I recently met a woman in her own kind of polygamist relationship. Since she asked not to be identified, let’s call her Jean. Jean is not married – not in the legal or even spiritual sense. That status is carefully reserved for her boyfriend’s wife, who is aware of Jean’s existence. And she respects that. In fact, they all do.
Some might call Jean a polyamorist, which is a person involved in an intimate relationship with more than one person at a time. But Jean’s not comfortable with that term because she’s not intimate with her boyfriend’s wife. Jean, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend’s wife are all fully committed to each other and plan to remain this way.
Does Jean consider herself a feminist? Since she believes that men and women should be treated equally, she does. But isn’t she giving up equal treatment by willingly sharing a man? But that’s exactly what Jean is rebelling against – ownership. As Jean told me, “I’m happy giving what I can to this relationship. [Her boyfriend and boyfriend’s wife] had an open marriage before they met me. We’re all getting something out of it, so who cares if it doesn’t fit in with some kind of traditional morality?”
To some, Jean’s situation could seem like a misappropriation of labels. Doesn’t polygamy connote marriage? Isn’t she really just third-wheeling on someone else’s marriage or “the other woman?” But Jean, who isn’t Mormon, finds meaning in calling herself a polygamist despite its problematic associations of sister wives in bonnets and child brides. According to her thinking, why can’t she be a polygamist and a feminist?
The practice of multiple wives was once common with early Mormons, first led by Joseph Smith in the early 19th century. Smith was alleged to have married as many as 30 women. Today, polygamy is not condoned by the mainstream Mormon Church and is outlawed in all fifty American states. Some argue that forcing polygamy underground has contributed to the abuse of this practice, as evidence with fundamentalist leader Warren Jeff’s recent trial for arranging marriages for child brides. Jeff was convicted on rape charges, but his conviction was recently reversed. A new trial is scheduled.
But polygamists who style themselves more modern assert that their lifestyle affords them freedom outside the home, giving them the ultimate feminist family. Journalist and attorney Elizabeth Joseph of Big Water, Utah, is perhaps one of the most vocal supporters of the idea of a feminist polygamist. She is famously quoted in a speech given in 1997 to the Utah chapter of the National Organization for Women. According to Elizabeth, “If polygamy didn’t exist, the modern American woman would have invented it.” As she went on to explain in her speech entitled Polygamy: The Ultimate Feminist Lifestyle, “[Polygamy] provides me the environment and opportunity to maximize my female potential without all the tradeoffs and compromises that attend monogamy. The women in my family are friends. You don’t share two decades of experience, and a man, without those friendships becoming very special.”
In fact, Elizabeth Joseph proudly asserted the right to work outside the home. As she asked in her speech, “am I calling home, asking my husband to please pick up the kids and pop something in the microwave and get them to bed on time just in case I’m really late? Because of my plural marriage arrangement, I don’t have to worry.”
Because yes, another woman is at the helm to care for her husband and children. It’s not her husband that is making dinner or putting the kids to bed. It’s another woman. It seems like modern polygamy takes trappings of the feminist movement but still hangs them about a world where partnerships are still defined by traditional roles.
Joseph isn’t the only polygamist standing a stand for social acceptance. If you were to look at reality TV’s show “Sister Wives,” it would appear there is a community of women who insist their polygamist relationships are happy, modern, and mutually-beneficial. This show features the Brown family, comprised of husband Kody and wives Meri, Janelle, Christine, Robin, and their sixteen children.
While there are moments of jealousy and grief in the Brown family, all four wives are quick to point out their strong sense of community. They praise their built-in friends and built-in daycare. Watch an episode of this show, and you will be hard-pressed to find any of the wives portraying polygamy as anything but a shining example of the American dream.
At least while the cameras are rolling.