An Immodest Proposal

By Julie Ann Kessler

If you thought feminism was confusing before, just wait. It’s going to get even more complicated—or so it would seem if we take the case of Elizabeth Joseph seriously. "Mrs." Joseph is one of eight women "married" to Alex Joseph of Big Water, Utah. Joseph, a self-proclaimed feminist, appeared in May as a featured speaker at a meeting of the Utah chapter of the National Organization of Women, where she promoted the polygamous lifestyle as a way of empowering career-minded women.

And she should know. As the news and public affairs director at two radio stations in Page, Arizona; the city attorney of Big Water, Utah; and an instructor in law, business and journalism at Coconino Community College, Joseph is nothing if not career-minded. She says that without her current arrangement, these options might not have been a possibility. "I’ve maximized my female potential without the tradeoffs associated with monogamy," she said. For one thing she was ". . . able to go to law school 400 miles away, knowing [her] husband had clean shorts in the morning and dinner at night." Mrs. Joseph also boasts that her 8-year-old son "has never seen the inside of a daycare."

She has a point. Even though mainstream social science studies point to the many harmful effects of daycare on the health and well-being of children, nothing seems to stop the tide of women seeking to "maximize their female potential" by utilizing daycare. So here’s an answer: polygamy. In principle, it differs very little from the de facto serial polygamy that characterizes so many of our modern relations, so why shouldn’t we attach the benefits of marriage and family to it? In these times when our understanding of the nature of family has expanded to include two mommies or two daddies, blended families, and single parent families, why not include polygamous families? What is the argument against polygamy if we accept the logic behind these other "families?"

According to Ellen George of Utah NOW, there is none! When asked whether she thought the national organization would support polygamy as a viable option for feminists, she said "Why wouldn’t it be? We fight for lesbian families and single parent families. I don’t know why we wouldn’t support this." Robin Frodge, a member of Utah NOW who is also on the national board, echoed these sentiments. NOW supports "an expanded definition of family including same sex parents," she said. "It is very difficult to look at that and not support other diagrams of families or configurations of families, including polygamous families." Frodge admitted that this was "an uncomfortable thought for [her]" but also conceded that it is the only logical position she could take.

When asked how the audience reacted to Mrs. Joseph’s talk, Ms. George said that the Utah crowd was more surprised to hear from the Mormon feminists also on the program than from a polygamist feminist. Elizabeth Joseph is not a Mormon (indeed, the Mormon Church excommunicates members who practice polygamy) and, according to Ms. George, the polygamy of the Josephs seems to be based more in practicality than in religion—a piece of information that she reported with pleasure. In Utah, it seems that religion is more foreign to feminism than polygamy!

Ms. Frodge was also pleased to report that the Joseph women were "all good feminists—bright and intelligent" and that the Joseph household recognizes that are differences between their brand of polygamy and the religious-based polygamy that is common among sects in southern Utah. She said that the feminist Josephs make the case "that there are not a lot of men worth marrying" so it is better if many good women (read: feminist women) marry the same man. Frodge also pointed out that this was a good way to make sure that the man is "properly trained."

Feminism may be at a loss to defend itself here. Whether or not Elizabeth Joseph is ultimately embraced as an ally of the movement, she has succeeded in the only logical weaving of the two main strands of feminism: the strand that pushes women to measure their success with the same yardstick as men; and the strand that argues for female exceptionalism and the creation of a new, more female way, to measure success.

Women today are told that they can "have it all." We are told we can have all of the rewards of the workplace and still have all of the rewards of motherhood (even into our 60’s!) through the intervention of science, technology, and state-subsidized daycare. We are told that we should never sacrifice anything in either realm if we are to "be true to ourselves" (the first, last, and only commandment of feminism).

So why doesn’t feminism adopt the only practical means for "maximizing female potential?"

Who knows what opinion NOW will ultimately adopt on polygamy? It is safe to bet that it will not be the sound one. "If NOW is about anything, it is about choice," former Utah NOW executive coordinator Luci Malins said. We can only assume that this includes the choice to be polygamous.

But polygamy has a bad name in this country for a good reason. Its history is even intertwined with the tortuous history of slavery. It’s no wonder.

Slavery and polygamy are both denials of the fundamental principle of human equality central to this country’s founding. That is why the Republican Platform of 1856 condemned "those twin relics of barbarism—Polygamy and Slavery." Polygamy is an institution that traditionally has supported oligarchic and tyrannical societies. Because nature produces men and women in roughly equal numbers, then if some men may have many wives, the logical conclusion is that other men may have none! This places men in a war with each other. And, contrary to whatever Elizabeth Joseph might say, it places women in a condition of servitude. The woman becomes a fractional wife rather than an equal partner with her husband in the organization of their household. She is one wife and one mother among many rather than the one and the only.

In 1879 the Supreme Court wrote in the Mormon polygamy case, Reynolds v. U.S. that a "free, self-governing commonwealth" presupposes monogamy, upon which "society may be said to be built. . . . In fact, according as monogamous or polygamous marriages are allowed, do we find the principles on which the government of the people to a greater or lesser extent, rests. . . . [P]olygamy leads to the patriarchal principle, and which, when applied to large communities, fetters the people in stationary despotism, while that principle cannot long exist in connection with monogamy." Ironic that feminism (ostensibly an attack on patriarchy) finds its logical support among those who would promote patriarchy in its grossest form.

Julie Ann Kessler is Director of Academic Programs at the Claremont Institute. She is also Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Azusa Pacific University. A version of this article was published in the Summer 1997 issue of the Women's Quarterly. Return to top.


All pages copyright © 1997 The Claremont Institute