Politrix: Does Polygamist = Crazy?

So I went to Howard University for undergrad (Go Bison!). Most cats think of homecoming when they think of my alma mater, but there’s so much more to it: an amazing education, an extraordinarily international population (with students from more than 50 countries)… and mansharing.
Yup. With two to three women for every man, this practice runs rampant on the campus of the real HU (I second that–JBaker). It seems that when faced with the prospect of having no man at all or dating a dude from “the area,” splitting one with the chick on the third floor of the dorm next door really isn’t that bad a deal. We’ve already talked about the idea that a disproportionate number of the eligible men of color in this country are, shall we say, inaccessible. Could it be that polygamy is the solution?

In America, the mention of polygamy leads to frantic discussions of brainwashed, marginalized women and confused, ostracized children. Most recently, the topic has come to the fore in the case of the 1,900-acre Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints offshoot just outside Eldorado, Texas, where children have been seized amid suspicion of child abuse. More on that later.

Anyway, this polygamy stuff—which actually means “the practice of multiple marriage,” rather than the more specific terms polygyny (where men take multiple wives) and polyandry (where women enjoy the comfort of more than one man)—is not the invention of a rogue sect of Mormons. Polygamy has been practiced in other parts of the world for centuries, enjoying stints in China and India. It even reigned in Biblical times; Abraham, Jacob and his brother Esau, David. King Solomon and Moses all had multiple wives.

In Africa, plural marriages were (and in many Muslim countries still are) the flesh embodiment of the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” You’ve seen it on a small scale on HBO’s Big Love, where the moms take care of all the children and the man watches over the entire brood. It was only denounced after Europeans colonized the continent, and while many historians write it off as the province of rich men flaunting their power, the wealth is more a corollary than a cause: Think of the animal kingdom, where the alpha lion mates with all the lionesses in his pride. He’s born the strongest and the females and the food (the riches to us humans) have no choice but to come to him.

The benefits: At its best, the society is a community in the truest sense, where the group bands together to provide the best possible care for the members; the children grow up in a world that focuses on making them the strongest they can; the elderly are cared for, so there are no childless “spinsters” fending for themselves; and the entire family cultivates the land in rural areas, much like the large families of the American south in the last generation.

But any exploration of this practice must account for the worst case: First of all, as a feminist issue, the supposition that women need men to take care of them is outmoded and ridiculous. And I can’t fathom sharing my husband with another women (I refused to play ball at Howard). At the very least, polygamy needs to be an actual choice—and that brings us back to the compound in Texas. It seems girls as young as 13 were being forced to marry older men, and more than half the girls between the ages of 14 and 17 either have children, or have been pregnant. First, I’m not condoning taking advantage of girls who may not be old enough to make adult decisions, but in the words of Dave Chappelle, “How old is 15, really?” For real, chicks I grew up with were doing the do before we hit high school, and I know a couple of super-happy couples who married before graduation. That said, girls raised in these communities need to choose to be one of many wives, not be pushed into it out of fear of being shunned by the only families they’ve ever known.

The bottom line: For better or for worse, communities set their own values and mores. I can’t say what side of polygamy I come down on, but I can say that I don’t really need to choose sides—it’s not for me to decide. All I can do is defend the right for others to choose what works for them.


If you like Kenrya’s opinion, check out the rest of her posts here.

image via ABC News

Last 5 posts by Parlour

  • Tahad

    I can’t complain about the writers opinions. Some good points were made but, I would like to know if you really agree with polygamy and would it be in the best interest of the people to practice such law. Will women put away the fear of another woman; out, performing them at the task of wifey duties? Can women join as companions in relationship to building up black men and create more productivity in our childrens future? Can the whole of black men and women raise our children together as a whole? What if daddy had no baby momma’s drama and all participating mothers helped each other to build up the future for their children and the father. Would black men suffer from the missing responsibilities of raising children today? So many questions; maybe, others have their own.

  • krankin

    Tahad: I believe that polygamy is a viable choice for those who want to go that route. As long as children raised in those communities aren’t forced to make adult decisions about marriage and childbearing before an appropriate age (whatever that is: 18? 21? 47?), I don’t have a problem with it.

    Will modern, American Black families pick up the practice for the good of our children? Not likely, in my opinion. I think we’ve all (including me) been Americanized to the point where that is too much of a departure from the “norm” for us—even in cases of divorce and children born out of wedlock. However, my parents divorced when I was little, but my dad is still “Daddy” to my mom’s son, because stepping into that role was for the greater good. My daddy’s not gonna be taking multiple wives anytime soon, but he’s always there for his entire brood, such as it is. Maybe that’s good enough.

