Vermont Professor Calls Polygamy The 'New Marital Rights' Frontier

Nov 12, 2015

A Vermont college professor says that polygamy is about to become the new marital and civil rights issue. You heard right: Janet Bennion, a professor of anthropology and sociology at Lyndon State College, says legalizing the marriage of more than two people — or at least decriminalizing the practice – is primed to become the next civil rights frontier. 

Bennion has been researching polygamy for two decades, including devout members of fundamentalist Mormon sects. She says not all forms of polygamy are harmful, and that all citizens deserve civil rights, even if others disagree with their way of life.

Bennion will debate the issue at Lyndon State College on Nov. 19, along with two lawyers, defense lawyer David Sleigh and former public defender Walter Morris.  

“I had the good fortune of living with a particular type of polygamist from the Allred group. They allow women choice in who they marry, in fact women can readily reject a man with no repercussions,” says Bennion. “And these women do not marry until they're 18. So this is a completely different picture from what the media has often generated about the Warren Jeff-style polygamy, which is very abusive.”

Bennion says in those groups women are often forced into underage marriages, prevented from getting an education, and not allowed to get a driver’s license. But she says with other forms of polygamy, such as the Allred group, they actually allow and encourage women to gain a college education.  

Bennion says the benefit of legalizing, or even decriminalizing polygamy is that men and women – though it is mostly women – could have access to public services and legal rights, such as hospital visitation.  

Still, many researchers argue that polygamy, which tends overwhelmingly to be one man with multiple wives, is rife with abuse and problems, and that’s why societies have traditionally moved away from it.

Bennion, however, says it comes down to a civil rights issue:

“Even if we disagree with polygamy because it's associated with  patriarchy, the polygamists need protection. They are residents, citizens of the United States. They deserve to have the same rights and privileges that all individuals have.”

Slippery slope

During the same-sex marriage debate, right wing critics often argued that if gay marriage were legalized this would lead to a “slippery slope,” to people wanting to marry multiple wives, or even their pets.

"Well, let's answer that directly. Yes, it is a slippery slope and it's happening," Bennion says, though she adds the idea of people marrying pets is ludicrous.

Bennion calls Vermont a trend-setter for civil rights issues.

“Even though we may not have a lot of individual Vermonters who are looking for these rights right now, on the national scale there are such individuals.”