24 May 2008


Ann Althouse raises the polygamy question.

She and her commenters cover the usual issues; polygamy tends to happen when some men are much richer / more powerful than most men, and it causes friction because of the men left without women. Polygamy is not ruled out by scripture, but by Western Christian tradition. Whether or not polygamy is legal is not a big deal, provided a man can live with a woman and have children without officially marrying her.

What is missed is the real link between polygamy and societies which deny rights to women.

Look at it this way. As we know, it is possible to take a second "wife" without legally marrying her, have children by her, leave property to the children by will, etc. Why don't I do that?

I might have trouble attracting a second "wife", but I fancy I might manage it. It's worth trying, anyway. What's to stop me?

The answer is so overwhelmingly obvious it's surprising it seems to be missed. Were I to enter into any such arrangement, my No. 1 wife would be gone in about thirty seconds.

For polygamy to actually work, there has to be some way to force wives to tolerate the introduction of new wives. If a wife can get a divorce, and a share of property, either for no cause or for the cause of the addition of a second "wife" (whether by legal polygamous marriage or in the form of "adultery"), then polygamy, legal or not, is going to be very damned rare.

Attention seems to be wrongly attached to the new wives. As commenters at Althouse said, there would be nothing strange in a billionaire or a sports star being able to attract a second or third wife. But it would be very unlikely that they could do that and hold on to their first one.

That's why polygamy generally doesn't happen in societies where women have rights.


A Nonny Mouse said...

I have a problem with this. You admit that a situation where a man has a wife and children and a mistress and children is de facto polygamy. But might not divorce be de facto polygamy or polygamy be de facto divorce?

Put it this way. An Arab man has a wife, but she has grown old and ugly, so he takes a second wife, which he can afford to, because he is fairly rich. An American has a wife who has grown old and ugly, so he divorces her and takes a second wife. In what way are these events different? Maybe one’s in fact landlord, though not an in fact American, is an in fact polygamist.

Mrs American can take a new husband, but as she is past her sell-by date, this may not be much help. Besides, does she really want to or is this socially conditioned? Her children will henceforth have severely restricted access to their father. Do their interests come into it? I can think of more than one sad riches to rags stories among my acquaintances: father was a millionaire, money all went to the second wife and offspring.

Mrs Arab #1, on the other hand, has the advantage of remaining close to her husband, not wasting money on lawyers, and occasionally getting one over on Mrs Arab #2 by enticing her husband back to her bed, like Hera does with Zeus in the Iliad. She certainly would not want the divorce, as in Arab society this entails a major drop in status: (unmarried) divorcees and widows count as prostitutes.

So I would say that it is not the case that in some countries women have no rights, merely that they have different rights.

AMcGuinn said...

Mr Mouse is right: "where women have rights" was overstating the case. The key right that makes polygamy impractical, as I said, is "the right to a share of property in the case of divorce". That only became established in the West in the last 50 years; prior to that, de facto polygamy with an old more-or-less-unwanted wife and a young mistress was the norm for rich men. Today, serial monogamy appears to be far more common.

I suppose some Western wives would choose to remain in residence if superseded, were it up to them, but I suspect it would a minority choice.

A Nonny Mouse said...

The raising of this topic prompts me to further observations.

Women who talk about Women’s Rights are really talking at cross purposes: each woman is really only interested in one woman’s rights, namely her own, and foolishly imagines that these will never ever be in conflict with any other woman’s rights, but always at variance with men’s rights. Even for Lesbians, this is never the case.

Put it this way. Mrs ABC considered herself a feminist: the way her husband eventually dumped her caused her grief, and this she blamed on deficient women’s rights. Illogically: two women were in dispute over one man, and one woman’s loss was another woman’s gain. Mrs ABC had four strong sons: they grew up, married, had children, and were divorced by their wives, encouraged by women orientated divorce laws, which gave them a generous portion of their husbands’ goods. What annoyed her now was that these hussies then proceeded to deny her access to her grandchildren: the rights of one set of women detracting from the rights of another. Women’s Liberation is only robbing Petra to pay Pavla.

Now as to matrimony and polygamy, what is really happening in the WASP world is that Miss Designing Hussy is ameliorating her profile. She can say to her intended: look, you must divorce your awful wedded wife (and forget your children) and marry me. Is this really in the interest of AWW, to say nothing of her children? Might there not be some cases where half a husband is better than none? In China the system managed to sweeten the pill for the #1 wife by putting her in charge of all the others. So in this system the really unhappy party was as often as not the subsequent wife.

Serial monogamy is not as widespread among the rich as you seem to think. Millionaires in my experience are normally polygamous. I even seem to recall having heard from Mrs KM of Luton about a young woman, possibly with childcare experience, who had recently been taken on as a mistress by Mr Rich Bastard. Miss Tress was thinking of having elocution lessons to remove her Luton accent. Generally I think these wives of errant millionaire husbands look carefully at their position and after proper consultation with their accountant and lawyer decide to stay put.