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Gender and Polygamy in America Thesis


Since polygamy redefines marital relationships, it has created many public debates regarding gender equality in America. More specifically, many people link polygamy with serious gender inequalities, particularly concerning the status of women.

Analysts have not only discussed gender inequality in polygamy as a social issue but also a legal one (Zeitzen, 2008, p. 125). Therefore, American laws governing polygamy also cover gender inequality issues.

For example, the United States (U.S) Supreme Court (and other lower courts) often discussed gender inequality issues during the hearing of polygamy cases.

Nonetheless, over the last few decades, there has been little willingness by the American judicial system to re-examine the illegality of polygamy in America, despite the changing public views regarding social unions.

Since the legal debate surrounding polygamy includes gender inequality issues, the unwillingness of the judicial system to re-examine the legal status of polygamy means that gender issues in polygamous relationships remain unaddressed.

Therefore, since the judiciary hesitates to readdress the state of polygamy in America, the contentious gender equality issues in polygamy exist.

Since polygamy raises serious gender equality issues, this chapter discusses the issue of gender inside the American society and inside polygamous systems, framing the analysis through the relationships between gender and culture.

Through these analyses, this chapter explores America’s social attitudes regarding gender inequality (in polygamous unions) by showing that the 19th century American government criminalized polygamy not as a tool to empower women, but rather, to protect the majority societal view of morality and weaken the political power of the Mormon Church.

This paper also shows that since the Mormon Church had a growing political influence in some parts of America, the government used the polygamy debate to limit this influence. This chapter also shows that the need to preserve hegemonic Christian morals informed America’s position towards polygamy.

This way, the government was able to support the view of a majority of Americans who supported the illegalization of polygamy. To this extent, the influence of the dominant culture prevailed on the minority view regarding polygamy in America.

This chapter comprehensively shows that even though polygamy introduced significant gender inequality issues, other political and social issues, like preserving hegemonic Christian morals and limiting the political power of the Mormon Church, informed its illegalization.

To affirm these facts, this chapter explores the influence of culture on gender roles, relationship between polygamy and America’s political order, attitudes towards gender roles in America, and patriarchy in polygamous marriages.

Gender’s Culture in the American Society

Influence of Culture on Gender Roles

For many centuries, the gender debate has been an important issue, not only in America but also in other parts of the world. In fact, gender concerns have contributed vastly to the unacceptability of polygamy in America.

Nonetheless, while trying to understand how polygamy affects gender rights and equality, it is equally important to analyze the context of gender rights within different cultures.

For example, Volpp (2001) believes that western nations use the failure of third world countries to protect gender rights, with the same apparent zeal of western countries to justify racism against third world people.

She also believes that western countries use this argument to allow western cultures to gloss over the gender oppressions that exist in their countries.

Therefore, while many western cultures protect gender rights, to some degree, some people have used their purportedly comparatively stronger commitment to gender equality to justify their superiority over other cultures.

However, despite the existence of this comparison, it is still important to highlight the advanced protection of gender rights that some western cultures uphold. For instance, in America, the cultural diversity of the population supports the protection of liberal views.

In fact, the government protects many liberal views that characterize different American cultural dynamics. However, since the American society is somewhat liberal, there are some religious and cultural views that the federal government does not support.

The conviction of the Mormon Church to practice polygamy is an example of a religious practice that the government does not protect.

As a result, Volpp (2001) believes it is easy to construct minority women in such communities as victims of their cultures, as opposed to critically engaging with the role played by the majority in the oppression of minority women.

Cultural diversity has introduced a new debate in the conceptualization of gender roles because how different cultures treat women removes the notion that gender roles were mainly associated with biological sex.

Indeed, many people believe that gender roles are a direct result of biological sex, with women having the least physically straining activities because of their perceived “weak” physical strength (compared to men) (Van Krieken et al., 2010).

The various roles of women in different societies, however, have shown that biological sex is not the main determinant of gender roles or the division of labor between men and women. For example, some societies connect women with hard labor.

Different societies also approach motherhood from different perspectives and therefore, it is difficult to establish a universal acceptance of the way people perceive motherhood. From these variables, the expressive function of women in the society is mainly a function of the convenience of men, as opposed to the way families should function.

