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Sister Wives, polygamy, and feminism

The title card for Sister Wives, a TLC reality...

The title card for Sister Wives, a TLC reality television series about a polygamist family. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been watching the TV show Sister Wives for the past couple of years with some interest – the show is about a polygamist family with one man, four wives (the fourth joined the family during the early part of the show) and 16 kids. While I’m sure the show is not a completely accurate view of their lives (I imagine they’ll even admit that, as it is clear they have correctly declared certain private matters completely off limits to the cameras), if it is at least reasonably close, it provides some evidence for my personal view of whether polygamy should be accepted.

It is a tenet among feminists that polygamy is harmful to women. The evidence for this is typically gathered from closed, authoritarian polygamist communities, where a small group of older men are completely and utterly in charge, taking their views to an extreme which includes child and spousal abuse, forced underage marriage, horrendous treatment of young men, and other abusive acts. Examples of this can be heard from those who escaped such groups in Arizona, Texas, and Mexico.

As a feminist, I’ve been shocked by the stories I’ve heard and hope that those abused by these communities get the help they need and those who commit crimes (such as Warren Jeffs) come to justice. As the descendant of Mormon pioneers, I am a little more ambivalent about the issue, as polygamy is only a few generations back in my own family tree. This makes it harder for me to decry something that led to my own existence.

I’ve often wondered what polygamy would look like if it was not part of an authoritarian communal structure and simply a personal choice among adults. This is what Sister Wives purports to show – a family that lives and works alongside us. A recent episode, and a new book, discussed the downsides a little more, though the interpersonal issues sounded fairly normal to me, simply multiplied (as would be expected) due to an increasing number of people.

I’m definitely not cut out to be a sister wife, I think my own personality is too strong to deal with multiple adults. But outside of a closed, authoritarian community, it can have benefits for those who choose it. Child care and household duties can be shared among the women, for example.

As the Browns themselves admit, polygamy “isn’t for amateurs.” ┬áBut with divorce statistics as they are, perhaps neither is monogamous marriage. The only way we can really examine these choices is to separate polygamy from the authoritarian cults and examine it as a separate issue. Whatever you might believe about polygamy and the Apostolic United Brethren church, the show has at least contributed to the conversation by allowing us to see a family that isn’t in some separatist compound.

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