From the (FMH) Archives: Polyandry

Several months ago, I blogged on this topic at FMH. For Women’s History Month, I’d like to revisit the question, for this somewhat different audience: From a feminist perspective, is polyandry more or less acceptable than polygyny?

Let’s start with a very quick history and terminology lesson. Polygamy means taking more than one spouse, either husband or wife. Polygyny means one man taking multiple wives. Polyandry means one woman taking multiple husbands.

In the Mormon context, there are two twists to these definitions. First, the term polygamy is often used informally, to mean polygyny. Second, the term polyandry is typically used to refer to the practice of male-initiated marriage and sexual relations with already-married women. As a definitional matter, “polyandry” need not be limited to male-initiated bonds, and in some polyandrous societies, women have freedom to choose their mates. However, Mormon polyandry as practiced in Nauvoo (and later to a lesser degree in Utah) did not accord women such freedom. Rather, a small subset of already-married women were approached and asked to become the plural wives of other men, while simultanously remaining in their existing marriages. (See generally and Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness, hereinafter “ISL.” For an apologist explanation of the idea, see ).

In a classic polygynous system, Sister Jones may wonder if her husband is going to find a second Sister Jones. In a polyandrous system – particularly a system of male-initiated polyandry as was practiced in the early church – Sister Jones has a somewhat different concern: she herself might be asked to become a second or third Sister Johnson, while simultaneously retaining her role as Sister Jones. That is the basic difference between polygyny (what we typically mean when we say “polygamy”) and polyandry (at least as practiced in the early church).

From a feminist perspective, polyandry creates several new wrinkles.

On an initial examination, polyandry seems to have some potential to be a pro-feminist piece if the polygamy puzzle. For one thing, it adds a very satisfying “sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander” aspect to the discussion. The system of Mormon polygyny institutionalized yet another gender-based double standard. This double standard placed the brunt of the emotional costs on the plural wives, who were expected to share their husbands. Under polyandry, the costs of spouse-sharing are distributed at least somewhat among both sexes.

Second, polyandry probably fosters male empathy towards women forced to share spouses. Polygamous marriages often created tension and unhappiness in women, who dealt with difficult emotional turmoil. Similarly, we read of tension and unhappiness felt by men who were in polyandrous marriages. Henry Jacobs wrote that “I feel alone & no one to speak to call my own. I feel like a lamb without a mother.” (ISL, 91; see also id. at 99).

As painful as these passages are, they are striking because they are male-authored; normally such bleak narratives come from women in polygamous marrriages. Absent the threat of polyandry, it is easy for men to sit around and blithely discuss the need for wives to share a husband — after all, men reap all of the benefits and feel none of the loss. It is quite another thing for men to be forced to internalize these questions. In a polyandrous society, the analysis for men moves away from “women should be happy to share their spouses” and becomes a self-query of “would I be happy to share my spouse?”

Polyandry thus forces men to internalize some of the costs of polygamy, rather then offloading all of the costs onto women.

Third, polyandry potentially allows more freedom for women to enter into fulfilling relationships. Mormon polyandry, as practiced, may not appear to grant this benefit. (This is because all polyandrous marriages were male-initiated, and mostly initiated by a small group of high-level church leaders). However, it seems likely that even in a society where only male-initiated polyandry were allowed, women could use informal means to enter into relationships that they felt were desirable. That is, a woman could approach a desired suitor and suggest that he request her hand as a polyandrous bride. Thus, polyandry could become a potential avenue for women to seek and maintain fulfilling relationships with desired partners.

On all of these counts — lessening of the double standard, greater burden-sharing and probably empathy from men, and broader relationship opportunities for women — polyandry seems like a clear gain for women.

However, polyandry also brings serious drawbacks.

