I’m writing the next novel and it’s going to be heavy on issues of femininity and masculinity. I’m interested in how masculinity changes shape with each step up the social ladder, particularly the idea that one of the most woman-friendly things a king or powerful man can do is doink everything that moves and, conversely, one of the most woman-unfriendly things a society can do is institute monogamous marriage.
So I was listening to a really fun podcast about the history of China and it dawned on me that, no matter how terrible the emperor or dukes were, no matter how sick or awful, they always had a willing harem of beautiful young ladies competing, often murderously, for their attention.
If you are not into China, think of Henry the Eighth. A fat, old psycho with open wounds on his legs who has already killed multiple wives and yet, when the opportunity to become wife number 8 opened up, the most beautiful and desirable ladies of the realm lined up for the honor.
I then read the ethics of Confucius and saw that, just like in most of the West, monogamy was the prescription for men UNLESS they could afford to support a harem.
So, here’s something I’m playing with for the book – what if the harem is preferable to those women because it represents greater security, prosperity and opportunity than being the one and only love of farmer Bob? This seems true, after all. Being the fourth wife of Bill Gates certainly offers a brighter future for both the woman and her children than being the only wife of a welder. If this is true, it begs the question of why most women didn’t end up in harems?
The idea I’m playing with is that the victims of polygamy, poor men, want monogamy as a way to get a (more or less) guaranteed wife. The rulers, needing poor men for things like armies and farms, thus make a deal. “We will destroy the woman’s chance for upward mobility and give you a shot for a wife IF you are willing to fight/farm/labor for us.”
Then there is also the violent, unstable nature of societies with lots of unmarried men. I’m thinking places like American inner-cties, much of the Middle East or many parts of China. This makes me wonder if monogamous marriage isn’t, structurally, a form of damage control. Damage control for women in the sense that each lower class man can only ruin the prospects of one woman and damage control for society in the sense that it prevents the instability endemic to areas with lots of single men.
Am I full of it? Is this at least interesting enough to explore in a book? Any things I’m missing?
Have you read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe? The novel makes the argument for the traditional Nigerian way of life (household with multiple wives). Each wife is happy because she has to only do one job. The first wife is the leader/housekeeper, the second is the child minder, the third is the cook etc (might have the order wrong). They are secure in being married to a wealthy man who is respected within the community. This might be something akin to what you’re talking about? It is normal to them, and only seems strange when missionaries arrive and teach them it’s “evil”.
I did read that book and enjoyed it very much. It was actually rattling around in the back of my head when I decided to put this in the book. I’m very dissatisfied with gender discourse in the west because it makes several assumptions I find ridiculous.
1. Male sexuality is a form of pollution.
2. Men and women are pretty much the same and should be deployed in similar ways.
3. Victims (particularly women) have no responsibility.
4. Objectification is wrong (or even avoidable).
Your posts are always very thought provoking. Can’t say I have an opinion on this one yet. You’ll need to write some more.
I might have to post an excerpt. 🙂
Interesting question. I think one thing that might be a factor is demographics, the current ratio of men to women. If it skews one way or the other, for whatever reason, it seems like that would have an affect on marital mores. Societies with more women than men can afford to have polygamists (from the males POV anyway). Societies with more men might have the dynamic you lay out.
I suspect you are correct. For a society like the Mongols, where males don’t tend to survive at very high rates, it didn’t seem to be a problem for each man to have six wives.
In modern China, where people spent decades selectively aborting females, they’ve seen a spike in rural (synonymous with undesirable) men turning to homosexual behavior.
That’s actually something I didn’t put in here but found interesting. High status men have no problem mating with low status women, including marriage. Most of the richest men in the world are married to or dating non-millionaire women. Powerful women, on the other hand, almost never date or marry lower status men. This might explain why polyamory isn’t really a thing.
Sorry Ben but I’m more centered on Western Civilization and can’t offer a fact -based historical or sociological perspective.
However, the west had Catholicism, which meant convents. Also, pagans used to refer to the Christians as “the women’s church” because so many found a place where they can be involved, and even run their own crafting guilds.
Always thought provoking.
