The first time I watched “Sister Wives” on TLC, I thought to myself, “How can people that seem so normal be so weird?” For those of you who have not seen the show or its promotional advertisements, it follows a modern, polygamist family – the Browns – who live in Utah. They wear jeans and T-shirts, curse and even encourage their daughters to finish college before they marry. How exceedingly … normal. I have since realized that the Brown family confronts the negative stereotypes and stigmas associated with plural marriages, and also present the positive side to a debate that society has long ignored. State governments, in examining the equality and justness of marriage, should not only debate same-sex marriage, but plural marriage as well.

Of course, the biggest concern to opponents of polygamy is that such relationships may force underage girls to embark on marriages and sexual relationships with older men. But this happens in monogamous relationships, as well. Additionally, there are age of consent laws to address such issues associated with polygamy: If these young girls are too young to consent, then the government must interfere. It could even be argued that if the state recognized polygamy, such marriages would become more transparent and consequently be more open to the enforcement of consent laws. Essentially, the government could better monitor polygamist marriages if they are not forced underground.

Another reasonable concern with polygamy, many argue, is that it is inherently a patriarchal institution that promotes the subordination of women. As true as this may be, heterosexual marriage is argued by many to be a patriarchal institution, as well. Fathers “give” their daughters away to the husband; brides traditionally take the last name of the groom; and old laws of coverture gave a woman’s rights to her husband upon marriage. Is this to say that heterosexual marriages in which the wife takes her husband’s name or is subordinate to him financially should be illegal as well? Clearly we do not and cannot legislate based on the threat of female subordination.

But despite the negative aspects of polygamy, there are positives as well. Elizabeth Joseph, a lawyer from Utah who lived in a polygamist family until her husband died, argues in favor of the lifestyle by asserting that it is a “whole solution” to the problems faced by modern mothers. Joseph argues that polygamy “enables women, who live in a society full of obstacles, to fully meet their career, mothering, and marriage obligations.” A mother can go to work while allowing her children to stay at home with another “mother” who cares for all of the children as if they were her own. This arrangement enables a mother to fulfill her own personal goals while her children reap the benefits of a stay-at-home-mom.

Furthermore, the government should not be able to legislate who its citizens may love and marry. Just because the majority of America’s love is of the heterosexual, monogamous kind does not make this love suitable for all people and lifestyles. As long as all parties are of the age of consent and do, in fact, consent to plural marriage, government should not be able to interfere. And to support this, I invoke John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Simply put, citizens’ actions should only be limited when they become harmful to other members of the community.

Of course, all of this is a very cursory examination of the plural marriage issue. And there are concerns that go unanswered by proponents of polygamy, most prominently the practical implementation of the legalization of plural marriages. What would it mean for tax benefits? For insurance companies? How many wives is too many? Surely allowing polygamy would be a headache for the government, but is this reason enough to keep it illegal, especially if legalization would promote liberty and equality among citizens? The debate is undoubtedly a controversial and difficult one, and there are valid points from both sides. But it is a debate that deserves attention in the equal marriage conversation. As Elizabeth Joseph noted, “Both polygamy and homosexuality aren’t going away.”

Claire Shotwell
Associate Editor, The Cavalier Daily
(The independent daily newspaper at the University of Virginia)
October 25, 2010

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