Polygamy’s Many Wives Don’t Capture ‘Market Value’

Daphne Bramham, Vancouver Sun, December 8, 2010

Economist Shoshana Grossbard admits she was naive when she did her doctoral thesis on polygamy more than 30 years ago at the University of Chicago.

Then, she believed that a simple supply-and-demand analysis would explain the economics of polygamous societies.

Besides, she says, “I thought it was cool to say that polygamy might be advantageous to women and repeat what Gary Becker (her thesis adviser and Nobel laureate) has said.”

Now, having written several books on the economics of marriage, Grossbard says, “I know better.”

If the most basic economic rule is applied, she says women in polygamous societies would have power and value because virtually all polygamous societies are polygynous–meaning that it’s men who have multiple spouses.

Women of marriage age are a rare and highly desirable commodity and should have “increased market value” in economics speak. In practice, they should have their pick of marriage partners.

But they don’t.

Over her years of study, Grossbard has found that far from women having increased value, invariably the male leaders in polygamous societies have institutionalized women into subservience.

It takes a number of guises, says the San Diego State University professor, who testified as an expert witness this week at the constitutional reference case, to determine the validity of Canada’s polygamy law.

Polygamous societies have a higher frequency of arranged marriages. It’s not surprising, says Grossbard. Young women aren’t likely to choose old men for husbands, plus men find young wives easier to control.

Of course, that increases the likelihood of early widowhood and financial hardship.

In societies where a bride price is paid, women don’t “capture their increased market value.” Instead, she says, potential husbands pay the fathers. No money goes to the bride.

Divorce tends to be easier in polygamous societies. The threat of it keeps women in line and it allows men to shed wives who are too old or noncompliant.

Child custody almost always is the right of the father.

Isolating women makes it more difficult for them to escape and makes them even more financially dependent on their husbands.

As beautiful as the harem in Grenada’s Alhambra is, Grossbard says, “The whole institution is typical of polygamous societies.”

There, eunuchs–castrated men–guard the wives.

But isolation doesn’t necessarily mean a harem or purdah, the economist says. It’s as easily done by limiting job opportunities and participation in the labour force, denying women education, locating communities in remote locations such as Bountiful, B.C. or basing the economy on jobs that are best done by men, such as logging, construction or heavy labour.

Other common features of polygamous societies include the playing down of romantic love and inculcating women with the belief that sex is for procreation, not pleasure.

In some African societies, she notes that female circumcision is prominent and used as a tool to curb women’s sex drive and ease the pressure on the husband to satisfy all of his wives.

Grossbard also found established cultural practices aimed at alleviating some of the harms of polygamy.

Islam restricts the number of wives to four to limit competition among men for women and limit competition among wives for their husband’s attention.

Among the Kanuris of Nigeria, where Grossbard’s research has focused, husbands rotate among the wives on a fixed schedule.

In other societies, wives are given separate homes. And in many, men marry sisters, believing they may be better able to get along.

Far from polygamy being beneficial to women, Grossbard has come to realize that polygamy is anathema to women’s economic, social and emotional well-being.

And if Canada were to decriminalize polygamy and become the only developed nation to do so, polygamy will almost inevitably become more prevalent.

Grossbard can’t prove it. But the economist says it only makes sense that wealthy, well-educated polygamists might prefer living in Canada to Nigeria or even South Africa–where the president himself has five wives.

And if there is an influx due to immigration or an increase due to inclination, Grossbard is certain there will be pressure to accept the kinds of cultural practices and institutions she has observed in other polygynous societies.

If that happens, she warns, “Women and men will have less ability to create loving relationships.”

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