Wednesday, March 29, 2006

You say polygyny, I say polyandry

People often ask me what I think about polygamy and I often laugh and say, "Don't you know? Haven't you met my husbandS? But shhhh, don't tell anyone." We share a laugh, sometimes awkwardly, and then I explain that the Mormon church does not sanction polygamy and its members have not practiced it since 1890 when it was renounced, six years before Utah became a state.

Today, I laugh about it, but if someone had asked me how I felt about polygamy 10 years ago I would have related a conversation that I had with my dad back then when I was younger and more argumentative. I argued that no self-respecting woman could enter into such a relationship. I argued that it was degrading to her and to the women who preceded and succeeded her. I argued that she was treated as a sex object and for procreation purposes, a sperm depository, a child producer, leaving her with more responsibilities, less freedom than if she had been the only wife of her husband. I argued that the sexist undercurrent of most religions subjugates women in ways that they often cannot detect, the sexism so rampant and ingrained. My dad argued that a lot of women enter into this type of a relationship willingly and that for some, it works out better socially and economically and emotionally than single womanhood does. He referred to a woman we both knew whom he felt would have been better off in a polygamist relationship than single and childless, wishing that she weren't. The discussion ended with my exasperation and disgust followed by his laughter. And though this may sound like an uneasy exchange, it wasn't. My dad and I have a history of disagreeing over nearly everything controversial and political and his way of maintaining the peace is to laugh. Though aggravating at times, I find it endearing and can't be angry with him for wanting us not to hate one another.

That was 10 years ago. But today. How do I feel about polygamy today? It's different. And this post about the author's decision to leave the Mormon church and about a new HBO drama called Big Love has got me thinking about it once again. Do I want to become a polygamist? No. Should young girls--13, 14, 15, 16--be married off to 40, 50 sixty-year-old men against their will, the disturbing practice of fundamentalists as described in Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer, and other sources documenting the activities of the FLDS church? Absolutely not. Do I find Joseph Smith's (founder of the Mormon church) infatuation with marrying--as in getting married to--teenage girls ridiculous? Yes. As did his wife Emma, who opposed his pro-polygamy agenda, eventually leaving the Mormon church and joining a splinter group.

But I can't say all of the above without saying all of this: the choosing of a person to live with, love with, is up to the person/people doing the choosing provided that all involved are consenting adults (yes, tricky to define). If a woman willingly, perhaps lovingly enters into a polygamist relationship, if her children are taken care of, loved, protected, then what? Is this woman any different from anyone else trying to make it in the world? Isn't it her choice? And if it isn't, wouldn't legalizing polygamy offer better protection to the young girls, children who are currently being abused by the practice? Isn't some legal protection better than no legal protection?

It's messy. But I keep coming back to two things. One, an argument that I use constantly to support making same sex marriage legal: Why does it matter to you if gay people marry? Let consenting adults love and marry as they wish. You have your rights that are legally protected. Let others have theirs. So how is it that I can argue to let people love and marry as they wish and then not support polygamist marriage?

Two, polygamists are people and deserve to be treated as such. My exposure to polygamy consists of my great-grandmother's photo albums, reading of the books and news sources already described above, religious history teachings (mostly about why Mormons no longer practice it and the need to distance themselves from it), an NPR interview with practicing polygamists who have been watching Big Love, a This American Life story about a very happy "sister-wife," and a face-to-face meeting with a polygamist woman at our yard sale in Salt Lake City, Utah when I was about 12 years old. Up for sale were an illustrated children's Bible and Book of Mormon series. A woman wearing a dress that occupied all of the spaces from the top of her throat down to her ankles and wrists, hair tautly pulled back from her young face, bought all of the books. She took an extra wide, extra long check out of her bag--the business kind--to make the purchase. After she left our house my mom said, "I think that woman is a polygamist." "How do you know?" I asked. "By her check, what she was wearing. I think she's going to use the books to teach a lot of children," my mother said. "Oh," I said. And that was the end of the conversation. But the image stayed with me. This is what a polygamist looks like. Now, looking back, it seems like she ought to have been wearing a t-shirt saying as much. This polygamist woman could drive a car, spend money, go places by herself. She may have been happy sharing childcare, housecleaning duties with other women, having sex when she felt like it, having a man on her terms. And going to work, to school while one of the sister-wives took care of her children (the sister-wife even got paid). Good times also included drinking with the girls (the other seven wives--this is the way polygamist life was described by the woman on This American Life 1/27/06 "I Enjoy Being a Girl, Sort Of"). It doesn't sound like torture to this feminist writing this blog post. It sounds like a way of life that a lot of women and perhaps a lot of men (polyandry) could like and get used to, but also something (the liking and getting used to part) that most of us, for obvious reasons, would be unlikely to admit to ourselves or anyone else.

P.S. If anyone has HBO, could you tape Big Love for me some time? Thank you. And please send all disagreements with pro legalization of polygamy viewpoints to stewingham@hotmail.com. I'd like to read them.

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