The Polygamy Question

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Janet Bennion, Lisa Fishbayn Joffe
  • Boulder, CO: 
    Utah State University Press
    , March
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Janet Bennion, Professor of Anthropology at Lyndon State College, and Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, Associate Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, present here a forum for discussing polygamy. As editors, they bring together an interdisciplinary group of scholars from fields such as law, religious studies, political science, and sociology, to offer a variety of arguments for and against plural marriage, as well as discussions on the complications that may arise if polygamy were to be decriminalized, including the impact it could have on the legal and welfare systems in the United States and Canada.

The text cleverly avoids the trap of focusing on plural marriage within only one tradition—such as Mormonism—by reminding the reader that polygamy has existed in Judaism, Islam, and many indigenous religions, and is still practiced in these faiths to variant degrees today. It discusses the growing number of immigrants moving to North America who have already entered into legal plural marriages in their country of origin. It also takes a look at communities around the world where plural marriage is legally practiced, and considers provisions within these laws that grant women independent agency.

The first part of the book examines arguments that have been made for and against polygamy. Sarah Song begins by providing a historic account of polygamy in nineteenth century America, and the arguments that were used to outlaw it. Lori G. Beaman continues by highlighting arguments that were made when the constitutional legality of polygamy was questioned in twenty-first century Canada. Bennion contributes a chapter discussing the impact of polygyny on Mormon women and children, providing an insight supported by over twenty years of experience living with and observing dozens of polygamous families. She concludes that legalizing polygamy would offer many advantages and legal rights to those who practice plural marriage.

Debra Majeed explores the minority perspective of polygynous African American Muslims. She provides two contrasting accounts: one of a woman who was unaware of her husband’s intention to take a second wife until a month before the wedding, and who ultimately left him four months later after suffering neglect; and a different woman who actively sought a second wife for her husband and viewed it as a liberating experience.

Shoshana Grossbard draws on a report she prepared for the Supreme Court of British Columbia when polygamy laws were being debated in 2010. She provides an economist’s perspective, analyzing polygyny in terms of marriage markets and emphasizing some of the potentially negative impacts of polygyny such as female genital mutilation (FGM) in places like Nigeria and the paying of bride prices in places like India. I found this somewhat problematic, as the application of these examples to polygyny in North America ignores the cultural differences that exist. FGM and bride prices are extremely rare in the context of plural marriage in Canada and the US.

Using international data primarily from the WomanStats project, Rose McDermott and Jonathan Cowden attest that in countries where polygamy is more prevalent, increased cases of sex trafficking, lower marital ages for women, increased numbers of births per woman, and other effects are in evidence. However, the authors do not discuss other factors that may also impact the data. For example, they point out that in countries with more cases of polygamy, more women are likely to die in childbirth and have a lower life expectancy, but they make no mention of whether healthcare in these countries is better or worse than in countries where fewer cases of polygamy exist. McDermott and Cowden acknowledge that their findings are preliminary and that further research would be beneficial.

The second part of The Polygamy Question discusses the regulation of polygamy. Melanie Heath examines the decision taken by the British Columbia Supreme Court regarding the criminalization of polygamy in 2011, and the impacts this may have on religious freedom. She looks at the history of polygamy from its practice by indigenous people in nineteenth century British Columbia and the reasoning behind the 2011 ruling.

Maura Irene Strassberg discusses the distinctions between various forms of plural relationships, from polygyny to polyfidelity. She argues that relationships that can be entered into and exited by consenting adults on equal terms should be legal, while patriarchal polygynous relationships in which women have few rights and may experience difficulties in leaving such a relationship should not. Meanwhile, Song examines the shift from large scale prosecutions, such as the Short Creek raids of the 1930s, toward a more lax, “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach taken by many law enforcement officials today. This hints toward an increasing acceptance of polygamy and other non-traditional relationship arrangements.

Martha Bailey asks if polygamy should be a crime. She examines historic cases and current Canadian laws to highlight problems with existing law. She rounds off her chapter by explaining some commonly confused and misunderstood terminology. For example, a news article incorrectly stated that polygamy was illegal in Britain and punishable with up to seven years in prison, when in fact, it is bigamy, not polygamy, that is illegal in Britain. In the final chapter, Kerry Abrams examines the feasibility of legalizing polygamy. She considers various changes to the traditional institution of marriage over the last 50 years, and how this may pave the way for future recognition of polygamous families.

The interdisciplinary approach used in this book makes it accessible to a wide audience, both within the academic community and without. The contributors have been carefully chosen for their first-hand insights and perspectives of polygamous families. The format allows chapters to be used independently and the book as a whole provides a wealth of material for classroom discussion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Philippa Juliet Meek is an adjunct professor in the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religion at Saint Leo University.

Date of Review: 
December 12, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Janet Bennion is professor of anthropology at Lyndon State College in Vermont. She is the author of four previous books on polygamous societies including her most recent, Polygamy in Primetime.

Lisa Fishbayn Joffe is is the associate director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute of Brandeis University, where she directs the Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law.


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