The Real Polygamous, Feminist Wives of Salt Lake City

The stars of a new reality TV show want to show the world that a man can have an egalitarian relationship with a wife—and a wife, and a wife, and a wife, and a wife.
Brady Williams (center) with his five wives and 24 children (TLC)

It’s among the most patriarchal domestic arrangements you can sign up for. In polygamy, husbands are king.

But one polygamist family is insisting that it's the exception. The Williams clan, which lives outside Salt Lake City, comprises wives Paulie, Robyn, Rosemary, Nonie, and Rhonda. There are 24 children. And, one other person … oh, right, husband Brady. He’s a construction manager and philosophy major who’s currently enrolled in a feminist theory course at a local college and who refuses to accept the title “head of the household.” He doesn’t like the sexist connotation.

A one-hour special about the Williamses aired on TLC last fall, and the family’s new 9-part series, My Five Wives, is set to debut on Sunday. Earlier this week, the six parents sat down for an interview.

When asked who among them identified as a "feminist," six hands shot up as if propelled by jack-in-the-box springs. For the wives, this brand of feminism involves sleeping with their spouse only every fifth night, consulting their husband’s other wives if they want to adopt a child, and—as Rosemary puts it—fighting their own psyches to keep jealousy locked in a cage like the wild animal it is. 

Brady insists that he's about equality in his relationships. “And that can exist with more than a man and a wife. That can exist with a man and a wife and a wife and a wife and a wife and a wife.”

Only, in TLC’s edit, Brady comes across as the center of everyone’s everything. In Sunday’s episode, he must pull an unexpected all-nighter to finish a school paper. The problem? It’s Robyn’s night with him. She was looking forward to her one-on-one time, had circled it on her calendar, and is devastated when she learns she’ll have to curl up alone yet again.

“When something likes this happens, we don’t change nights,” Brady tells the camera. “The wife I’m with just has to deal with it.”

As he leaves Robyn in the bedroom to go work at the kitchen table, he lamely tells her, “You can come see me any time you want.” Translation: She’s free to come watch him type. Dejected, she tells the camera in her soft, timid-sounding, polygamist-wife voice that she and Brady now have to go 10 days without spending time as a couple.

Is this scenario anti-feminist, or is it simply what happens when one partner's time must be split to accommodate the needs of several others?

It helps to consider the family’s baseline. Eight years ago, the Williamses were members of the Apostolic United Brethrena fundamentalist Mormon sect that presents plural marriage as the ticket to heaven. The church’s male-dominated doctrines didn’t sit right with the evolving Williams parents who, over time, concluded they didn’t want their kids to feel compelled to rack up spouses to please God. They saw how men in the church ruled their families, favoring certain wives over others—so they ditched their fundamentalist ways and went indie largely for the sake of the kids.  

“I think we kind of went from an exclusive viewpoint to an inclusive one,” Robyn said. “Instead of thinking, ‘Only these people are accepted by God and can be accepted by us and loved by us,’ we went to where it’s like, ‘there’s good people everywhere.’ We wanted that whole world opened up to our kids.”

The Williamses teach their children that gender doesn’t determine a person’s value, that girls can be anything boys can be, and that it’s okay to be gay — or even have “multiple husbands,” Nonie noted — if that’s your jam.

“Whatever form marriage and family comes in, as long as it’s about love and commitment, that’s okay,” Brady said. “Where no one’s a victim. Where no one’s being compelled to be in it. Consenting adults who love each other should be able to express that in a family setting.” 

For monogamists who were raised in mainstream America, these are hardly breakthrough ideas. But to the church they grew up with, the Williamses are radicals. Either way, having left the Brethren, they're now left to carve out their adult lives within a family structure they adopted years ago. Polygamy, they all seem to agree, is often lonely, jealousy-fueling, and downright maddening, but it’s the lifestyle they choose. It’s not ideal, but they’re working with what they’ve got. 

“We’ve had people ask us, ‘If you don’t believe you have to live this way, why would you choose it?’” Robyn said. “But we’ve spent years building this family, and every person in it makes it what it is, and why would we throw that away just because we don’t believe we have to do it to go to heaven? If you’re happy and you’re in love, why do something to destroy that just because society thinks you’re crazy?”

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Natalie Dicou is a writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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