Sister Wives, The Terrible Taboo, and Agency by Xochitl Alvizo

A couple of weeks ago I watched a handful of Sister Wives episodes; it was the start of the new season and the network was having a marathon. I was absolutely fascinated. It was my first time watching the show, and interestingly,  I had actually seen the family in person in Boston before I ever saw them on TV. They had been in town in September for a panel discussion that one of my friends was hosting and all I knew about the Sister Wives show was that it was about a polygamist family with three wives and one husband. I never imagined myself intrigued. But seeing the women sitting there, hearing them talk about their lifestyle and how much they love their sister wives, getting to witness their family dynamics and their different personalities, I found that my first reaction to them was not  judgment. Instead I found myself increasingly curious, particularly about the sister wives’ relationship with one another. 

Two of my most TV-informed friends did not understand my curiosity or my interest in watching the show. One of them poignantly commented: “One man has sex and ‘intimate’ relationships with multiple women and all of the women can only be with him. Sexist at best, but it’s really misogynistic….reinforcing (and taking to another level) the same old male domination….Now if it was an open relationship and the wives could do whatever they wanted then that’s different, but my understanding is that’s not the case here!”

Talking to my friends made me realize that my entry point to finding the show fascinating was the emphasis that the women put on the relationship they have with one another, with their sister wives. Over and over the women  express how much they love their sister wives – how it is part of what they are most drawn to about being in a plural marriage. They love the community and partnership they share with each other, and the fact that their family is expansive and collaborative, and that responsibility is shared. They repeatedly make reference to the freedom they can each have since they are not the man’s sole partner. They also love the freedom that comes from sharing parenting responsibilities – there are always other moms who will step in and offer them the support they need. This support also gives them the ability and facility to do things on their own without having to be constantly worried or stressed about how things are going back at home.

Meri, Christine, Janelle, and Robyn - Sister Wives

All of this got me thinking – why the man then? Why not simply have an open, egalitarian, communally oriented family that does not revolve around one single individual man? Why have the man as the center and in the place of authority – something which from my perspective feels in-congruent with what they love about their communal householding?

I wondered: Does the heterosexual patriarchal norm that dominates in the world prevent these women from being able to envision this kind of sister (wives) communal living except within a patriarchal structure? Meaning, are they literally limited by and bound to thinking patriarchally? Does the framework within which their thinking and imagining takes place – patriarchy – set the boundary and limit of their imagination? So much so that in order to imagine the sister community they desire and sought out, they could only do so by making the man central to it – the patriarch is what legitimizes their sister wives relationship protecting them from the ‘”terrible taboo” of women loving/touching women.[1] And not that they are lesbian (I really don’t think they are), but because the patriarchal norm is so absolutely threatened by women’s relationships and bonds that they have internalized a prohibition of these unless a patriarchal authority legitimizes it.[2]

This is what Sister Wives has me thinking about, theorizing, lately; with the growing attention to polygamists marriages – Big Love, Sister Wives, Love Times Three, and both positive and negative reporting on the issue – will the hetero (mostly misogynist) plural marriage be the only option that a patriarchal imagination will allow in the public eye for envisioning a communal way of householding?

But here is another thought just to trouble my current train of thought – within a patriarchal framework (and the Sister Wives family does indeed claim and practice a patriarchal religion) the sister wives relationship with one another actually does empower them. Their agency, even within a patriarchal plural marriage, is enabled and made richer because of their sister wives relationship. For example, in the show, there is a recurring pattern when the adults are gathered to make a family decision. If one of the sister wives desires something that is not necessarily the preference of the other sister wives, at least one of the sister wives will nonetheless sides with her in a way that does not allow the husband to impose a decision that they are not all happy with…they partner with one another to veto the husband! So while their structure is definitely limiting, the women of Sister Wives nonetheless find agency within their patriarchal/hierarchical marriage structure because of their sisterhood.

Sisterhood is powerful indeed – even in unlikely places…maybe especially in unlikely places.


[1] “The universal, unnatural patriarchal taboo against women Intimately/Ultimately Touching each Other; prohibiton stemming from male terror of women who exercise Elemental Touching Powers,” Mary Daly, Wickedary, 97.

[2] Women loving women decenters the default hierarchal power structures currently in place and destabilizes their dominance – it threatens the whole system and institution within which the majority of women and men have learned to live and on which they depend. To destabilize patriarchy is to destabilize the world as they know it.



Categories: Gender and Power, Mary Daly, Women and Community, Women's Agency

Tags: , , ,

9 replies

  1. I do think you are right that heterosexual women’s communities would fall apart over relationships with men, this could also even be true in lesbian communities where the couple trumps the larger group.

    This is what i loved so much about the matrirarchal Musuo society, where all female members of the family with their brothers stay together in the matriarchal clan and male partners come and go. Here you never have to leave your mother to cleave to your husband…and women’s bonds are central.

    I don’t know any of these tv programs, but it is important to be aware that polygamy often sanctions older men having child brides, which is not the happy picture of several women of the same age all loving the same guy, that the photo suggests. No girl should have to marry a man much older than herself and no old man should think that it is his right to have a young girl for his bride.

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  2. You’d have to examine what has actually happened in polygamous compounds in the U.S. Girl children forced to marry old men… very common all over the world. Really, when we look at most of the world, western women have no idea of the sexual exploitation of girls, or the fact that millions of women have no choice and are forced to marry men.

