This is turning out to be Polygamy Week around here, what with two book reviews related to the topic (one posted on Monday, the other will be up tomorrow) – and two books with common themes read in near-succession tend to get me thinking.
In a review of yet another novel about polygamy, Natasha of Maw Books Blog asked the question, “Should polygamy be legal?” and wondered if the answer might be less obvious than it seemed at first glance.
Here in California, we’re still fighting over the legal definition of “marriage” as “one man, one woman” – with the emphasis on the genders. Polygamy would seem to be a similar issue, but with the emphasis on the numbers instead. It’s even been suggested that if same-sex marriage were to become legal on a broad scale (like in more than six relatively small states), multiple marriage would be the next issue to land on the table.
Marriage to more than one person at a time is illegal, and you can’t get a license to partake in it. Polygamous “marriages” exist only within the framework of particular religious beliefs – but the fact that government and churches don’t have to define marriage the same way has come up before. Although ministers and priests are legally authorized to perform marriages and sign licenses, the church ceremony is separate from the legal license to wed, and a wedding doesn’t have to involve a church at all. And a church wedding ceremony without that properly executed “piece of paper” isn’t going to be recognized by the law as producing a married couple (emphasis added).
So if I support granting gays the legal right to marry – which I do, and you may recall my talking about it here (and there) a few times already – must I also support granting the legal right to have multiple spouses at the same time? Wouldn’t that be consistent reasoning?
Well, then I’m inconsistent. I don’t think that healthy families thrive in polygamous households (while they can in homes with same-sex parents, and I’ve known a few myself), and think that the state would be wrong to permit such households to exist legally.
In a comment on my review of The 19th Wife, Dreamybee said:
I’ve heard people knock (polygamy) as being an unhealthy environment for kids to grow up in, but I actually think that aside from the practice of marrying young girls that you may be closely related to (okay, granted, that’s a big aside!) kids would do quite well in this environment. They are constantly surrounded by their siblings and watched over by other family members-very much an “it takes a village” approach which I think is often lacking in today’s society.
There probably are some polygamist families that work that way, but based on my limited reading on the topic, I suspect that they’re exceptional. If the wives get competitive with one another, they’re looking out for themselves and maybe their own kids, never mind anyone else’s – and some of these families are huge, with dozens of children living in the same house. Chances are pretty good that quite a few of these kids are neglected more than nurtured.
But if these families didn’t have to live outside the law, would the kids be better off? Perhaps legal recognition of plural marriage would change those conditions, but since its practitioners see it as a religious calling and, therefore, of higher value than secular law, I’m not sure how much they even care about whether it’s legal or not – they’re doing it anyway, and separation of church and state means that there’s not much interference unless they’re found breaking some other law.
As it is, since most of the mothers of these children are not legally married to their fathers, they’re technically all single parents. And since many of them are not permitted – by church edicts and/or their husbands – to work and earn money, their single-parent status puts many of these women and their children in the welfare system. (“We don’t follow your government’s laws, but we’ll take its money” – now that attitude irritates me.) The communities where polygamy exists are small and isolated, and unwelcoming to outsiders – and in order to keep things that way, education has to be strictly controlled and limited.
I could get into more discussion about how patriarchal and demeaning to women plural marriage can be (and it’s nearly always men with multiple wives, not the other way around) and the dangers to young women and girls in an environment where men hold all the power, but I’m actually trying to stay focused on the child-welfare question here. As far as that goes, I think that polygamy should retain its current legal status – which is “not” – because I really don’t think it’s a good family structure. And I can only hope that over time, as its adherents grow even more isolated from mainstream society (and probably inbred, too – there won’t be that many other options for them, will there?), more people will grow disillusioned and desert the culture, and eventually it will die out.
It may be inconsistent with some of my other beliefs about marriage, but so be it; I don’t think it should include any more than two people, no matter who they are.