Legalizing Plural Marriage: The Next Frontier in Family Law by Mark Goldfeder
The United States is "in the midst of a family law revolution" (1). Mark Goldfeder's book claims that, in its wake, Americans must consider legalizing plural marriage alongside other forms of polyamorous family structure. This book will interest readers interested in the politics of marriage in the United States. Goldfeder's argument is sophisticated but accessible, if also a bit dry. It begins by articulating what makes marriage special. While marriage gives participants access to a number of practical personal and legal benefits, it also entails less tangible elements at the core of its meaning: it is the means by which individuals define themselves by their commitments to other people as part of a shared entity that is socially recognizable to just about everyone they encounter. Goldfeder claims that legalizing plural marriage extends these marital benefits, making them "more fair, equitable, and available for all" (17).
Many Americans already participate in what Goldfeder calls "de facto polygamy" through divorce and remarriage, infidelity, serial monogamy, non-marital sex with multiple partners, extra-legal committed plural [End Page 154] relationships, and so on (63–64). Americans make choices betraying that they are not as committed to monogamy as they think. The legal complexities of these arrangements have already created a vast repertoire of law useful for regulating and administrating polygamy, making legalization relatively simple.
While legalization may be administratively easy, many oppose it because they imagine that polygamy harms children and women. Goldfeder, however, points to the much greater harms coming from the criminalization of polygamy. It drives polygamous communities into the shadows, creating suspicion between polygamists and state officials charged with investigating abuse; it also hides practices such as child marriage, family violence, and so on, behind a veil of secrecy. Legalization, Goldfeder argues, will allow governments to more successfully regulate and investigate these problems.
Goldfeder further argues that the presumed harms opponents decry are neither unique to nor more prevalent in plural marriage, and points to evidence that plural households may be good for children and women. To address the question of harm to children, Goldfeder examines a 15-year longitudinal study by Elisabeth Sheff, which found that children of plural households were well adjusted, articulate, intelligent, and self-confident. Multiple parents not only provided more emotional support, a broader range of interest among parents, and more diverse role models, but also increased "ride availability" (more parents with more motor vehicles) for adolescents (89).
In addressing potential harm to women, Goldfeder references a few feminist proponents of polygamy who argue that polygamy addresses some of the gendered problems of marriage. However, these claims only make sense in relation to how marriage has constituted gender relations under patriarchy. A plural wife may indeed get help with housework from sister wives, benefit from their companionship, and more successfully avoid marrying a lout (Goldfeder's term), but if men did more housework, were more emotionally available, and were less likely to be louts, these claims would fall flat. The pro-polygamy feminist arguments Goldfeder presents only address women's ability to more successfully mitigate men's marital failings, rather than married men's ability to transform their bad behavior.
For Goldfeder, monogamy will remain the default form of American marriage because most Americans will choose it; plural marriage thus poses no real threat to monogamy. Goldfeder addresses the "slippery slope" argument (which claims that atrocities such as child and animal marriage will follow any expansion of marital rights) by stating that "there is no parade of horribles lurking behind the veil of plural marriage." Rather, legalization clarifies the "clear bright line" demarcating who may get married—freely mutually consenting adults—from any others who may not (127). This claim is perhaps Goldfeder's most [End Page 155] significant contribution to debates over the nature and meaning of marriage and may, perhaps, make marriage more fair, equitable, and available to all.