According to some things I’ve been reading recently, the early Catholics got the monogamy thing from the Pagans. Or at least, it was more a thing with the Pagan Romans (who had proscribed multiple wives for centuries) than the Jews of the time.
The most interesting theory I’ve heard for why the Romans proscribed it goes something like this:
If the high ranking men take all the wives, it gives the lower ranking men an incentive to go to some country where there were available wives.
The Romans were very interested in convincing lower ranking men to join the legions. They weren’t exactly shy with the “you’ll get a wife if you join” thing, either. They explicitly sent unmarried men to the territories on the theory they would marry locals and Romanize the barbarians. This whole strategy falls apart if Julius Caesar marries 700 women. Or to put it another way, if the Roman commanders and kings allowed the women to escape monogamous relationships with regular dudes, if they acted like Solomon or the ancient Hebrews, they lose the competition for foot soldiers.
The Catholics (the first Christians) took their marriage customs from Judaism. Remember, it started as 13 Jewish guys 🙂 Jesus preached on marriage, and St. Paul wrote about it in his epistles.
Jews permitted polygamy into the middle ages, didn’t they?
The Romans and Greeks, on the other hand, were monogamous from antiquity. https://www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/scheidel/060807.pdf
If I had to guess where the impetus for those 13 guys’ ideas on marriage came from, I’d say it’s more likely from their Greco Roman masters than their polygamous ancestors.
“This makes me wonder if monogamous marriage isn’t, structurally, a form of damage control. Damage control for women in the sense that each lower class man can only ruin the prospects of one woman…”
I don’t know that monogamous marriage ruined the prospects for women. Women weren’t going anywhere without marriage, so monogamy allowed them some amount of stability, emotionally and financially. Especially if children are involved.
“…what if the harem is preferable to those women because it represents greater security, prosperity and opportunity than being the one and only love of farmer Bob? This seems true, after all. Being the fourth wife of Bill Gates certainly offers a brighter future for both the woman and her children than being the only wife of a welder. If this is true, it begs the question of why most women didn’t end up in harems?”
Henry VIII isn’t a good example, for obvious reasons. I can’t imagine what could be going through the minds of those women at court vying for Henry VIII, especially at the end. I imagine they didn’t have their hearts in it unless they were particularly eager for power, however short-lived.
If you want to do a modernized version, you’d definitely want to stick with Bill Gates. Although what’s in it for him? He doesn’t need to marry multiple women. He could get laid and hire people to do the labor around the house. Then he doesn’t have to support anyone on an ongoing basis. That’s the question you’d have to answer: what’s in it for him?
Have you watched the TV series “Big Love”? There’s an example of a relatively nice guy who has multiple wives. They’re an off-branch of the FLDS. The series explores their daily lives and the kind of bickering you would expect. The guy doesn’t have an easy life. Polygamy looks like a pain in the ass for everyone.
I don’t know how much of that story is plausible, especially after seeing Colorado City and Eldorado, TX myself. Not sure the education level could support such an off-branch, but who knows…
Hmm, you don’t think that plural marriages could serve as a sort of upward mobility for women? Kind of the idea I was going for is that if Bill Gates marries 100 women he is making 100 new rich people (plus however many kids they produce). If John the Farmer marries one woman, that woman is still poor.
As for what’s in it for Bill Gates, that’s an excellent question. I think the answer there is that, until very recently, the drive to get more sex pretty much always resulted in more children. More children equals genetic success as an animal. However, with modern birth control and the fact that people can separate sex from reproduction, and that people have a sex drive but don’t seem to have a reproduction drive to nearly the same extent, I think that answer is Bill Gates gets nothing unless he wants 100 kids.
It also means that when Bill Gates dies, there are a lot fewer heirs who are going to benefit.
And yeah, I don’t think polygamy would be a particularly pleasant lifestyle, but historically, we are very much in the minority. Most societies have been at least partially polygamous (and a few have been polyamorous).
Never seen Big Love. I need to catch up on my pop culture. 😉
“Hmm, you don’t think that plural marriages could serve as a sort of upward mobility for women?”
