Big Love or Big Chattel?

The Sudden Inflating and Slow Debunking of a Popular Myth, Chapter 978

Is it just me, or have we been a nation nurturing a minor obsession with polygamy ever since, oh, about mid-March, when HBO began airing "Big Love," in which a Salt Lake City home improvement magnate simultaneously attempts to placate his three wives and a passel of less urbane polygamist relatives confined to the hill country?

The first installment was a round of tighty-righty handwringing whether recognizing gay marriage would lead to demands for the legalization of polygamy. (Exhibits #1 and #2.)

The second, predictably, has been a flurry of "concern" about the "abusive practices" of renegade polygamist cultists not unlike the ones caricatured by "Big Love." Just a little fishing this morning turned up 404,000 examples of said hand-wringing, but your time is probably better used reading one prototypical (and admittedly fascinating) example, like this one.

Isn't it amazing how we as a nation are able to come up with things to distract us from real news? Admittedly, one of those messianic fringe leaders is a more palatable media boogeyman than the other one, right?

But I digress. The real point of this post was to circulate a link to a fascinating and timely polygamy FAQ that's worth a scan whether or not you, like me, spend your Sunday nights guessing just what's going to put Bill Henrickson in the cardiac ward by the season-ender, Nicki's little Anthropologie habit or the Viagra apparently required to live up to his priestly obligations.

Polygyny is not usually associated with a high status for women, and in many cultures it involved very young women being forced to marry older men. Still, in a society where gender roles are very rigid and women do most of the work around the farm and household, some women like having a co-wife. In Botswana, women have an interesting twist on the old saying "a woman's work is never done." They say "without co-wives, a woman's work is never done." Such women claim that having other wives to help meet some of their husband's demands and to share the child-rearing gives them more freedom than women in monogamous unions.

Polygyny is not so much about sex as it is about hoarding the productive and reproductive labor of women. It has often been used to deny younger men access to wives and hence to adult status, increasing the authority of older men over younger ones. There are easier ways for a man to get sex, if that's all he wants, and cheaper ones too, in societies where women's labor is not essential to family subsistence.

It's a fun, illuminating read. Check it out, here.