In other words, men defined most gender roles in the society through social justifications, such as, religion and culture. They also did so at their convenience, without considering the opinions of women. The society, therefore, rarely considered gender equality issues in the creation of gender roles.

To this extent, some researchers believe that gender roles are mainly a function of the beliefs and values of the society as opposed to the embodiment of male and female roles, as a construct of biological sex.

Role of Culture in Illegalizing Polygamy

The movement for the acceptance of Mormon polygamy, which started in the 19th century, greatly shows the impact that cultural attitudes have on the determination of legal views regarding polygamy.

This is especially more apparent in America because most of America’s legal views about polygamy stem from the societal views regarding the same. This has remained so for a very long period because the American legal view towards polygamy is a representation of the view of a majority of Americans towards the practice.

The influence of culture on the illegalization of polygamy in America is also more apparent in the government’s action towards polygamy (since the 19th century). Song (2007) says that the American government has never campaigned against any other social issue as it did polygamy.

According to Song (2007), this strong zeal by the American government to criminalize polygamy shows the influence of the dominant culture towards polygamy. Some people may perceive the zeal at which the American government condemned polygamy as a sign of how liberal democracies manage illiberal attitudes and norms.

However, as Song (2007) observes, what may people do not see is how little the government’s quest to criminalize polygamy improved the status of women in the Mormon faith. Instead, the American quest to stop the spread of polygamy only worked to turn away the attention from the patriarchal norms of the dominant culture in America.

Stated differently, the attack on polygamy (by the dominant culture) only worked to protect Christian monogamy (where a man lives with one woman) from criticism.

Polygamy and the Political Order in America

Besides the cultural opposition towards polygamy, Song (2007) believes that the American government was motivated to attack Mormon polygamy by its quest to stop the growth of the political power of the Mormon Church.

There was also an agreement that the traditional marriage structure (monogamy) had a close relationship with America’s political order. Indeed, as Zeitzen (2008) observes, the Christian perception of marriage (which forms the majority view of Americans regarding marriage) views the union as a sacred obligation between men and women.

Therefore, in most western nations, marriage represents a civil contract between the parties involved. Since marriages form the base of different societies, and the government regulates the activities of the society, the government has the duty to regulate marriage through the law.

Through such a justification, the society is a product of marriages and similar unions. Therefore, out of this relationship stems societal responsibilities, agreements, obligations and duties, which traditionally, have benefitted men at the expense of women.

Since the government is required to regulate such legal requirements, it is easy to see how polygamous and monogamous marriages occur, and how the government (to a less extent) derives the justification for regulating such unions.

In other words, since the family structure is the basis for societal responsibilities, agreements, and obligations, the government intervenes by regulating the family structure because of the role of the family in creating these legal responsibilities.

Indeed, governments govern societal responsibilities, and since the family structure is the root of these responsibilities, the government governs the family structure as well.

Women’s Suffrage

Women suffrage defines the right of women to participate in election processes by running for office or voting for their selected candidates. Only until the 19th century, many women in developed countries could not vote.

However, before the American government allowed women to vote, Utah allowed women to vote, as a strategy for men to gain political dominance over political issues.

Women suffrage in Utah was especially pivotal in the polygamy debate because the political class (mainly polygamous men) wanted to retain the practice by allowing their women to vote (because they hoped their women would support them).

Therefore, Women’s suffrage is especially important in this chapter because it underlies the role of polygamy to empower or weaken women (depending on the understanding of how polygamy treated women).

The threat of Mormon polygamy to the conventional Christian perception of monogamous marriages clashed because of the close association of Mormon polygamy with women’s suffrage.

In 1852, the state of Utah introduced a new legislation that made it easy for Mormons to seek divorce from their partners, so long as they could show that their union was no longer peaceful (Song, 2007).

To many Americans, the introduction of this law threatened the existence of monogamous marriages because the court easily granted permission to divorce, based on weak grounds.

In fact, the Utah court introduced a new clause in the law that gave it the power to grant divorces, so long as it was convinced to do so. To some legal observers, this clause was very broad and people could easily abuse it by separating from their partners without any strong justification (Song, 2007).

