[Also by Marian Kester Coombs: High Noon for the English Language]
The word polygamy itself captures the fundamental difference—que vive!—between men and women. It is generally assumed to mean only multiple wives (polygyny), not multiple husbands (polyandry) as well.
Multiple-wife marriage is the default definition of polygamy because men are presumed to crave greater variety.
It has long been gospel that monogamy is a great advance over man's savage state, an enormous victory of social self-control without which civilization—Western civilization, at least—would not have been possible.
But like other gospels preached these past thousand years and more, monogamy has begun mumbling and stuttering, lapsing into self-doubt and deprecation, trailing off into silence.
Monogamy has several enemies—and one of them is our current immigration policy. For example:
Or maybe their husbands will be immigrants from polygamous cultures, most of which are exporting their surplus of males. Which leads to the third process challenging monogamy:
What, before we forget, are the virtues of monogamy? It is ordained by the Bible, of course: A man and a woman are to become "one flesh," with their mutual rights and obligations spelt out in detail. Yet the Hebrews of the Old Testament period sometimes practiced polygamy themselves. Monogamy was an ideal not always achieved in reality.
Monogamy is thought to have arisen in harsher climates where more nurturing was required to ensure the young's survival. There is a reproductive tradeoff between polygamy's greater number of offspring and monogamy's more intensive investment in a fewer number. This greater intensity creates a stronger bond between the parents and enhances the mother's status.
In contrast, polygamy magnifies patriarchal, hierarchical power. It is adapted to a world of high infant and maternal mortality, paramount tribal allegiance and low female status. In evolutionary terms, it represents a step backward. But perhaps that is exactly why it has now reappeared.
One sure way to change an existing culture is to import, encourage or merely tolerate the practices of a different culture.
Of course, the U.S. is not alone.
In France, it is estimated that at least 200,000 immigrant families in the Paris region are polygamous. After the French riots last autumn, which followed years of tacit state permission of immigrant polygamy, employment minister Gerard Larcher belatedly discovered that such families "led to antisocial behavior by youths who did not have a father figure in the home, making employers more cautious of hiring staff from ethnic minorities" ( The Times of London, November 16, 2005).
In Germany there have been a growing number of incidents stemming from the state's culturally sensitive recognition of marriages arranged outside the country. The Netherlands and Britain have been making their own headlines as well.
HBO recently premiered a series called "Big Love" about a man "who lives with three wives and seven children in side-by-side homes."
Marian Kester Coombs [e-mail her] is a freelance writer in Crofton, Maryland.