Thursday, May 22, 2008

My Wives -- I Think I'll Keep Them

Dammit, there’s too much to write about – that’s my problem. And instead of writing here, I’ve been writing long comments on other people’s blogs. That’s one way to procrastinate. (I even thought of putting in links to those comments, but nah.) I’m at the laundromat now, washing my fine linens to get ready for tomorrow’s departure, and that gives me a little time. I’ve actually been pretty productive today, running around buying some last-minute gifts, calling the bank to make sure my debit card won’t get blocked when I use it overseas, and so on. The final packing will be a breeze by comparison. So some relatively brief notes while time permits.

One of my co-workers has been reading a book called His Favorite Wife: Trapped in Polygamy, by Susan Ray Schmidt, about a woman who’d lived in a polygamous Mormon household; she’s also read Escape, by Susan Jessup, which Amazon has paired with His Favorite Wife – get a bargain on voyeuristic tales of sexual exploitation! “More ‘Favorite Wife’ Products” are lined up below. This genre appears to have been a growth industry well before the recent raid at the Yearning for Zion Ranch. I doubt that many Americans want to read lurid accounts of, say, Iraqi women and children blown to bits by American bombs; but they do, clearly, want to read about young girls forced to have sex with, and bear the children of, brutal older men. It isn’t that I support such coercion, and I’d recommend anyone interested to read the Muslim Hedonist’s blog for some serious writing about the costs women pay living in polygamous households, but I do wonder about the motives of the people who want to read about the shame, the degradation, the tears, the blighted lives of young girls who in a better world would be living in suburbia, watching Juno, and giving non-reciprocal blowjobs, as teenaged girls were meant to do. (Or going to church-sponsored Father-Daughter dances: “Something I need from dad is affirmation, being told I’m beautiful ... If we don’t get it from home, we will go out to the culture and get it from them.” I don't think you need to be a strict Freudian to find that worrying.) I’m wary too of the apparatus of state policing and control that’s now in charge of those girls and women, deciding whether they will see their children, deciding where they will go next and what they’ll do.

At The Nation, one J. Goodrich gestures at some of the issues involved, and makes an interesting remark about the Amish. The Supreme Court ruled that “Amish children could not be placed under compulsory education past 8th grade, as it violated their fundamental right to freedom of religion.” Goodrich comments:

I doubt that it was the Amish children who pursued this case or that those same children were then free to have as much elective education as they wished once they had finished eighth grade. No, the decision was not about the children's rights but about the rights of a religious community to survive.

The first sentence is good, and surely true. The second I’m not so sure about. Do the adults in a religious community have the right to override its children’s rights to freedom of religion in order for the community to survive? Goodrich is correct that Wisconsin v. Yoder “was not about the children’s rights,” but what about the children’s rights? How do you decide whether an Amish kid really wants to get more schooling, or whether her parents and community are coercing her to quit?

I’ve written about this before, though, and I’ve wandered here. My first reaction to the subtitle of His Favorite Wife was “Trapped in polygamy, eh? What about the women who’ve been trapped in monogamy?” In the good old days women lost much of their legal personhood on entering into monogamy. Married women were less happy than married men and single women; only single men were less happy. This has changed slightly in the past decade, as more and more married women earn their own money outside the home – something they would not have been allowed to do in the past. Their husbands could forbid them to get a job, or keep the money they earned, and even if their husband was willing they would have trouble getting any serious work, beyond what might pay them “pin money.” Single women were assumed to be biding their time until Mr. Right came along, but they’d often be fired when they did marry.

There was also the double standard which treated a wife’s adultery as a much more serious offense than her husband’s. Men had, and still have, much more freedom of movement outside the home than women do; it’s assumed that marriage will not seriously affect men’s mobility, so it doesn’t. And after marriage, there are surely numerous reasons why widows and divorced women are generally less eager to remarry than divorced men and widowers. But it seems that a major reason is that they don’t want to be wives again. I recall reading a survey of sexuality among older people conducted by AARP, which found that older women wanted to have male friends (with whom they’d probably be involved sexually), but not to be married.

So, put together the (rather creepy, in my opinion) voyeurism about Mormon polygamy in the US with a corresponding lack of interest in the downside of normal American monogamy, and you can see that something interesting is going on. (Imagine a book called, say, His Only Wife: Trapped in Monogamy. Would my co-worker, who’s monogamously and apparently happily married, have that on her desk?) It ties in with the current same-sex marriage controversy, the assumption among its advocates that monogamous civil marriage is essentially a good thing that merely needed some fine-tuning reforms, and the popular rhetorical move by its opponents that legal polygamy will be the next step, which the advocates have trouble answering. Polygamy is a traditional, Biblical value, after all. If polygamy makes women unhappy and exploits them, so for the most part has monogamy.

(P.S. January 7, 2009 -- the original title of this post [My Wife -- I Think I'll Keep Her] always seemed a bit off somehow, and only today when I looked at it did I realize what it should be.)