Unhitched is a fascinating book, and I recommend it to anyone interested in various family structures, but I found it a bit overstated, ahistorical, and naive. I don't think that Judith Stacey proves what she thinks she proves, but the cases studies are fascinating and I love the different arrangements that people come to. I generally wish everyone happiness, and if it works for them, well, bless 'em.
Stacey, in expressing her contempt for our society's preference for monogamy, never looks backwards at history any earlier than her own childhood. A British family historian once commented that a frustration in his field was making people understand that nuclear families are traditional in that society from which our own largely developed. Most people think that a few generations ago, people routinely lived in multigenerational households, when in fact that was only as required by poverty or illness. That in itself limits how families can be structured. And as my sociology professor said, the pieces of a culture interlock, one cannot simply import random bits from here and there and have it work, but I am willing to try to integrate new ideas, as our culture has always done. Interesting though her case studies are, she needs a broader range of them, with statistical analysis, to truly support the positions that she takes, particularly since she has an obvious agenda. Furthermore, while I believe that people who are responsible, affectionate, and care about their relationships may structure idiosyncratic systems that work for them, I don't assume that people, as a whole, left to do whatever they like, are going to be any more caring and responsible than current monogamists. The bottom line for me is, are the kids being taken care of? I view legalizing gay marriage much more favorably than polygamy. I don't think that legalizing polygyny would have made Warren Jeffs a good person, or offered any protection to the women and children that he abused. I think that he wanted to exploit people, and legalizing polygyny wouldn't have stopped him anymore than it stops abusive monogamists. Polygyny wasn't the only illegal thing he was up to.
Stacey frequently mentions the British sociologist Anthony Giddens notion of the pure relationship in which 'equals were becoming free to pursue intimacy purely "for its own sake,", and so intimate relationships would endure only so long as they "deliver enough satisfactions for each individual to stay within it."' I believe that this will work much better for attractive, healthy, people who fall in and out of love in sync, and don't have children, than it will for anyone else. When such arrangements don't work, they sometimes end up in court, ironically for those who were trying to be transgressive.
I was already aware before I read this that polygyny is historically more common than monogamy, or should I say, systems that allow polygyny are more common. Men and women being born in generally equal numbers, obviously in such a system either a lot of men don't get married, or most people practice monogamy, especially since polygyny may also be be combined with female infanticide. There is an argument that historically, monogamy developed not to benefit women, but to reduce conflicts among men. Apparently in some societies, only elite males have access to women. There is some concern now that selective abortion has distorted the sex ratio so that many men will be unable to attract mates, and what will be the result of that? China is really worried about that. Still, as Stacey points out, there are pockets of society in which men seem to be in short supply, and perhaps some women would rather share a husband than have no husband. I can believe this, but overall, there is no benefit to the first wife. Stacey understands, sometimes, that as it is usually practiced, men are given the upper hand, but she also describes it as "a patriarchal bargain offered to and by men who are willing to accept social and economic responsibility for their sexual urges and privileges." Now that's naive. The Mormons who force women into marriage, and who then have them go on Welfare because the husband cannot pay for all of his wives and children (See The Secret Story of Polygamy) are not taking responsibility, and again, I don't buy that argument that the problem is that polygyny is illegal. Moreover, women in polygynous marriages may have no choice about either their husband's taking another wife, or getting a divorce, and may be unable to force him to support his first family, especially in societies that do not allow women to pursue legal recourse by themselves (See Miriama Bâ's So Long a Letter (African Writers).) It is possible that it could be made workable on a more egalitarian basis, but there are a lot of legal issues to resolve first and one cannot rely on people automatically living up to their obligations, any more than one can in monogamy. Actually, thinking this through for this review, I have decided that I am opposed to polygamy.
Incidentally, there are societies who practice polyandry in the Tibetan family of cultures. It is usually practiced by middle-class families, i.e., those with property that they wish to keep intact. A woman usually marries a set of brothers and becomes the mother of the next generation of heirs. It is felt that having more than one wife in the family would lead to quarrels on behalf of their respective children. It also stabilizes the population, although the participants do not cite that as a reason for the custom. There is concern about a population explosion in some societies which are becoming more affluent, and where more people are taking wage jobs, thus allowing all the brothers to have individual wives. Obviously, polyandry creates a surplus of women, some of whom become Buddhist nuns, some of whom have children on their own, but I don't know how those children are provided for. There are also group marriages in India, where a group of brothers marry one or more women. It's worth looking up "Matrilineality", 'Polyandry", etc. in Wikipedia for a starter.
I knew about the Musuo, an ethnic group living in Yunnan, but they are a very interesting culture with their matrilineal and matrilocal extended families, but no formal marriages, I think that Stacey would like to recommend them as a model, but she acknowledges the difficulty since we don't live in extended families (and we are also very mobile, I might add.) Still, with our increasing rate of people living together and reproducing without marriage, we are a fair way towards an imitation of their uncoupling of love, marriage, and children. One of the problems is the matter of custody--if both parents have parental rights and an obligation to support their children, we have a very contentious source of disagreement that the Musuo avoid with their policy of having no stated father. Multiplying the number of parents, as in the gay-lesbian arrangements that Stacey celebrates enriches the children's relationships when it works, and multiplies the potential for conflict when it doesn't, especially if legally recognized. In some cases she cites, there are potentially four parents to consider in custody arrangements and child support, and the increased possibility of step-adoptive-parents only adds to the potential confusion.
I think that Stacey goes a little too far in arguing that this proves that children, especially boys, don't need a father. True, the Musuo children don't have acknowledged fathers, but their maternal uncles live with them and provide an alternate source of live-in male role models. In a mobile, highly individualistic society of nuclear families like ours, if there is no father, it may be hard to arrange for stable male-role models. She cites as hypocrites leaders like Obama and Clinton who grew up without their father, but talk about needing fathers without considering that they may have felt a lack. Obama was also raised by his grandparents, so he had his grandfather as a substitute.
So, an extremely interesting book within its limits, that I recommend to those interested in family structures.