  • Diane

    Where do I begin cuz I sure break so many social norms regarding men and marriage…

    Back in the day when it was seen as necessary to have multiple wives (in that so many died young, and there was the need to propagate and someone had to raise the young uns as the men were out) – it wasn’t strange. Mormons in general – not the rogues – practiced the same in the 19th century. And today, there are pockets of people who practice this – on a small scale, household level.

    I think the Texas issue isn’t about the above. It’s about men controlling women and children. I do not see religion playing a role except as a shield to make the practices seem ‘acceptable.’

    These men effectively took their group off the radar – with little, to no, interaction at all with the outside world. They skirted the law (no matter if you don’t agree, you live in the US of A and there are rules and regulations), broke decency codes – and it all seems to be for one thing – marrying girls. Or sleeping with them. Or both. I still don’t think we know it all (I’m still wondering why there’s a bed in the church). These children were not home-schooled in the sense of getting an education based on state rules.

    These men subjugated the women. Some men, in order to keep control over households, when a baby cried, they put their heads under running water. Infants. Waterboarding?

    To overshadow the real workings of Jeffers and his syndicate – and to make it all about polygamy and how just because they did this, they were condemned, is not looking into the reality of this sect.

    Hillary shares… and if the Howard women choose to do this with their men – well, it’s a choice.

    But if we want to really discuss polygamy as a viable option for any group – I’d rather not use Jeffers or any other cult — as an example.

    In general – how would jealousy play out? I cannot imagine waking up and cooking breakfast beside a woman who lay with my man the night before… If you had 4 screaming infants around – would you choose to deal with yours before your husband’s other ones? What about date nights?

    And most importantly – these are choices by adults (let’s presume). How do you translate this to your children so they have the same choice? They live in a polygamist home – how would the adults teach them about monogamy? Would they? If not, have they not taken the CHOICE away from the next generation?

    I think about communes in the 60s and 70s. They’re not really around anymore. They ‘shared’ everything. I’d love to ask some of them why it didn’t work?

    Sorry for the length… love the topic!

  • Derek

    The mainstream Mormon church is somewhat ambivalent about polygamy. It really irritates them that there are fundamentalist sects out there still practicing it, because it results in assumptions about Mormons as a whole. On the other hand, there is a kind of pride and nostalgia for the lifestyle of the pioneer ancestors. The early Mormons were a hardscrabble, self-sufficient, defiant lot, and they took care of their own. Polygamy was a huge part of that — as Kenrya points out, there were no solitary spinsters.

    The contemporary polygamists (Jeffs et al) are not that much different from those early Mormons. To a certain extent, the early Mormons could have given up their rebellious ways and integrated into 19th-Century American social life, just as easily as Jeffs and company could drop their strange ways and assimilate today. This is where religion does come into it: they force themselves underground because they believe themselves to be the sole possessors of a truth that makes them outcasts. And so all of those adjectives — self-reliant, defiant, etc. — become requirements for survival. Jeffs and his gang are living the legacy.

    To be sure, I think cupidity goes a long way toward explaining polygamy. And there’s no question that in either early Mormonism or contemporary breakaway Mormonism, young girls are/were indoctrinated into the lifestyle long before a reasonable age of accountability. Same with the men (What happens when you’re a 19-year-old boy in a community where all the girls are married to your 60-year-old uncles?).

    But efforts to legislate morality always make me uneasy. Who’s to say that polygamists — even the women — are less happy or fulfilled than the rest of us? Who’s to say, really, that growing up in a very hierarchical, very strict, very insular, even very patriarchal culture isn’t better, for some people, than being raised in a secular, open-minded environment? Well, me. But I don’t propose to know what’s better for everybody. I think when the state can make a case that an individual child is being hurt by the actions or choices of its parents, then it should be able to step in. But to legislate against a decision to share one’s husband or wife either for moral reasons or just *in case* it should lead to trouble for any kids who might some day become involved, that’s something else.

    One final note: For some reason, we don’t really legislate against adultery in this country. So it seems to be okay to sleep with other women besides your wife, as long as you don’t take it seriously and commit to both women, who consent to the arrangement.

  • Diane

    There is a huge difference in 19th century and today. For one, we have laws against minors being married. Going underground doesn’t excuse you from the laws.

    Back in the day – females did marry earlier – survival rate and all. Today it is different. But I’m not certain 12-13 yr. olds were ‘normally’ married in the 1800s. Ah yes, back in the Dark Ages/low-middle ages and before (even the Renaissance period upped the age a bit).

