Guest post by xenawarriorscientist
You can read Part 1 here.
In my spiritual life, I’m just not sold on the idea that polygamy is an eternal divine principal. Polygamous women were quite clear that they couldn’t have romantic love for their husbands with so many other people in the marriage. There is no shortage of diaries and letters by those women, full of the gut-wrenching problems polygamy caused. (Many of the stories about how “polygamy wasn’t that bad” seem to come from interviewing polygamists’ children in the post-polygamy era, not polygamists themselves. Tell me: how much does any child really know about their parents’ marriage? Imagine how much more the parents guarded their private feelings when a gospel principle and their children’s respect for them as a God-fearing person were on the line.) Men were quick to characterize their polygamous lifestyle as a “sacrifice,” but I’ve never been able to find any kind of explanation as to exactly how being able to have sex with and have your clothes and dinner made by multiple women was a sacrifice. I see no way around the fact that if polygamy is holy, that means that men’s feelings and lives are more important than women’s.
I find it difficult to believe that God really loves us all equally if polygamy is a “law of heaven.” Plus there’s also, you know, Jacob 2.
When we have scriptures like Jacob 2 flatly stating that polygamy is not inherently more spiritual than polygamy, and when we have multiple women’s diaries laying out the fact that it’s impossible to have any romantic love in a relationship with so many people in it, you have to wonder what they did see in it.
For me that’s been the ugliest specter of polygamy: that women would fight tooth and nail for something that clearly made them very sad. It makes you wonder what you’d have to do to somebody to brainwash them that way. Finding that women actually stood to gain something from polygamy— fewer pregnancies and births, higher odds of their children surviving, and better health and opportunities in life for themselves, not to mention decreased odds of dying in childbirth (which has got to be the single worst way to go that doesn’t involve Torquemada)…. Let’s just say that that’s a much better illumination, to me, of God’s love for his children than any other “explanation” that I’ve heard for polygamy so far.
The birth-control aspect could also explain why so many of our well-known, influential, and accomplished LDS women were polygamous. They may have deliberately chosen polygamy out of a desire to participate more in public life— such as vital community projects like operating the territory’s grain storage system, running medical practices, and legislating for better women’s and children’s health care and working conditions—than was possible for a woman engaged in raising a large brood. As Emmeline Wells, fifth president of the Relief Society, stated,
“If there be women in whom the love of learning extinguishes all other love, then the heaven-appointed sphere of that woman is not the nursery. It may be the library, the laboratory, the observatory.”
I’ve never been much for the “polygamy is liberating to women because other women can watch your children” line of thought. Really? Because for every “liberated” woman that system produces, you have at least one who’s stuck being someone else’s maid. Also, this logic still keeps us in a moral universe where women are mostly important because they make babies. That is to say, it’s ok if someone else raises yours, as long as you’re still making them— and if that someone else is a co-wife, instead of a teacher or babysitter who actually gets paid for her work. That’s some messed-up logic right there.
I also don’t cop to the logic of polygamy “creating a female-centered society.” Let’s get this straight: if your social structure revolves around your relationships to men, it’s not female-centered. Women, we don’t have to all be knocking boots with the same dude to help each other out. We don’t need polygamy to work together. OK? OK.
In the context of a birth control method, however, polygamy makes a lot more sense. For one thing, the records show us that that’s exactly what happened: for every additional wife, co-wives would have one less child each on average. That meant there were more adults to go around in the knuckle-busting work of growing food in the desert, and what children were born were better fed, clothed, and cared for. They were more likely to live than to die. Their parents could hope for a little less heartbreak, and their mothers in particular could hope for a longer, healthier, more productive life for themselves.
It goes a long way to account for women’s loyalty to the institution. And while there may have been other (very primitive) birth control methods available in the late 19th century, polygamy was probably one of the more safe, effective, and available out-in-the-boondocks, at least during the early colonization phase. I would also not be at all surprised to find it the one the men were most willing to get behind.
And finally, polygamy-as-birth-control can remind us that the Big Couple Upstairs might have other things in mind for women’s work on the earth than making babies. I don’t pine for the old days. I’m very happy to live in a day when we have advanced enough health care that I don’t have to choose between healthy children, a full lifespan, and education on the one hand, and a full-time relationship with my husband on the other. Understanding the terrain that pioneer women made their choices on helps me to have a better appreciation for their lives and choices. And it also helps me to have the confidence that there will be no need to repeat them today or in the hereafter.