This new legal addition to Utah state laws made it the most permissive state in America. Furthermore, some observers say that Utah’s divorce rate was higher than any other state in America (Song, 2007).

Interestingly, unlike common perception, Mormon plural marriages empowered women to determine how long their marriages would last, or when to end a relationship. Men did not enjoy this right (at least as much as women).

In fact, Song (2007) explains that it was more difficult for men to be granted divorce if they were opposed by their wives (compared to women). Statistics say women started more than 73% of all divorces granted in the state of Utah (Song, 2007).

Therefore, some people realized the opportunity for women to start divorce proceedings as their way to leave their disapproval of plural marriages. In fact, the high divorce rates within polygamous unions showed that polygamy (then) worked more as serial polyandry, rather than polygamy in its conventional form.

Unexpectedly, residents in other jurisdictions around Utah took advantage of the easy divorce laws in Utah to separate from their partners. The high rate of divorce peaked in the 1870 period.

The high rate of divorce within Utah created a common reason for anti-polygamy supporters and proponents of inflexible divorce laws to advocate for the reduction of divorce rates in America.

Through this understanding, Peavy (1996) says that polygamy and the easy divorce laws in Utah threatened the base that supported marriage as a respectable institution and a lifetime commitment between the partners involved.

Besides the easy polygamy laws adopted in the state of Utah, the Mormon experiment with polygamy created the image that Mormon polygamy was a show of cultural corruption.

In this regard, Song (2007) explains that in 1870, theMormon-controlled Utah territorial legislature had unanimously approved the enfranchisement of women, including all-female citizens over twenty-one and all the wives, widows or daughters or native-born or naturalized men.” (p. 151).

Therefore, women in the Mormon community were among the earliest women to vote in America. This empowerment continued until the introduction of the Edmunds Act (a Federal law), which stopped them again. The introduction of the Edmunds Act made it illegal for people to cohabit in illegal unions.

Therefore, even though a man did not have a certificate to prove that he was not married to several women, the Edmund law made it illegal to cohabit with multiple women. This act, therefore, eliminated the need to have a marriage certificate as proof that a man was polygamous.

The introduction of the Edmunds Act stopped the empowerment of women in Utah because women could vote as way to support their husbands in political processes. Ordinarily, polygamous men increased their political support base by allowing their families and multiple women to vote.

Interestingly, even on matters that questioned the legitimacy of polygamous marriages, women in polygamous unions still voted alongside their husbands (supported polygamy).

Therefore, the introduction of the Edmund Act stopped polygamy and the empowerment of women in this regard because women could not vote as a way to protect polygamy anymore.

Therefore, the willingness of the Mormon Church to embrace women’s suffrage was a tactical move by the Mormon-controlled legislature to guarantee their political domination of receiving support from their wives, in the wake of increased settlement by “gentiles” (Gray, 1976, p. 83).

Still, in the 1870s, many supporters of women’s suffrage hailed the Mormon support for women’s enfranchisement because it empowered women, even if it is politically. The belief that the support for women’s suffrage would enable them to have a political voice that would finally free them from male bondage supported this argument.

One congressional representative from Indiana, who introduced a similar legislation, hoping that freeing women would lead him or her to liberate from polygamous unions, also shared this view (Song, 2007). To the fear of some people, the empowerment of Mormon women made them support polygamy, as their husbands did.

Therefore, women’s suffrage supported the view of anti-polygamy supporters who believed religious beliefs degraded women in the Mormon faith to exercise independence during voting.

Gender’s Culture Inside Polygamy

Attitudes Towards Gender Roles in America

Since the 19th century, the dominant culture in America has considered polygamy as an unacceptable practice. The strongest arguments against polygamy focused on the fact that polygamy undermined the majority view of morality, as explained in Christian doctrines (where a man only has one woman) (Gray, 1976).

The attitude of the American society regarding polygamy has changed over the past few years. This change in societal attitudes stem from the increased awareness regarding individual liberties and freedoms in America.

However, regardless of the changes in perception towards polygamy, the American judicial system addresses polygamy the way it did when it first occurred in the 19th century. For example, most decisions taken by the American judicial system still view polygamy as an odd union that the American society should not accept (Zeitzen, 2008).

Similarly, such decisions portray polygamy as a degradation and subjugation of the attributes of the present-day American woman.

