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Polygamy in Primetime

Media, Gender, and Politics in Mormon Fundamentalism

Janet Bennion

Publication Year: 2011

Recently, polygamy has become a "primetime" phenomenon. Television shows like Big Love and Sister Wives demonstrate the "progressive" side of polygamy while horror stories from victims of abusive marriages offer less upbeat experiences among the adherents of the fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS Church). In general, the American public views fundamentalist Mormons, and polygamy in particular, with salacious interest or disgust.

Bennion, herself a product of Mormon polygamy, seeks to dispel the myths and misinformation that surround this topic. This study, based on 17 years of ethnographic research among the Allred Group (Apostolic United Brethren) and an analysis of recent blog journal entries written by a range of polygamous women, examines the variability and complexity of contemporary Mormon fundamentalist life in the Intermountain West.

Although Bennion highlights problems associated with polygamy, including evidence that some forms are at high risk for father-child incest, she challenges the media-driven depiction of plural marriage as uniformly abusive and harmful to women. She shows how polygamist families can provide both economic security and social sustenance for some women, and how the authority of the husband can be undermined by the stresses of providing for multiple wives and children. Going beyond the media's obsession with the sexual aspects of polygamist marriage, Bennion offers a rich description of familial, social, and legal contexts. Throughout, she makes the case for legalizing polygamy in order to allow greater visibility and regulation of the practice.

Published by: Brandeis University Press

Series: HBI Series on Gender, Culture, Religion and Law

Title Page

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xvii

I sat watching Season 5 of HBO’s Big Love with my husband the other night and began shouting at him, waving my arms about. “What is it, my dear?” said my ever-calm, non-Mormon life companion. I squawked that Barb, the first wife of Bill Henrickson, had just demanded...

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pp. xix

I would like to thank the HBI Project on Gender, Culture, Religion, and the Law, which in 2010 hosted the highly successful conference “Polygamy, Polygyny, and Polyamory: Ethical and Legal Perspectives on Plural Marriage,” inspiring the writing of this volume. I also acknowledge the gentle critique of...

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Introduction: Why Study Polygamy Now?

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pp. 1-19

Debates about the social viability and human rights violations of contemporary fundamentalist Mormon communities have found their way into scholarly literature. The discourse about the protection of women and children are but the academic portion of a larger cultural awareness of and recent...

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Part One: A Mormon Polygamy Primer: What Is It?

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pp. 21-160

This section tells the story of how Mormon polygamy was founded and how fundamentalists refused to let their Principle go, even after two series of manifestos declaring it no longer a church doctrine. The deep- seated beliefs of...

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1. The History of the Principle

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pp. 23-55

Polygamy in North America is practiced by as few as 38,000 or as many as 60,000 individuals, depending on which data you read (Quinn 1993; Van Wagoner 1986; Bennion 1998; Daynes 2001; Wilde et al. 2010). Mormon fundamentalists are those who subscribe to a brand of Mormon theology...

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2. Further Light and Knowledge: Ideology and Culture

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pp. 56-80

My first glimpse of polygamy twenty years ago presented a stark contrast to what I had read in the newspapers and what I had heard in my own orthodox Mormon congregation in Vernon, Utah. The women of the AUB branch of the Montana Bitterroots were not brainwashed victims...

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3. Gender Dynamics and Sexuality

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pp. 81-135

As the characters on the television program Big Love illustrate, many of the battles of fundamentalist women are the battles of Mormon women in general. Two scripts for Mormon gender roles are found in Thomas O’Dea’s seminal sociological work...

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4. Of Covenants and Kings: The Politics of Polygamy

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pp. 136-160

The religiopolitical and economic hierarchy in Mormon fundamentalist polygamy rests on the concepts of the Adam-God doctrine, the Abrahamic covenant, and the United Order. When the prophet Joseph Smith established the United Order in 1831, he assumed that members would consecrate all...

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Part Two: How Do We Deal with Polygamy?

This section analyzes the impact of public opinion, the media, and the law on Mormon fundamentalist polygamy. How has the predominantly negative view of polygamy since the 1800s affected the movement? How is the polygamy...

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5. Media and the Polygamy Narrative

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pp. 163-194

Americans are fascinated by polygamy, and the media has helped mold our images of those who practice it. Although the public often shows disdain toward plural marriage on television talk shows, in book groups, and in response to sensationalized newspaper headlines, people are drawn to its exoticism...

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6. Polygamy and the Law

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pp. 195-258

This chapter examines polygamy legislation in North America over 150 years. It covers major legal action about plural marriage in the United States and Canada from 1856, when the U.S. Republican Party initiated legal sanctions against polygamy, to the current trial in British Columbia to determine...

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7. The Anna Karenina Principle: Bringing Abuse into the Light

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pp. 259-282

Although polygamy in North America can lead to satisfactory conditions for many men, women, and children, there are many cases of abuse, dissatisfaction, and alienation within the poly mindset. This variability in polygamy requires us to examine which factors contribute to abusive conditions...

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8. Poly Families in the Twenty-First Century

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pp. 283-289

Hopefully, this book has opened the door to further inquiries about North American polygamy for a diverse audience of readers. Plural marriage has great appeal for students of media and law as well as for social scientists, historians, theologians, and the general public...

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pp. 291-292

On November 23, 2011, when my book was already in production with Brandeis University Press, I learned that a British Columbia trial court had upheld Canada’s anti-polygamy law (Sec. 293 of Criminal Code of Canada), in spite of the many challenges it poses to the Canadian Charter of Rights...


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pp. 293-303


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pp. 305-319


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pp. 321-331


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pp. 333-351


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pp. 353-361

E-ISBN-13: 9781611682960
E-ISBN-10: 1611682967
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611682625

Page Count: 376
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: HBI Series on Gender, Culture, Religion and Law