First, in a system of Mormon polyandry, such as was practiced in Nauvoo and later to a lesser degree in Utah, polyandrous marriages were limited to male-initiated relationships. This placed certain limitations on the broader level of relationship choice for women. It is possible that women could informally circumvent these limits, as noted above. Nevertheless, a system of Mormon polyandry does not grant women the same degree of freedom as men to enter into relationships that they feel are desirable. It is the rule of male-initiated polyandry that imposes these limits, and so allowing for informal female-initiated polyandry helps ameliorate the problem, but does not do away with it entirely.

Second, it seems possible that polyandry would result in loss of status for participating women, because of differing societal expecations and perceptions of male versus female sexual boundaries. Men who have sexual relations with multiple women are often viewed as powerful and desirable; women who have sexual relations with multiple men are often perceived as loose or trashy. It seems possible that polyandry would have serious negative social consequences.

Another concern is that forms of male-initiated polyandry seem similar to societal attitudes treating women are treated as chattel. Much of the Biblical polyandry — such as David and Michel — takes place as men blithely decide amongst themselves how the “property” is shared; women are left powerless, treated as mere prizes to be won. To the
extent that male-initiated polyandry depends on or reinforces that dynamic, it is obviously not a net gain for women.

The most striking argument against Mormon polyandry, though, is found in its history. The history of Mormon polyandry has been starkly anti-feminist — often seeming to boil down to old and problematic dynamic of multiple men competing for sexual access to attractive women. In that sense, male-initiated polyandry symbolizes all that is wrong with patriarchal power structures and oppression of women.

Records of polyandry as practiced suggest that it did not afford greater relationship choices to women, but rather created extra layers of angst and heartache within their existing relationships. Again, the story of Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Smith Young is instructive. Zina twice entered into polyandrous marriages; at least one of them caused her quite a bit of anguish. She received a polyandrous marriage proposal from Joseph Smith while she was married to Henry Jacobs. She struggled with this idea, writing that it was a greater sacrifice than giving her life; ultimately she acquiesced only when Joseph told her that an angel would slay him if she did not marry him. (ISL, 80-81).

She writes less about her polyandrous marriage to Brigham Young, but notes that she felt “weakness of heart” after it. (Id. at 85-86). For Zina, polyandry did not create more opportunities for her to explore fruitful relationships — rather, it added stress and pain to the relationships that she had.

In theory, polyandry could be a version of polygamy that is more feminist-friendly than classic polygyny. As noted above, it removes some of the double standard, and it seems to create — again, in theory — additional opportunities for women to enter into rewarding relationships.

However, the history of polyandry as practiced, and the relationship limitations imposed under a system of male-initiated polyandry, weigh more heavily on the other side of the balance. Polyandry would not be a more feminist version of polygamy; in practice, it would almost certainly be more anti-feminist. There aren’t very many institutions that can make a culture of male-initiated polygyny look good by comparison — but a male-initiated system of polyandry is probably one of them.

32 comments for “From the (FMH) Archives: Polyandry

  1. March 16, 2007 at 8:33 pm

    I wish we knew and understood more about the whys and hows and wherefores of this limited and virtually unexplained (by Joseph) practice. I You have masterfully examined the situation of polygamy as a human-instituted system, I think. I don’t believe any of us can understand it in the context of the Restoration, however, without knowing more fully why it was instituted or how it was presented to the people involved — the few records we have don’t capture enough of what they thought and heard, and especially what they felt, to be able to comprehend it. That, I think, is true of every religious practice looked at from outside. And you and I are both outsiders when it comes to this, no matter how inside we might be about other Mormon practices.

  2. Julie M. Smith
    March 16, 2007 at 9:08 pm

    Oh, bah, Ardis, when I saw the title of this post, I was hoping for a 500 comment smack-down and then you go and ruin it by making the first comment so eminently reasonable and level-headed.

  3. Nick Literski
    March 16, 2007 at 9:25 pm

    I am likely the only polyandrous person who will actually comment on this post. In my experience, monogamy is simply a social construct. So is polyandry. The important thing is that all the partners involved are willing to replace the potential for jealously with trust. Because I trust in the unconditional love continually expressed to me by my partners, I don’t feel threatened by their affections for one another. We also are committed to ensuring that none of the partners in our relationship are neglected. If one of my partners neglects the other (and that includes doing so out of an effort to please me, or spend extra time with me), I am likely to object before the neglected partner does.