However, while the American judicial system protects Mormon women against gender inequality in polygamous relationships, proponents of polygamy question the protection of rights for women who do not subscribe to the Mormon polygamous lifestyle (Zeitzen, 2008).

This debate comes from the high occurrence of gender violence in the American society (free from polygamous influences) and the existence of gender inequality in the society.

For many reasons, the American justice system has maintained that polygamous unions are illegal.

According to March (2011), the judicial system has maintained this position because of four main reasons – the lack of female autonomy, interference with the civil liberties of children, unfairness regarding how men and women choose partners (“marital market”), and the excessive burden of polygamy on the society (existence of large families).

According to March (2011), most of these reasons are not necessarily the judicial reasons for criminalizing polygamy, but rather, the societal view for attacking polygamy. Through this side, March (2011) also believes that partly, the capability of polygamy to increase gender inequality in the society informs the society’s hesitance to accept polygamy.

From another understanding of the gender issue, Song (2007) says men may also be victims of polygamous unions (in its religious context) because they may not necessarily prefer polygamous unions, but because of their religious obligations to uphold polygamy, they choose to engage in it.

Therefore, according to Song (2007), Mormon men and women may equally be victims of their religious duty to practice polygamy. From this argument, polygamy not only affects women but also men perceived to be beneficiaries of a polygamous society.

Therefore, while polygamy seems to subordinate women, it also significantly opposes the wishes of some men who may not wish to engage in it (as a religious obligation).

For example, men living polygamous communities, who did not wish to engage in the practice, had a difficult time avoiding the practice because it was a religious duty to practice polygamy.

Gibson (2010) says Americans have developed a negative attitude towards government raids on polygamous communities in America (like the 2008 polygamy raid in Texas that removed more than 400 children from their families).

Some Americans, therefore, believe that some of these government raids paint a negative picture on the preservation of the rights of women and children.

Some Americans hold this view because they view the government’s commitment to separate children and women from their families as a contravention of the rights of children and women to live together as a family (CBS Interactive, 2009, p. 1).

For example, the 2008 raid on the polygamous community in Texas saw the government arrest more than 400 children (mainly young girls). Observers perceive this raid as the largest in American history (CBS Interactive, 2009, p. 1).

Apart from the violation of civil rights, where the children were supposed to stay with their parents, the polygamous raid showed the extent that polygamy in the Mormon Church spread gender inequality in the society.

Gender Arguments Against Polygamy

Some feminists view polygamy as a retrogressive tool that undermines women in the society. Murray (1994) refers to the South African law, which undermines polygamy, as an advancement of the nuclear family where a man, woman, and their children live in one family.

Kuper (1985) explains that this nuclear family structure (as understood today) is a product of the post-modern industrial period where a man, woman, and children live together. Initially (pre-industrial period) the nuclear family was extended.

More than three generations of families lived together as a nuclear family unit (Macionis & Plummer, 2012). The understanding of the modern post-industrial nuclear family is, therefore, a product of the transition from a traditional pre-industrial nuclear family to a modern post-industrial nuclear family.

Even though some societies contest the post-industrial structure of the nuclear family, the context of the nuclear family in this study relates to the post-industrial nuclear family structure where a family is consisted of one woman, one man, and their children. According to Murray (1994), the South African law supports this family structure.

From this basis, the South African law does not support polygamy.

Some women gender activists say that polygamy stops some of the advancements made by women in America (such as, the right to compete for political positions, the rights to vote, and the right to inherit property) (Zeitzen, 2008).

For example, some leaders of polygamous unions in the Mormon Church arrange such unions and involve minors, who do not give their full consent to engage in such marriages.

Even though monogamous unions also involve minors, accusations of the involvement of minors in polygamous unions are more widespread because most polygamous unions in America occur as a religious practice and not because of personal consent. Coercion sometimes occurs in such unions.

On the opposite side, there is an existing counterargument, which shows that some women still support polygamy (Milton 2009). The fact that some women are willingly polygamous informs this argument.

The argument that some violence and mistreatment exist within conventional nuclear families also opposes the view by some gender rights supporters that polygamous marriages are unfair to women.

