Many people have been shocked by this week’s District Court ruling that polygamy is not a crime. But, if we had been living in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, we might have been aware of dozens of communities that practiced some form of polygamy.
Polygamy refers to a marriage that involves multiple spouses. Technically, polygyny is a marriage system in which a man may have more than one wife. Today, it is commonly found throughout the Mideast and parts of Africa.
Polyandry is a system in which a wife may have more than one husband. It is far less common, practiced mainly in the high Himalaya Mountains and among some Inuit (Eskimo) groups. The arrangement seems to be functional in severe climates where a woman may need more than one provider to support her and her children.
Perhaps the most unusual marital form has been “complex marriage.” Although it has not been as uncommon as people may think, one of the outstanding examples occurred in New York from 1848 until 1881 (at least officially). The communal “society” was founded by John Humphrey Noyes, a utopian socialist who coined the term “free love,” which was adopted by some of the Hippies of the late 1960’s and 1970’s...