    I don’t mean to criticize, but as long as they are examined in terms of feminism or patriarchy, neither polyandry or polygyny are likely to succeed. The focus needs to be on building up all the partners involved, rather than who gets the proverbial extra strippings.

  4. March 16, 2007 at 9:46 pm

    Julie, I was trying to set myself up to be the smack-downee since Kaimi was being so reasonable and level-headed! But maybe people who are chiefly interested in monogamy have better things to do on a Friday night than butt heads over polygamy.

  5. Suzanne A.
    March 16, 2007 at 10:16 pm

    I am of the opinion that some members believe Joseph’s revelations were given to him down to the last micro-detail. I believe God basically reveals His will to the prophets and it is up to the prophets to set things in motion.

    Kathryn Daynes, in her book “More Wives Than One” refers to Nauvoo polygamy as protopolygamy. On the topic of the early days of plural marriage, Amasa Lyman in 1866 said that, “We obeyed the best we knew how, and, no doubt, made many crooked paths in our ignorance.” (Journal of Discourses, 11:207.)

  6. March 16, 2007 at 11:00 pm

    This is a very interesting, and I would think accurate, appraisal of polyandry in early LDS society. I think we could all agree that it was not a practice that was fundamentally initiated or controlled by the female participant. As for the reasons for the practice, I think that we can make the obvious inferences.

  7. March 16, 2007 at 11:27 pm

    Which obvious inferences would those be, WBF?

  8. m&m
    March 16, 2007 at 11:56 pm

    And you and I are both outsiders when it comes to this, no matter how inside we might be about other Mormon practices.

    So very well said, Ardis. Thank you.

  9. March 17, 2007 at 12:41 am

    Very, very well said Ardis.

  10. Ann
    March 17, 2007 at 12:42 am

    #7: multiple men competing for sexual access to attractive women

  11. Julie M. Smith
    March 17, 2007 at 1:02 am

    Re #10–

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the 56-year-old that Joseph Smith married was not chosen for her physical attractiveness.

    (No offense to any 56 or older women in the audience, of course.)

  12. March 17, 2007 at 1:21 am

    #10: I’m left wondering why that is “obvious.” You are more cynical than I am.

  13. Sideshow
    March 17, 2007 at 2:53 am

    “It seems possible that polyandry would have serious negative social consequences.”

    Kaimi, it would seem relatively easy to test this idea — did any of the polyandrously married women historically suffer negative social consequences among other women or men after entering into those marriages? If there’s evidence they did not, maybe this idea isn’t a factor.

  14. Julie M. Smith
    March 17, 2007 at 11:17 am


    It may be a little more complicated than that–the secretiveness of early polygamy makes it difficult as a test case.

  15. March 17, 2007 at 12:16 pm


    What was the time span for polyandrous Mormon social experimentation?

    I’ve only ever heard of polyandry being practiced at the earliest stages of Church history. I always thought it was just Joseph Smith and Brigham Young (and some of their peers).

    It seems to me that the angst felt by women and men raised in monogamous American marriages would be different than that experienced by the children of polygamous marriages. Julie is right to point out the damaging effect of all that secrecy surrounding early Mormon marriages (and today’s polygamous marriages, I might add). Assuming the secrecy and stigma were removed and the participants had grown up viewing polygamy (I mean that in it accurate definitional sense) as an ordinary thing…

    Would it still have as much potential for the emotional problems you’ve outlined in your post?

    And if it did, how are those problems more or less egregious than the angst suffered in modern monogamous relationships?