Therefore, proponents of polygamy also argue that conventional nuclear families lead women to much harm, which also exists in polygamous relationships.

For example, Milton (2009) argues that when women in monogamous relationships divorce from their husbands, they often have the “short end of the stick” and therefore, this unfairness promotes gender inequality as well.

The argument here is that monogamous relationships do not necessarily lead to equality, and therefore, people should not perceive polygamous relationships as a gateway to female oppression. Indeed, there are also numerous evidence where polygamous relationships have worked well, and married partners have lived happily together.

Patriarchy in Monogamous and Polygamous Marriages

Concerns over polygamy issues increased when there were many unanswered questions regarding sexual values, family structure and the role played by women in society (the growing concern regarding increased prostitution and increased divorce rates informed these concerns) (Song, 2007).

Therefore, there was a greater push among the American public to preserve the Christian monogamous marriages. From this background, the society realized polygamy to be intolerable.

In brief, when the polygamy debate aroused national interest, there was already a predetermined position held by gender right activists who believed polygamy undermined women.

Through the understanding that polygamy threatened the majority view of polygamy, where one man lives with one woman, anti-polygamy movements kept pushing for the criminalization of polygamy under the theme of sexual deviance, thus persuading many Americans to believe that polygamy would finally disadvantage minority populations (mainly children and women) (Song, 2007).

This argument created a moral fear around the acceptance of polygamy by the American society.

The association of Mormons with easy divorce and female deprivation made this situation worse because many Americans started to see Mormon polygamy as a threat to monogamous marriages.

Indeed, as expressed by Song (2007), the acceptance of polygamy in Christianity challenged the traditional acceptance of monogamy in the same faith. The law of coverture (where the law presented man and woman as one identity, with the woman’s authority covered by the authority of the husband) was undermined in this regard.

To this extent, Zeitzen (2008) sees a close similarity between monogamy and polygamy because both marriage types were patriarchal to women. Indeed, within monogamous marriages, a husband’s authority includes a woman’s legal status.

Comparatively, a husband’s authority (within a polygamous marriage) still controls a woman’s legal status. However, Song (2007) says the belief that monogamous marriages were romantic, to show the woman as the object of focus, saved its image.

Even though a debatable issue, society perceived women in monogamous marriages as having a strong ideology of romantic marital love.

This ideology centered on the belief that monogamous marriages offered an opportunity for women to receive plentiful love from their husbands without having to compete for the same love with another woman (again, women are positioned as objects).

To this extent, women perceived monogamous unions as more romantic than polygamous unions. Moreover, the idea that most women in monogamous marriages engaged in such unions, freely, attracts many Americans to accept monogamous marriages as the ideal form of relationship between men and women.

Furthermore, the metaphor representing monogamous marriages as the union of one flesh (coupled with mutual love) was more acceptable in the society because it provided a more implied version of the patriarchy (where the male is the primary figure of authority) between men and women in monogamous marriages.

Even though there were significant levels of patriarchy between men and women in monogamous relationships, polygamy was an introduction of a different type of patriarchy, where the male authority was more profound (over many women, as opposed to one woman).

Male patriarchy surfaces as a very critical component of the social construction that supported the arguments against polygamy. People understood male patriarchy as a virtue that stems from ancestors who believed that men had the power to oppress, dominate and exploit women (McMahon, 1995).

Somewhat, patriarchy may be perceived as a universal practice because many communities around the world practice it in different levels. However, what comes out from all these forms of variable patriarchy is the significant variation of power and privilege between men and women.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, male patriarchy is among the highest in the world, while some countries, such as, Norway approach gender issues almost on an equal platform (Long, 2005).

A majority of Americans, therefore, perceived polygamy to embody male patriarchy because polygamy did not appear to approach gender roles on an equal basis. Instead, polygamy raised the man as a superior authority to women by having the women compete for male attention, love, resources and other male attributes, which are essential in marital relationships.

This way, polygamy was an oppressive and patriarchal practice.

Consequently, people perceived this type of patriarchy as incomparable to monogamous marriages because even though monogamous marriages may be patriarchal, this type of patriarchy is somewhat acceptable (according to hegemonic Christian views).

