Several months ago, I blogged on this topic at FMH. For Women’s History Month, I’d like to revisit the question, for this somewhat different audience: From a feminist perspective, is polyandry more or less acceptable than polygyny?
Letâ€™s start with a very quick history and terminology lesson. Polygamy means taking more than one spouse, either husband or wife. Polygyny means one man taking multiple wives. Polyandry means one woman taking multiple husbands.
In the Mormon context, there are two twists to these definitions. First, the term polygamy is often used informally, to mean polygyny. Second, the term polyandry is typically used to refer to the practice of male-initiated marriage and sexual relations with already-married women. As a definitional matter, â€œpolyandryâ€ need not be limited to male-initiated bonds, and in some polyandrous societies, women have freedom to choose their mates. However, Mormon polyandry as practiced in Nauvoo (and later to a lesser degree in Utah) did not accord women such freedom. Rather, a small subset of already-married women were approached and asked to become the plural wives of other men, while simultanously remaining in their existing marriages. (See generally http://www.wivesofjosephsmith.org/ and Todd Comptonâ€™s In Sacred Loneliness, hereinafter â€œISL.â€ For an apologist explanation of the idea, see http://www.fairlds.org/pubs/polyandry.pdf ).
In a classic polygynous system, Sister Jones may wonder if her husband is going to find a second Sister Jones. In a polyandrous system – particularly a system of male-initiated polyandry as was practiced in the early church – Sister Jones has a somewhat different concern: she herself might be asked to become a second or third Sister Johnson, while simultaneously retaining her role as Sister Jones. That is the basic difference between polygyny (what we typically mean when we say â€œpolygamyâ€) and polyandry (at least as practiced in the early church).
From a feminist perspective, polyandry creates several new wrinkles.
On an initial examination, polyandry seems to have some potential to be a pro-feminist piece if the polygamy puzzle. For one thing, it adds a very satisfying â€œsauce for the goose, sauce for the ganderâ€ aspect to the discussion. The system of Mormon polygyny institutionalized yet another gender-based double standard. This double standard placed the brunt of the emotional costs on the plural wives, who were expected to share their husbands. Under polyandry, the costs of spouse-sharing are distributed at least somewhat among both sexes.
Second, polyandry probably fosters male empathy towards women forced to share spouses. Polygamous marriages often created tension and unhappiness in women, who dealt with difficult emotional turmoil. Similarly, we read of tension and unhappiness felt by men who were in polyandrous marriages. Henry Jacobs wrote that â€œI feel alone & no one to speak to call my own. I feel like a lamb without a mother.â€ (ISL, 91; see also id. at 99).
As painful as these passages are, they are striking because they are male-authored; normally such bleak narratives come from women in polygamous marrriages. Absent the threat of polyandry, it is easy for men to sit around and blithely discuss the need for wives to share a husband â€” after all, men reap all of the benefits and feel none of the loss. It is quite another thing for men to be forced to internalize these questions. In a polyandrous society, the analysis for men moves away from â€œwomen should be happy to share their spousesâ€ and becomes a self-query of â€œwould I be happy to share my spouse?â€
Polyandry thus forces men to internalize some of the costs of polygamy, rather then offloading all of the costs onto women.
Third, polyandry potentially allows more freedom for women to enter into fulfilling relationships. Mormon polyandry, as practiced, may not appear to grant this benefit. (This is because all polyandrous marriages were male-initiated, and mostly initiated by a small group of high-level church leaders). However, it seems likely that even in a society where only male-initiated polyandry were allowed, women could use informal means to enter into relationships that they felt were desirable. That is, a woman could approach a desired suitor and suggest that he request her hand as a polyandrous bride. Thus, polyandry could become a potential avenue for women to seek and maintain fulfilling relationships with desired partners.
On all of these counts â€” lessening of the double standard, greater burden-sharing and probably empathy from men, and broader relationship opportunities for women â€” polyandry seems like a clear gain for women.
However, polyandry also brings serious drawbacks.
First, in a system of Mormon polyandry, such as was practiced in Nauvoo and later to a lesser degree in Utah, polyandrous marriages were limited to male-initiated relationships. This placed certain limitations on the broader level of relationship choice for women. It is possible that women could informally circumvent these limits, as noted above. Nevertheless, a system of Mormon polyandry does not grant women the same degree of freedom as men to enter into relationships that they feel are desirable. It is the rule of male-initiated polyandry that imposes these limits, and so allowing for informal female-initiated polyandry helps ameliorate the problem, but does not do away with it entirely.
Second, it seems possible that polyandry would result in loss of status for participating women, because of differing societal expecations and perceptions of male versus female sexual boundaries. Men who have sexual relations with multiple women are often viewed as powerful and desirable; women who have sexual relations with multiple men are often perceived as loose or trashy. It seems possible that polyandry would have serious negative social consequences.
Another concern is that forms of male-initiated polyandry seem similar to societal attitudes treating women are treated as chattel. Much of the Biblical polyandry â€” such as David and Michel â€” takes place as men blithely decide amongst themselves how the â€œpropertyâ€ is shared; women are left powerless, treated as mere prizes to be won. To the
extent that male-initiated polyandry depends on or reinforces that dynamic, it is obviously not a net gain for women.
The most striking argument against Mormon polyandry, though, is found in its history. The history of Mormon polyandry has been starkly anti-feminist â€” often seeming to boil down to old and problematic dynamic of multiple men competing for sexual access to attractive women. In that sense, male-initiated polyandry symbolizes all that is wrong with patriarchal power structures and oppression of women.
Records of polyandry as practiced suggest that it did not afford greater relationship choices to women, but rather created extra layers of angst and heartache within their existing relationships. Again, the story of Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Smith Young is instructive. Zina twice entered into polyandrous marriages; at least one of them caused her quite a bit of anguish. She received a polyandrous marriage proposal from Joseph Smith while she was married to Henry Jacobs. She struggled with this idea, writing that it was a greater sacrifice than giving her life; ultimately she acquiesced only when Joseph told her that an angel would slay him if she did not marry him. (ISL, 80-81).
She writes less about her polyandrous marriage to Brigham Young, but notes that she felt â€œweakness of heartâ€ after it. (Id. at 85-86). For Zina, polyandry did not create more opportunities for her to explore fruitful relationships â€” rather, it added stress and pain to the relationships that she had.
In theory, polyandry could be a version of polygamy that is more feminist-friendly than classic polygyny. As noted above, it removes some of the double standard, and it seems to create â€” again, in theory â€” additional opportunities for women to enter into rewarding relationships.
However, the history of polyandry as practiced, and the relationship limitations imposed under a system of male-initiated polyandry, weigh more heavily on the other side of the balance. Polyandry would not be a more feminist version of polygamy; in practice, it would almost certainly be more anti-feminist. There arenâ€™t very many institutions that can make a culture of male-initiated polygyny look good by comparison â€” but a male-initiated system of polyandry is probably one of them.