    What would be viable? The matrilineal matrifocal model that does the least harm to women and girls would be positive. For me, I would not want any interaction with men at all…ideally, I would want several women only countries that I could choose to live in, countries that have UN status, and would grant asylum to women worldwide.

    I’ve seen a few shows of “Sister Wives” and mostly, I found the show really really dull. I did notice the very smug look on that man’s face all the time. It was a disturbing glamorization of male dominance with a happy face. And you have to wonder at shows like “Big Love” and “Sister Wives.” What is the agenda here?

    We have examples in the past of the matrifocal cultures, but nothing large enough or contemporary enough to get a grasp of this. With all of the creativity of women, I often wonder why we haven’t created more dynamic space, or large companies where women can work, produce and have equality together. It is sobbering always to see that in the time feminism reemerged in American Bill Gates and Steve Jobs created global giants, and neither company was very woman friendly or worker friendly… they somehow could only produce computers, which is great, but the human quality of the companies themselves was not visionary at all.

    What were the matrifocal or woman centric things that worked the best for you? What caused women’s organizations to be the most effective for all writing here? What are the things that cause women to have the most freedom, the most financial independence and the highest level of intellectual development? What societies are the best for women? And what can we learn from the last 40 years of feminism? I have many examples, but would be curious to hear what others had to say. “Sister Wives” … I don’t know Xochitl…. it seems like of creepy to me.

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  3. Yes, absolutely – I am aware of the abuses that have taken place in polygamist families. One of the articles I linked was written by the investigator who tracked the abuses of Warren Jeff and he definitely had strong words to say against the show and its claim that the Browns are a ‘relatable’ family, even if unconventional. He sees this as potentially masking the dangerous extremism of the religious roots they come from by glamorizing and legitimizing their lifestyle (the last paragraph on his article speaks to this: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-brower/sister-wives-_b_952693.html?page=2).

    There really was something about seeing them in person – I have to admit. They clearly are not the secretive polygamists that are hiding their nefarious ways. The women’s personalities came through in a great way, as did the dynamic of their relating and their sense of humor as well. And it’s not that I am trying to defend them, or promote them, but more like I am digging to understand some of the layers there. Because what most came across to me from hearing these particular sister wives speak was their bond with and deep care for one another…to me, what I saw was that they were more sisters than they were wives. And the really crazy part was that some of the things that Christine and Robyn said, could have easily been, word for word, things I would say about what I experience in feminist sisterhood! So how cray is that?! (On the one hand it could just simply point to the fluidity and expansiveness of language) Which is what got me thinking about the limits of a patriarchal imagination – that even women who so value their bond and connection to one another can only imagine having that if a man is mediating it.

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  4. I found it interesting how you believe that the sister-wives had agency over the patriarch as well as community. I do have a difficult time with the issue of sharing a partner but at the same time understand what a community could offer in terms of help and time for myself. I guess my community would consist of my family and close friends. Personally, I have a difficult time watching this show (but then again I have difficulty watching many shows). The perspective you gave is certainly interesting and balanced. I wonder what a feminist from that faith tradition might offer with this particular story (not the stories that involve minors, etc as indicated above).

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  5. Thanks for your post–there was some point in my life where I actually found reality t.v. entertaining, but that ship has sailed. I take your point that the show displays what is arguably the “best case” scenario–the women are adults, the women get along, the guy is not a total jerk, etc. Now the question is whether this family is representative or atypical of patriarchal-polygamous arrangements and I take it that your commenters (and perhaps even you) would argue that it is not.

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  6. Very interesting, Xochitl. I am a mormon, so the issue of polygamy is close to my heart. i actually found out only a few years ago that i am descended from a polygamist in utah. i never knew — my mom deliberately never told her kids because she found the whole dynamic so off putting.

    As someone who has studied mormon women’s history to some extent, one thing that struck me was the irony that polygamy actually allowed women more freedom than women in monogamous marriages. polygamous women in utah in the 1800’s went to med school to become doctors, they were extremely politically active working for suffrage,etc. and they were able to do a lot of this because they had these tight communities of other women (sister wives) that could look after their children while they went out into the world and worked in the public sphere. (they also, on average, had fewer children than monogamous women of that place and time period — another dynamic that enabled a bit more freedom)

    personally, i have major problems with polygyny. the practice seems necessarily patriarchal and oppressive. yet when we examine the practice, i think we do need to seriously consider these issues of women’s agency that you raise in your post, Xochitl.

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  7. I guess I would not have such a problem with polygamy if it were just as accepted to have a wife w/ multiple husbands or marriage partners that included multiple males and females. Does anyone know if there are such polygamous families?

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  8. Catherine, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyamory and also Google “polyamory” for other info.

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  9. I think there’s a very real desire here for women to have households with “sister” relationships that’s missing from western industrialized culture, that this show taps into, and you’re right that the male “hub of the wheel” is what makes it acceptable in their, and our, deeply patriarchal culture. This is acknowledged throughout our culture. My two favourite examples are Jane Austen’s NORTHANGER ABBEY, in which Isabella Thorpe (the ‘silly bad girl’, for what it’s worth) wishes for Catherine Morland to be her sister-in-law (‘we shall be sisters!’) and to live with her in a mediaeval estate that once was inhabited by ‘nuns’; and Aleksandra Kollontai’s novellas VASILISA MALYGINA and THE LOVE OF WORKER BEES. In our culture, both convents and Communism are socially unacceptable (though sorority houses are unquestionably American.) There are reasons why women have romanticised sister living.

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