  16. smb
    March 17, 2007 at 9:27 pm

    I’ve been thinking about polyandry recently in a new analysis of polygamy within what I call the “sacerdotal genealogy,” Smith’s grand human family united by priesthood ties. It occurs to me that polyandry was fundamentally about the disruption of the Victorian family (what William Phelps called the “gordian of knot of bastard matrimony”) in the service of the grander scope of Smith’s family. Polyandry conclusively demonstrated that not even established marriages were free of disruption for the greater goal of the vast ecclesial family (recognizing that the cultural milieu was still deeply sexist). The polyandrous wives were being taken from their initial husbands for eternity (the original husbands were not held to have claim on them after death) and sometimes for life (the Levirates ultimately left their first husbands according to my memory).

    As far as Zina never benefiting from her marriages, she appears to have been deeply committed to Joseph Smith and mourned his passage greatly. Though she found no romantic love with Young, she did acquire great power, becoming one of the ruling women of Utah Mormonism, and this access to power would have been unavailable to her as Henry’s wife. In a sense, this was the meaning of this sacerdotal family structure, so in Zina’s case, however romantically disruptive, it seems to have served its purpose.

    The only polyandry I’m aware of was performed by Joseph Smith, with those women given as Levirate wives to e.g. Brigham Young and Heber Kimball. I’m unaware of any later new polyandrous unions (even in serial mortal monogamy, one husband was designated to last for eternity).

    Incidentally, while I find this behavior difficult to stomach, I think I see what the overall project was (and the satiric satyr comments strike me as intellectually silly at best).

  17. Julie M. Smith
    March 17, 2007 at 9:50 pm


    Can you explain a little more what you mean by Levirate wives? Because in the OT, the purpose of the levirate marriage was for a man to create a child for his deceased, childless brother and that clearly wasn’t the purpose of these polyandrous marriages.

  18. DKL
    March 17, 2007 at 10:39 pm

    Feminists hate polyandry: the chick always gets out-voted.

    On the other hand, non-feminists love it. It would increase the opulence of their stay-at-home lifestyle, because they’d be supported by multiple wage earners.

    Personally, I’d love it if my wife had another husband. Then we get free baby sitting when we’d go on dates. And I wouldn’t always have to cuddle.

  19. Jessawhy
    March 17, 2007 at 11:58 pm

    I’m surprised no one has responded to Nick Literski.
    Nick, I guess I’m confused, you say you are a “polyandrous person”, does that mean your wife has another husband? I am honestly wondering what kind of culture or society you live in that is so understanding of this “social construct.” I see your point about perception and trust, but I think more than one partner has to be complicated?
    Is your polyandry more of a social preference or part of your religious beliefs?
    As far as the original question about polyandry being advantageous for women, I don’t think it is. I read that chapter in In Sacred Loneliness about Zina and Henry Jacobs. Out of all the chapters, that one affected me the most. I felt so sad for Henry!!! He just loved his little boys and his wife and then he was sent away to serve a mission and when he got back, his wife was openly married to BY and Henry was told to find another.
    He loved her all his life and even died in her house. It was really a sad story. I don’t know why I had so much more sympathy for him than I have for women who also sacraficed much in polygamy. I’ll have to examine my response more deeply. Hmmm

  20. Frank McIntyre
    March 18, 2007 at 12:35 am

    I’m reading second Samuel and it looks to me like David’s wife Michal was a polyanderer. While Saul was trying to kill David (her husband) she married another man. Later she was returned to David, with the old husband weeping and wailing after her. Or maybe I’m misreading it.

  21. smb
    March 18, 2007 at 9:51 am

    Julie, the Mormon practice of Levirate marriage is a complex one and an imperfect copy of the Hebrew practice. While I do not feel that it was used in a manipulative way, it had the effect of establishing a multiplicity of noble widows of Joseph Smith that were then taken as representatives of his family into the Apostolic church, with Brigham and Heber primarily serving as living proxy husbands (they were thus directly related to Joseph Smith). In point of fact, they did have children “unto” Joseph (Heber Grant was considered JSJ’s son in a still more complex levirate-style relationship; Zina bore Brigham children, and so on).