Maybe. It sort of depends on the context. Historically, you might have to already have higher social connections to hit the “Bill Gates jackpot.” Plus, historically, women didn’t get to inherit. Now, the modern woman could very well make her own life. (Yeah, women don’t earn as much as men in the workplace, etc., but we have to admit things are quite different now.) It’s sort of expected. Kept women are a thing of the past.
Hmm, I’m not sure kept women have disappeared, or are even less common.
Groupies come to mind.
I’m certainly a “kept woman”…but not in the groupie sense. 🙂
Truth be told, the feminist movement has made that “kept woman” thing a lot less acceptable and common. Not that long ago it wasn’t uncommon for a woman to stay at home and raise the children while her husband earned the money for the household. Now it’s barely feasible on several grounds, including economic. But there’s more to it that that. It’s a cultural thing. I’ve had so many women raise an eyebrow at me when I say I don’t have a career. (That was before I started writing, which I can now use as a “profession” during small talk, even though I have yet to earn a single dollar from it.) I can tell you from my experience that it’s definitely looked down upon by women mostly, especially the ones in their fifties or sixties who have a sort of motherly concern about me achieving fulfillment in my life (which for them is defined by work).
On the other hand, it’s not clear what they’d think if I had children. They might be more understanding. Couldn’t say.
Definitely true about feminism. I’m generally a critic of second wave feminism but the career stuff is one thing I absolutely support. Well, mostly. I don’t think stay at home wives should be stigmatized, but I don’t think they should be expected either.
I pretty much always support civil rights groups when they are trying to make weaker people more like the stronger people. I don’t like them when they try to make the strong group like the weaker group.
Basically, I think the weak deserve a chance to become powerful. I don’t think the weak should be lionized or allowed to abolish strength.
So, in that sense, the harem is a problem because it depends on women achieving upward mobility through a dependent relationship. Perhaps it’s better to have more independent poor women than dependent rich ones.
“I don’t think stay at home wives should be stigmatized, but I don’t think they should be expected either.”
“So, in that sense, the harem is a problem because it depends on women achieving upward mobility through a dependent relationship. Perhaps it’s better to have more independent poor women than dependent rich ones.”
I think it depends. There’s more to it than the financial angle. I have no problem with dependence in relationships, although dependence in order to achieve upward mobility leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
” I have no problem with dependence in relationships, although dependence in order to achieve upward mobility leaves a bad taste in the mouth.”
Why, if you don’t mind my asking?
Well, the sort of conventional wisdom is what I’m thinking of. Marry solely for the sake of money, and you could end up with an unhappy relationship which money won’t alleviate much. In other words, money shouldn’t be the sole reason. It could be a nice side benefit, though. 🙂
Ben, I echo the sentiment that this is a thoughtful and worthy post to consider. Even when we start to read a “fantasy/sci-fi” tale, we assume monogamy unless told otherwise in chapter 1. From the standpoint of ancient-medieval societies I’ve been privileged to teach about, I agree that polygamy as well as monogamy were choices that had first and foremost to do with SURVIVAL. So easy to forget that 90+% of all people were poor, and by our standards desperately so. In Arab tribes, the man who could protect multiple women had the right to them, and the tribe was stronger and better off for that (more kids born to a father who could raise them successfully). I think you’re right that the poorer bachelors probably fought harder to gain that right for themselves, but no one really objected to the institution of polygamy.
The modern world- and the fantasy worlds we usually create- are ones where everyone suddenly has the survival imperative removed, and can choose to marry for love. I blogged about this recently and would love to hear your thoughts too! But I barely touch on polygamy, it’s rare in the world I’m looking at.
I’ll be right over. Thanks for your thoughts. 🙂
“…unless they were particularly eager for power, however short-lived.”
rung2diotimasladder passed over this lightly but I think it’s crucial. Power is a powerful aphrodisiac as politicians and interns know well. Also, you don’t give enough credit to women. They have a choice to marry an ageing, ugly but good provider, and then cheat on him to obtain the best genetic material for reproductive purposes. Nowadays, it’s also not always about money. The welder can feed his family well enough and may be able to spend more quality time with his children than Bill Gates could with children from his harem wives.
I think you are probably correct, but it does make me wonder why marriage (especially among the lower classes) has declined so severely.