to set everyday rules in a manner that requires compassion and excellent listening skills to negotiate disagreements.
Conciliatory masculinity is practiced in relation to homosocial femininity to provide an environment in which wives can work together. Wives are thus able to nurture emotional bonds to deflect jealousies and rivalry.
Tammy, married to Arch and Joan, recounted her view that jealousy is a form of immaturity. For her, it is possible “to truly just love that your husband loves your sister wife, because you love her too.”
Women described the benefits of having a sister wife or wives that allow them to work together to balance work and family responsibilities, such as decisions about who would stay home with the kids and who would work outside the home. In addition, nurturing homosocial femininity permits the wives to unite together to ensure that the husband does not overstep his bounds.
My research complicates the idea that all men are patriarchal and that all women are victims in polygynous families. The interactions of conciliatory masculinity and homosocial femininity ensure that women have some power in relationships where men are understood to be the head of all wives and children.
Nuanced understandings of men and women in plural marriages can inform policy. For example, in Utah, it is a felony to live with more than one spouse and “purport” to be married. Should men who seek to make their wives happy and provide a harmonious family life be felons?
Melanie Heath is an associate professor of sociology at McMaster University, Canada. Her research interests are in family, gender, sexuality, religion, and globalization. She is the author of One Marriage Under God: Campaign to Promote Marriage in America (2012, New York University Press).