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Why Feminist Single Women Might Want to Consider Polygamy

The story of Wonder Woman’s creator and the two women he lived with shows that polyamorous marriage might work

The recent release of the movie has been heralded as “a trailblazer for polyamory in film” for depicting a polyamorous arrangement in a positive light. But the story, based on the lives of William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, his wife, Elizabeth, and his — and their — live-in lover, Olive Byrne, could actually be a model for single women today who can’t find a marriageable man and who want children. Yes, I am suggesting that polygyny — when a man has multiple wives — might be the answer as long as we see it through a feminist slant. Although the three weren’t married, the arrangement worked for Marston, Holloway and Byrne, and it might work for you, too.

Before you reject the idea outright, let me explain.

We’re always hearing about a lack of marriageable men, although Isabel V. Sawhill, of the Brookings Institute, suggests it may be less about marriageable men and more about independent women who don’t necessarily want or need men. Yes, there certainly are some of us. Economics writer Jon Birger based his entire 2015 book, on the fact that there aren’t enough marriageable men because of “lopsided gender ratios and a massive undersupply of college-educated men” (although his views have been called patronizing). Other researchers say the lack of marriageable men it isn’t just about well-employed college-educated men; it’s that more women want more from their marriage — like an equal partner in every sense of the word. If a man won’t do that, well …

Which means there may be fewer of those men around than there are women wanting those kind of men.

Enter the idea of feminist polygyny.

Women call the marital shots

There are more than a few upsides to a polygamous arrangement that women enter into freely and willingly because it suits their needs (versus what we usually read and hear about the traditionally male-driven practice, which is often about secrecy and child brides forced to marry against their will and sexual abuse and other scandals).

As Ms. magazine notes:

[I]s polygamy inherently bad for women? The practice of taking numerous spouses, in and of itself, doesn’t seem to be the root cause of the problem. After all, there are clear examples of polyandry (in which one woman has several husbands, as opposed to polygyny, with one man and several women), but abuse and oppression of men in these cases rarely, if ever, comes up.

Because if women call the shots, the ones who want to be married will get many of their needs met, like Holloway and Byrne did.

So what’s good about it?

Having it all

Holloway was an ambitious woman who wanted a career, a husband and children, and she got exactly what she wanted — and a loving someone, Byrne, to watch her two kids as well as the two kids Byrne had with Marston. Byrne was equally as happy with the arrangement, preferring the caregiving role. A feminist-driven polygynous marriage would benefit women seeking work-life balance as well as those who’d prefer to work in the home or to work outside the home part-time or any combination.

But it goes beyong work-life balance. As Jo Piazza details in her book the polygamous marriages of West Africa are less about sex than having a village of people to care about each other. The women forge close bonds with each other, they share the chores and childrearing, and the children have a village to look after them. In many ways, it gives women and children the best of all worlds.

Not that every woman wants to have a child. But there are many 30- and 40-somethings who do want to have children and just haven’t found the right man to have them with. Some decide to have children on their own. Some turn to parenting partnerships. Others come to some sort of peace about it, as has Melanie Notkin, author of : Wouldn’t an arrangement like Holloway and Byrne’s be a happy answer?

And, let’s face it — what woman wouldn’t want a room of her one to escape from the needs and demands of a spouse every once and a while, as well as not losing her sense of self?

What about sex?

But, OK, let’s talk about sex. What about it? While it may seem like the husband would be getting the better deal — more women to have sex with — who says a polygynous marriage can’t be an open marriage, too, allowing the women to have sexual relationships outside the marriage? If it’s a feminist-driven arrangement, why not? Marriages often become sexless after awhile — having time apart from each other helps build the erotic mystery therapist Esther Perel says is essential. Plus, sexual needs and desires ebb and flow; there would be less pressure on a woman to have sex when she’s not in the mood for it. There are any number of ways to make this kind of marriage work to address all the emotional, sexual and practical needs of all involved.

But beyond that, why should sex be essential in a marriage? As law professors Joanna L. Grossman and Lawrence M. Friedman write:

We have moved away from the idea that only marriage entitles one to have sex. But we cling to the idea that only sex entitles one to marry. Why? Law (and society) treat cohabiting couples differently from, say, casual affairs; and a man or woman’s “partner” is treated differently from a mistress or paramour. Essentially, there are two factors that give legal meaning to a relationship. One is some kind of commitment. But the other, very definitely, is sex.

But commitment and love should trump sex. What if a man and two or three women want to marry because they see it as solving their work-life issues if not their sexual lives? Why would that upset anyone?

Making it legal

Polygamy is illegal in the U.S., of course. University of British Columbia economics professor and author of Marina Adshade believes that polygyny can actually be economically beneficial to women, and shouldn’t be outlawed. And while many worried about how the legalization of marriage for same-sex couples would be a “slippery slope” to marriage among more than two partners, my question is — why is that a bad thing if it’s among consenting adults, especially if it would benefit women?

“Polygamy is no more timeless or fixed than monogamy,” history lecturer and author Sarah M. S. Pearsall says. “Both polygamy and monogamy are institutions that change and adapt.”

And if they can change and adapt in ways that better suit women, why not? Loving More, a nonprofit that supports polyamory, writes that monogamy didn’t change marriage into a more egalitarian contract — the fight for women’s rights did.

Is it so hard to imagine that polygamous marriage could evolve as well? The belief that women need to be protected from polyamorous marriage is really a belief that women aren’t capable of making decisions for themselves and have no real power in the world. … Acceptance of polyamory or plural marriage would have to include women having the freedom to marry or be with more than one, and it is likely that just as monogamous marriage has evolved to be more egalitarian so would plural marriage when it is out of the shadows and no longer hidden. … Polyamory, polyandry, and polygyny between non-coerced consenting adults can be a great choice for people who simply don’t want to be forced into compulsory monogamy.

Don’t look for legalization anytime soon. “Polyamory is deeply threatening to the mainstream in several psychological and historical ways,” write law professors Hadar Aviram and Gwendolyn Leachman. “Fidelity and loyalty, especially through the gendered prism of female chastity, have been fundamental concepts in the creation of the relatively new institution of romantic marriage.”

Yet, I can’t see a downside to an evolved form of plural marriage that gives today’s women what they want. Can you?

Written by

Award-winning journalist, coauthor of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels,” mom, changing the narrative about older women

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