Pollyannaism about polygamy: Martha Nussbaum on Mormon history

Picture of Martha Nussbaum

Picture of Martha Nussbaum

Back in May in a blog post on the University of Chicago Law School Faculty Blog, Martha Nussbaum offered some thoughts about both the history of Mormon polygamy in the United States and about attitudes toward polygamy more generally. I’m sympathetic to much of what Nussbaum says here but think that she’s wrong both about that history and about the more general attitudes in play.

Nussbaum critiques the negative views of American public opinion about Mormon polygamy, saying that

Mormon polygamy of the 19th century was not child abuse. Adult women married by consent, and typically lived in separate dwellings, each visited by the husband in turn. In addition to their theological rationale, Mormons defended the practice with social arguments – in particular that polygamous men would abandon wives or visit prostitutes less frequently. Instead of answering these arguments, however, Americans hastened to vilify Mormon society, publishing semi-pornographic novels that depicted polygamy as a hotbed of incest and child abuse.

While Nussbaum does acknowledge the patriarchal nature of (Mormon) polygamy, I suspect that she is both painting too rosy a picture of the history of Mormon polygamy, as well as mis-diagnosing the root of the distaste for polygamy in the popular mind. Such distaste runs deep alright, but the problem is not with polygamy per se. Below the fold is a bit more on each of these points, including some YouTube videos and transcripts, both serious and more humorous. Continue reading