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.
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. 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.
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.
 “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.
 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.