    As far as Henry and Zina, I agree it’s heartbreaking (she’s my grandmother, so we’re all obsessed with Zina-watching, as we should be). There’s a valentine in Van Wagoner’s Mormon Polygamy that I think is not in Compton which is still more heartbreaking. But I continue to believe (even though I personally would not support polyandry or polygyny) that Zina traded romance for great social and ecclesial power (I do not believe she was Machiavellian, I believe she was following her spiritual impulses).

    Jessa: Nick I think is indicating that he is in consensual intimate relationships with men who are in similar relationships with other men (or that he is in such relationships with more than one man). In a sense, the aggressive innovators in the construction of intimate relationships are to be found in the gay community now, which is part of why it is fascinating to observe the discussions about civilly sanctioned monogamy in the community. There are some who spurn it as a sellout, others eager for the social legitimacy it would bestow on the community in general terms, and still others deeply yearning for the satisfying durability of this novel reflex of the Victorian ideal. I don’t know queer studies literature well, but it would be interesting to see how, independent of all the angry political rhetoric that usually overwhelms these discussions, different people are negotiating these tensions between covenants, social legitimacy, “sexual liberation,” and the hypertrophied sentimentalism of Romantic (capital R) models.

    Though I do not find Foster the ablest scholar, I think his treatment of John Noyes’s complex marriage system does give a flavor for another indictment of that “gordian knot” of monogamy. Foster and others (including Whitney Cross) feel that Noyes’s system is important context for polyandry. I think this view deemphasizes the important elements of Smith’s sacerdotal genealogy, though surely there are important similarities between the systems.

  22. smb
    March 18, 2007 at 9:55 am

    Incidentally, some people appear to be confusing Mormon polyandry with matriarchal polyandry. All Smith’s polyandrous wives were wives of a polygamist who also happened to have a second husband. Though most of their initial relationships (the prior monogamy) were severely disrupted by the polyandrous union, in effect they were monogamous women newly connected to a polygynous family.

    One wonders whether Adoption was seen as the male equivalent (without “privileges”) of polyandry, though this line of reasoning has not been pursued by scholars except in very general terms.

  23. Suzanne A.
    March 18, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    smb: The only polyandry I’m aware of was performed by Joseph Smith, with those women given as Levirate wives to e.g. Brigham Young and Heber Kimball. I’m unaware of any later new polyandrous unions…

    I’m aware of one as late as 1872.

  24. March 18, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    Suzanne, you can’t drop a bomb like that without spilling the details! C’mon!

  25. Suzanne A.
    March 18, 2007 at 5:10 pm

    What? Didn’t everyone here read all 15 pages of my footnotes. You know, the ones in itty-bitty font at the end of “Mormon” Women’s Protest…

    (25) Hannah Tapfield King Young, 1807–1886, was born in Cambridge, England. Hannah married Thomas Owen King in April 1824. She converted to Mormonism around 1850–51 and immigrated to Utah in 1853. She was a notable writer and poet; her numerous poems were often published in the Woman’s Exponent and the Deseret News. She was sealed to Brigham Young for eternity in 1872. “This sealing did not affect her relationship with her husband, and she never became part of the Brigham Young household.” See Jeffery Ogden Johnson, “Determining and Defining ‘Wife’: The Brigham Young Households.” Dialogue, Vol. 20, No. 3 (1987):64; and Crocheron, Representative Women, 91–96.

  26. annegb
    March 18, 2007 at 5:37 pm

    I ditto the “well saids” to Ardis. Although I think that we could be outsiders on a lot of issues where we are not present at a discussion of policy.

    Nick, you can’t be polyandrous. Only women can be polyandrous.

    I believe that, more often than not, women (perhaps at the urging of their husbands) had themselves sealed to the prophet because the church was young and people were ignorant and they thought it improved their chances of exaltation. I studied up on this subject awhile back but I’ve forgotten all the facts. I retain an impression–well, I am firmly convinced that Joseph Smith got a bad rap.