    But I digress. I agree (and stated before) that what the adults do – of free choice/will – is one thing. To subject the child, without knowing anything else, is not their choice then. And again, with respect to this sect – there are issues beyond polygamy. Polygamy is not the reason for the underage marriages, nor the separateness to the point of bringing on their own ostracizing in some respects.

    This is why I don’t like to use this group as a example of polygamy. This is a cultish group that does practice polygamy, but who they are isn’t all about that.

    Or so I think…

  • Diane

    I fear I got way off tangent on this, so as is usual, my creative/querying side took hold at about 12 am…

    What message go you think it sends if women are ok with sharing men – because there’s a shortage of males on campus?

    Are women so insecure that they feel any man (available or not) is better than none at all? Do women feel they are somehow not whole or worthy if they’re not an ornament for a man’s arm?

    Do women think they are not worthy of waiting for the ‘right’ man? Do they think they cannot achieve/succeed without him?

    And finally – does a man validate them?

    You went to Howard so perhaps you have insight?

    I’m proof you don’t need a man to ‘be.’ You don’t need a man to succeed. You don’t need a man. Want? Sure. Want a partner in a true committed relationship? Sure. But to settle?

    Single is not a stigma or curse. Perhaps if women embraced this truth – Women don’t need men to have a community, children, or to raise the next generation. We are strong. Ideally, fathers and male figures are important, but they’re not the whole, and if it’s detrimental…

    Perhaps if women had less ‘need’ and placed more value on their own self-worth – our children, and our communities would flourish. And the ‘man issue’ would get settled on its own.

    My ex said I didn’t need him. True. In my life I depended on myself. So what? I told him I chose him and wanted him – and that these were more important (I also thought men didn’t like needy women). Well, when I did ‘need’ him – for the man-type things guys like to do (fix thing, check the car, etc.) I was put on hold for weeks – ‘I’ll get to it’ – but didn’t. Imagine the look I got when I took the car to a service place…

  • krankin

    Diane: I think mansharing shows men that they can have their cake and eat it too, to dust off a crumbling cliché. Those dudes who got to partake were having a ball—as were a few of the women. While I’m sure many of those chicks were settling for what was available, there were a few who figured, “Hey, I’m in college, I’m not trying to get married, what’s the problem.” But there were men to be had who would commit to you (I was always booed up exclusively) but if you were willing to share because you were dealing with esteem issues, why wouldn’t a dude take advantage of that? I sure would.

    As to whether or not those women needed a man to validate them, I’m not sure that was an issue in undergrad—that’s more of a grown woman deal, you know? Back then, the women who had dudes were the rarities, versus now when I go to five weddings and five baby showers a year. Now that careers are halfway established, the focus has turned to getting the personal house in order, and that need for validation becomes very real. I agree that men aren’t the end-all-be-all, but I do think they are a necessary part of growing a family. I grew up sans a steady mom, and that has greatly influenced me. My friends who didn’t have their dads around feel the same, for better or for worse.

    And I don’t think “needing” a man and having self-worth are mutually exclusive. Yes, I am quite capable of living my life on my own, I did it for years before I got married, but I do need my husband now that he’s here. It’s my self-worth that tells me I am someone worth loving, and that needing someone is okay. And it’s that self-worth that kept me from even considering mansharing in college…

  • Diane

    Good points all. I hasten to add that there are needs to everything – but you can get what you need without having the ‘it’ associated with it. And perhaps we’ll sort out the need/want definitions at another juncture.

    Yeah, taking advantage. Rite of passage and all that. I guess I’d rather see women taking the reigns and having that family (if they choose) without the ‘need’ for ‘less than a stellar’ man around. If that makes sense.

    And I know people who had both parents, and they have issues about the parent/spouse influence – for better or worse. Strong family units do not require both sets of parents, nor male/female.

    To close the circle, back in the day, the man was not necessarily ‘around’ – and thus, it fell on the woman to raise the children. Indeed, when widowed, a man quickly remarrit to give the children a ‘mother’ – and actually, a parent (as he was not).

    Perhaps it is a social ideal to have the two-parent family that boosts harmony, unity and strength. Maybe not realistic for a majority in the US anymore – but it hangs out there to aspire to… I remember The Brady Bunch, but at the same time The Partridge Family, and before Leave It to Beaver [the latter via reruns… ahem] – three different ‘families’ but they were all happy – on screen (we could start a whole new thing about Keith/Shirley, Greg/Carol, etc… hee)