Women’s strategies in polygynous marriage

Human Nature 3 (1):45-70 (1992)
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Both behavioral ecological and social anthropological analyses of polygynous marriage tend to emphasize the importance of competition among men in acquisition of mates, whereas the strategic options to women both prior to and after the establishment of a marriage have been neglected. Focusing on African marriage systems that are in some senses analogous to resource-defense polygyny, I first review the evidence of reproductive costs of polygyny to women. Then I discuss why the conflict of interests between men and women over mate number is often likely to be settled in favor of men. Using East African ethnographic data I examine the strategic responses of women and their families to polygynous marriage, focusing on four topics: mate choice (Kipsigis), attitudes toward incoming wives (Kipsigis), labor allocation and cooperation (comparative data, Kipsigis), and use of parental wealth (Datoga). The results of these quantitative analyses suggest that through a combination of judicious marriage choice and strategic responses within marriage, polygyny need not be costly to women in resource-defense polygynous systems. The conclusion is that a hierarchy of questions need to be addressed in the analysis of any polygynous marriage system



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