As contemporary culture degenerates apace, a new reality show about a polygamous family has been trotted out on TLC. The target audience is obviously female. Any grown man who wants to watch a TV show about a household full of wives must be mentally ill, in my humble opinion.
But one polygamist family is insisting that it’s the exception. The Williams clan, which lives outside Salt Lake City, comprises wives Paulie, Robyn, Rosemary, Nonie, and Rhonda. There are 24 children. And, one other person … oh, right, husband Brady. He’s a construction manager and philosophy major who’s currently enrolled in a feminist theory course at a local college and who refuses to accept the title “head of the household.” He doesn’t like the sexist connotation.
A one-hour special about the Williamses aired on TLC last fall, and the family’s new 9-part series, My Five Wives, is set to debut on Sunday. Earlier this week, the six parents sat down for an interview.
When asked who among them identified as a “feminist,” six hands shot up as if propelled by jack-in-the-box springs. For the wives, this brand of feminism involves sleeping with their spouse only every fifth night, consulting their husband’s other wives if they want to adopt a child, and—as Rosemary puts it—fighting their own psyches to keep jealousy locked in a cage like the wild animal it is.
The kind of polygamy practiced by fundamentalist Mormons is not typical from an anthropological standpoint. Traditional polygamy has always been rare due to the roughly equal sex ratio at birth. It has usually been confined to apex males, such as rulers and the extraordinarily wealthy. Where it is institutionalized, there are certain protocols, including harems, eunuchs and rankings of wives, with the first typically being in charge. Institutional polygamy is pretty awful for all but the people directly involved. A good first hand account of it can be read in in the book White Gold, a biography of a Cornish man named Thomas Pellow who was kidnapped by Barbary pirates and sold into slavery. His master was the notorious Mulai Ismail, the 17th and 18th century Moroccan despot who is said to have fathered 888 children. His wives frequently plotted against each other and murdered each other’s children, children conspired to gain power, and when their father died a bloody civil war broke out, as is usual with polygamous ruling clans.
To ensure enough wives for rulers such as Ismail, ordinary men had to be either killed in battle, castrated or deprived of the chance to have a wife of their own, and slave raids were conducted as far south as Ivory Coast and as far north as Iceland, and possibly Greenland to procure slaves of both sexes — there has been some speculation that the the Norse Greenland colony was wiped out by Barbary Corsair slavers.
Mormon polygamy, on the other hand, was conjectured by English ethnologist Richard Francis Burton to have come about due to the need for labor in the early Mormon church. Rather than hire female servants, the solution was to marry them. While Joseph’s Smith’s supposed penchant for sexual variety may have contributed, there’s little doubt that the practical matter of rapidly settling and populating the Western Desert made polygamy an attractive option. In the long run, to continue with polygamy would have meant the gradual adoption of the slave society culture that has always traditionally sustained polygamy in mature societies.
Either way, there’s no indication that polygamy, taken as a whole, is any worse for women than for men. In fact, women’s station may be raised by it, as we see in the Sultanate of Women in the early modern Ottoman empire. In the 16th and 17th centuries, favored concubines and wives, many of Slavic origin, were often able to seize power and rule in the names of their minor sons and wield enormous influence over the vast Ottoman realm. From a feminist perspective, this may represent the height of female influence in a geopolitical context, and therefore should be of great interest to Western feminist theorists, however, they are not known to be the most historically aware of “scholars.”
So, I wonder why exactly is polygamy any less feminist than Christian patriarchal monogamy? It’s pretty clear that it is far worse for most men, but this doesn’t appear to be the case where women are concerned. In fact, Brady Williams’ self-professed feminism comes off as more credible and plausible than a de facto feminist Evangelical minister’s endorsement of monogamy would. He is more honest than the preacher who cultivates a flock of female parishioners while demanding that their husbands both support and serve them. Mr. Williams actually marries his flock and supports it with his own labor. And perhaps that explains feminist suspicions concerning honest polygamy; while it might be theoretically better to share one alpha than to own one beta, in practical terms it is easier to extract resources from one de facto cuckold while simultaneously sharing the patronage of a powerful man (or government).
What we have in contemporary America, therefore, is what might be best termed cuckold polygamy, in which women share a powerful husband andreap the benefits of a fully owned and subordinate manservant. It is truly the best of both worlds, but it is not monogamy.