Are Women Brainwashed Into Polygamy?

Kathy Jo Nicholson began sewing her wedding dress when she was fourteen. If she faithfully served her husband, and accepted at least two other wives, her husband would invite her to join him in heaven. But if she refused polygamy, she would be damned to hell.

Are women brainwashed into polygamy?

In some ways, polygamists aren’t so different from the rest of us. Those who accept “plural marriage” simply accept the way of life that lies before them. Most of us do the same thing.


When we’re born we don’t have many thoughts in our heads. Knowing nothing, the world around us seems pretty chaotic. So much information! What to do with it? We need to know how to cope and put order to chaos.

Unconsciously, the brain notices patterns and it starts categorizing things. “Oh, usually it’s women who stay home with children. I guess women are family oriented,” the brain concludes. Scientists, presidents, artists, and corporate managers are usually men. White ones. “I guess scientists, presidents, artists, and corporate managers are white males,” surmises the mind. In the 1950s this is how the world looked. It seemed normal and natural and few thought to question it. The oversimplification is also the source of stereotypes.

If we start to understand that people from other cultures can think differently, we might open our minds. The Western world is multi-cultural. We are plugged into the world wide web and connected to satellites. So we know that there are other ways of seeing, even if we don’t necessarily agree.

Isolated groups like polygamists aren’t much exposed to alternate ways of thinking. And that limits possibilities.

Kathy Jo grew up in isolated southern Utah. Her prophet warned against the world’s wickedness: “Leave television alone. Do away with videos. Do away with headphones and listening to radio. Hard metallic music is the devil.”

She didn’t know people who didn’t practice polygamy. It was just how the world was supposed to be. How God wanted it.

Some polygamists live in suburbia, but are isolated amidst the masses. Harassed and ostracized, they keep to themselves. Persecuted people bond more closely together.

But something rocked Kathy Jo’s world. Her prophet had prophesied he’d live until Christ’s second coming. But then he died.

“How can you trust the Prophet,” she asked her father, “if he doesn’t keep his promise?” She was told to stop questioning.

“The key to living the Principle was unquestioning obedience,” Kathy Jo explained. “Never question Father. Do as he says. Never question the Prophet.”

But she kept wondering, silently. Some personalities are more inquiring than others. That some do question is the key to social change.

Later she fell in love and fled the fold to elope. But she could barely cope in the outside world – so used to every decision being made for her. Kathy Jo also worried about going to hell. After many years, she eventually got over it.

Now she worries that her nieces and nephews are trapped in an oppressive world they did not choose.

Are polygamists brainwashed?

Not exactly. That would involve washing something out of the mind that had previously existed there. A synonym is “thought reform.”

What polygamists undergo is similar to everyone’s socialization. We all live with our culture’s understandings in our heads. Every time we feel any sense of racism, sexism, or homophobia (you’ll be surprised how much you do; go to Harvard’s website to find out), or simply believe that the feminine ideal is skinny with large breasts, we have internalized our culture. That is, society’s beliefs now exist in our own minds.

But the polygamists’ experience is more extreme because they hear few competing voices, have a fierce focus on obedience, and are more likely than most to believe that their ways are God’s ways.

But if you want to call it that, we are all brainwashed into our cultural ways of knowing. Some are just more brainwashed than others.

Georgia Platts

Note: Kathy Jo’s story comes from “Escape From Polygamy,” Glamour

Related Posts on BroadBlogs   (polygamy)
Polygamy is Heavenly says Pedophile Prophet
I Could Have Been A Polygamous Wife

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on December 9, 2010, in gender, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I don’t think brainwashing is involved at all. I think that women want and desire alpha males, period. If there is an alpha male that can take care of a woman, all she needs is an excuse to justify her actions. By willingly believing she will be rewarded in the afterlife, she then has her excuse. Also, you’re not telling the whole story (I’m speaking of Mormonism). Joseph Smith didn’t use brainwashing to seduce married women when he first started his religion. Rather he used charm and seduction. He was a Don Juan but also religious. Believe me, married women were breaking their pelvis’s to be with him.
    It’s funny how in America we don’t want to talk about this issue. This is why polygamy works with women and not men. It is because woman will always want the dominate male. It is also why bullying will never come to an end, because women actually love to see other men be dominated by alpha males. I witness this all the time in the work place, bars, at the mall, wherever…ECT. Women actually laugh with delight and glee when they see another man dominated by an alpha male. Then women will reward the bully with sex.
    This movement of our government to stop bullying will never work because men will do anything for sex. If a bully is rewarded with sex, he will continue his actions to the dying grave, even if it means being fined or jailed.