    Suzanne, I loved your comment. I think it hits the essence of many practices in our church. We are just doing the best we can. It sort of explains all the inconsistencies and craziness.

  27. March 18, 2007 at 6:34 pm

    Oh, *that* one, Suzanne. Don’t you think Brigham gave in to the sealing out of self defense? Hannah was a persistent little nag. Thomas King was a good man. How many other men would have given up what he had in England to move to the American desert to live with a church he didn’t believe in, just to keep his wife happy? Hannah didn’t treat him with any of the respect he deserved, I think.

    Hannah may not have joined the Young household, but there’s this cozy little line in an 1875 letter she wrote to Brigham: “I have to ask one favor of you viz, that you will give me your picture to put in my room, that I may have you ever present with me.”

    I think I wrote something similar to Donnie Osmond, when we were both 13.

  28. Day
    March 18, 2007 at 11:46 pm

    If you didn’t have children, I could see how polyandry would make polygamy more equitable to women. But I don’t see how it would work if children were involved (and wasn’t that one of the original purposes of polygamy, to create offspring?). You could either have the husbands all live in the same house, or have separate households, and each care for their own children….It sounds like a complicated joint custody type arrangement, and joint or shared custody seems fraught with complexities. I’ve watched our neighbor, who has his sons stay with him part of the week, then go to his ex’s house for the other part. The organization this requires seems highly stressful–two sets of beds, clothing, even sports gear, so they don’t have to cart everything back and forth.
    When the Family Proclamation says, “Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity,” doesn’t it sound like the ideal is for the father and mother to be living in the same home, so they can both be “rearing” simultaneously?
    Samuel W. Taylor’s book talks about how he can count on one hand the times he saw his father, apostle John W. Taylor, and there’s those stories from church history of polygamous fathers who didn’t recognize their own offspring.
    It seems to me that any arrangement of multiple spouses would make one gender miss out on parenting their own children.

  29. Nick Literski
    March 19, 2007 at 4:57 pm

    I apologize if I was not clear. I am a gay man, involved in a closed, committed relationship with two other gay men. In other words, I have two male partners, who would be legal husbands if such an option were available (much like heterosexual polygamous families are short on “legal” marriages). While I realize my situation differs somewhat from the type of polyandry intended by the orignal post, it still provides me opportunities of observation which, I would like to think, are useful on the topic.

    I would agree that the gay community is more open to experimentation in different relationship models. For some gay men, a two-partner legal marriage is an ideal which they wish to work for. Personally, I support having equal choices, so I get involved in marriage equality efforts, whether or not I may ever choose to legally marry another man. I am just as ready to support the rights of polygamous families to enter into legal, recognized relationships of their choosing (among consenting adults, of course).

    Well, yes I can be polyandrous. I believe I’ve explained that above.

  30. Karina
    May 4, 2007 at 4:00 pm

    This is so interested to me! I have been married for 17 years and first time ever I have been aproach by this man thats 7 years older than me and he actually wants me to marry him..I am so confuse on this. I haven\’t responded to him but truly I have fallen in love with him and haven\’t even done anything with him..Isn\’t this a crime? Im totally blank. I feel like I will do this and yea he has money above all but I didn\’t know that till now. I have been faithfull and have 3 kids and never even though of marrying again unless Im divorce but this man is truly offering me what noone ever given me before and thats Love and stability…its really crazy..any comments on my situation.?

  31. May 4, 2007 at 4:05 pm

    its really crazy..any comments on my situation.?

    You’ve already said it all, Karina. (What do you take us for, anyway?)

  32. May 6, 2007 at 11:22 am

    karina yes a comment.being a non-mormon non-christian maybe the kids and what is best for them instead of your schoolgirl desires and would you feel only seeing your children every 2or 3 weeks or less.but that would be okay because we would have each other. i promise you that as time moves on and as you become more and more lonely missing the kids you will come to hate youself and mr prefect. growup karina before its to late for everyone.

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