Therefore, even as Mormons questioned the jurisdiction of the federal government in defining polygamy within the Mormon Church, the court referred to sexual behavior and marriage structures (witnessed in polygamous relationships) as objections to polygamy.

For example, Chief Justice Waite expressed his concern regarding “pure minded” women engaged in polygamous relationships because he feared the religious practice of polygamy within the Mormon Church made women to be “victims of delusion” (Song, 2007).

Therefore, the court saw polygamy as the embodiment of the patriarchal principle. Indeed, when Mormon polygamy compared to the idea of romantic married love (at least in theory), there was a belief that polygamy in the Mormon Church does not give women the consensual will to engage in such unions. As such, it was not different with slavery.

Interestingly, anti-polygamy movements in the 19th century, and even today, seldom addressed patriarchal issues for women in monogamous marriages and those outside marriages.

Besides male patriarchy, some feminists have also advanced the opinion that the family structure, in itself, is a promotion of male patriarchy. This form of patriarchy stems from the need for men to understand their inheritor by controlling women’s sexuality.

Through this relationship, Estlund (1997) believes that the family structure is a system that transforms women into economic and sexual properties of their male counterparts. In fact, not long ago, the earnings of women in Europe formed part of their husbands’ economic property.

Despite the tremendous progress made by women in accessing education and work opportunities, men continue to use their authority on women. For example, many women still receive lesser pay than men do. The society also tasks women with the responsibility of child-rearing and taking care of the household.

Besides monogamous families being patriarchal, Bennion (2012) believes that the family structure also deprives men of the important experience of enjoying intimacy with their children. Therefore, even though the society perceives polygamous unions to be patriarchal, monogamous unions also exhibit some degree of patriarchy.

Moreover, even though conventional Christian marriage is patriarchal, proponents of polygamy claimed the practice was more patriarchal than the conventional Christian form of marriage (monogamy).

Even though polygamy was not the only patriarchal practice in America, a large proportion of the American society treated it with great intolerance because polygamy was an extreme form of patriarchy that did not reflect the democratic ideals of the society.

Nonetheless, after analyzing the wider social and political contexts that birthed the anti-polygamy movement, I see that even though anti-polygamists felt motivated by the commitment to protect the rights and status of women in the Mormon Church, they felt equally motivated by the commitment to preserve monogamous marriages (Gray, 1976).

This is because the society was intolerant to polygamy because it contradicted conventional Christian perspectives of marriage, which supports monogamy.


This chapter shows that gender norms in the dominant culture influence the legal position of the American government towards polygamy. However, the 19th century society felt less motivated by the will to have more women empowered than their commitment to preserve societal gender norms (and public morals that characterize the dominant culture).

The Christian model of monogamous relationships between men and women, therefore, prevailed as part of the dominant culture. This was a way for the society to prevent the introduction of profound patriarchal practices from polygamy.

Volpp (2001), however, warns against comparing feminism with multiculturalism because this process hides the different factors that shape different cultural practices and the forces that define women’s role in the society (besides culture).

Similarly, cultures, just like gender roles, change. Indeed, culture is a way of life and different societies have changed their ways of life. However, despite the change of cultural practices, women’s subordination exists (albeit at different levels). Therefore, Volpp (2001) believes that cultures are not entirely to blame for women’s subordination.

Lastly, Volpp (2001) says that comparing feminism to multiculturalism ignores the involvement of women in patriarchal systems, and misrepresents the level of domestic violence in the society.

Despite these analytical inconsistencies, different cultures can however, not compare with one another anyway (because there are different advantages and disadvantages to every culture). Therefore, what may be applicable in one cultural context may not compare to others.

Nonetheless, after considering the introduction of women’s right to vote in Mormon strongholds, such as, Utah, and the close attachment that polygamous women shared with their husbands (especially concerning the protection of polygamy as a religious right), there was less opposition (from women in the Mormon Church) regarding polygamy.

To many observers, the minimal opposition by Mormon women towards polygamy was a sign of the degradation of women within this faith. However, not everybody holds this opinion because some women in the Mormon Church felt satisfied with the polygamous marriages.

Comprehensively, this chapter shows that the dominant culture in America informs the majority opinion regarding polygamy because it seeks to preserve public morals and hegemonic Christian views on marriage.


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