    • If it’s important to you to believe this, fine by me, I don’t really care. But for the record, you might want to consider the following:

      I grew up Mormon and have ancestors who practiced polygamy. The women didn’t choose these men because they were alpha males. They were assigned to them by their bishops. One of my grandmothers was practically starving all the time and didn’t have a decent place to live because her husband couldn’t afford four wives. Her son eventually built her a decent home to live in. Another of my grandmothers – my favorite one – refuse to practice polygamy when her husband was assigned a second wife. She left Utah and moved to Montana where she married man who became a US senator.

      In the fundamentalist Mormon church today women are also assigned to their husbands. And, if you had read what I wrote and paid attention to it you would see that the woman who escaped polygamy talks about her own brainwashing and worries about the brainwashing of those she left behind.

      Also, Joseph Smith told many of the women he married that it was God’s will that they marry him. It was like a command as a prophet.

      A friend of mine is a Mormon historian who wrote a book based on the diaries of polygamous Mormon women. He named the book, “In Sacred Loneliness.” That ought to tell you all you need to know about how much they liked polygamy.

      In the middle east where fundamentalist Islam is taking over in some parts women are worried about a new allowance for polygamy. Huge majorities don’t want it. If what you say is true, then most would want it.

      In the parts of Africa where polygamy is practiced people don’t marry for love but for economic reasons. So some women marry men who will help them to not starve. These men are not “alpha males” but property owners. Consider the difference between Louis XIV and Louis XVI. Both were huge property owners but only one of them was an Alpha. Read: it’s the property and not starving — and not alpha — that is the attraction. And if these societies offered love marriages I’m sure most would choose differently. (men are pressured by their families, who police them, not to fall in love for fear they will give their property to the loved wife/wives.)

      In modern Western societies jealousy exists. Not too many women are happy at the thought of sharing a husband, or having very little time with the husband they have because they have to share him. What a crappy relationship.

      I left Mormonism because according to the doctrine when I was younger (which seems to have changed a bit now) if I were the best person I could possibly be my eternal reward would be second-class citizenship as a woman and a polygamous marriage. Sounded more like Hell than Heaven to me. So I left.

      In relationships with men I can’t even tolerate ogling and have broken up with every man who behaved that way (only 4, luckily). A man who wants to be with other women is a complete and total turnoff.

      But not being a woman, you wouldn’t understand.

      I don’t know what sort of loser-women you hang out with, or if you only notice the ones who fit your theory. But I do not like bullying at all. And I don’t know any woman who does. I, and most women I know, cannot stand the sort of men you’re talking about.

      But again, if it’s important to you to believe all that crap you wrote, fine I don’t care. Keep believing it.

  2. I agree, that we are all “brainwashed” in our cultural ways of knowing. In other words we each grow up into a norm and learn to live by it or change it. Many cultures are obviously different from one another, some we look at to be extreme and others not so much. Looking at other cultures from the outside in is a lot different and can be easily categorized and judged. It is hard to understand what one feels until we walk in their shoes. Some who come across as being in a unhappy situation can simply be the happiest.

  3. I totally agree with this post. I think that the different types of marriage (polygamy and single-marriage) are different types of culture. People who grow up in this culture usually don’t think much of it, they just accept it. Of course, you hear a lot about people who reject polygamy, but not much about the other way around– people who come from a single marriage and embrace polygamy. These people who do (or even those who embrace polyamory) are usually looked down upon in society. I think it’s interesting that people who accept the dominant culture are more lauded than people who think for themselves and do what’s right for them, in their minds. This is assuming that no one was “brainwashed” into doing one thing.

  4. Ngoc Huynh (Splitter EWRT 1B)

    I like how your last sentence gives the reader a little twist of reality. I think women are necessarily brainwashed into polygamy, it’s more of the fact that it is an inherited concept from their parents, and their parents were conditioned in the same way before them and so forth. Some cultures do accept polygamy, prominently asian cultures, and others do not because of the environment they were rised in. Believers, like Kathy Jo, have be concealed of reality that life is not the way Father intende to because our social understandings have evolved and altered the acceptance of polygamy. Many individuals continue to frown upon it, while many others do not. I reckon the acceptance of polygamy is based on one’s rationality and what they believe is right or not. However, if the majority of the public patronize polygamy then others will follow suit, leaving the minority in a defenseless position from the start.

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