Polygamy, polygyny, and polyandry are terms that are often inaccurately interchanged with one another. However, the term polyandry refers to the practice of having more than one husband at a time. This term is more precise than the term polygamy, which refers to having more than one spouse (regardless of sex) at a time. Polyandry can also refer, in the broadest sense, to being involved in relationships with multiple male partners at the same time, without being married to any of them. To explore this concept, consider the following polyandry definition.

Definition of Polyandry


  1. The practice of having more than one husband at one time.


1680    Greek   polyandrous  (having many husbands)

What is Polyandry

Polyandry is a term that refers to a marriage that consists of one woman and multiple husbands. The term polyandry can also be used to describe a situation wherein a woman has committed relationships with multiple male partners that she may or may not be married to. This is different from polygyny, which is a situation wherein a man is married to multiple wives at the same time. This type of family relationship is commonly called by the more general term polygamy in the U.S. Polyamory is a broader term that describes a marriage consisting of multiple partners of both sexes.

Polyandry is the rarest of the human mating systems, with only about one percent of cultures worldwide actively engaging in the practice. Polyandry is thought to be more common in societies that have limited resources, because it can supposedly increase the odds of children surviving, while also working as a form of population control.

For example, polyandry is practiced in the Himalayan mountains due to the lack of land there. It is believed that if all of the brothers in one family are married to the same wife, then that allows the land to remain theirs and undivided. However, if each of those brothers married their own wives and had children with them, then the family land would be split up into much smaller plots that would not be enough to sustain their families. This was actually a common reason for people to practice polyandry throughout history.

Polygamy, Polygyny, and Polyandry

While polygamy, polygyny, and polyandry may all refer to similar concepts, polygyny and polyandry are actually more specific descriptions of similar situations. For instance, polygamy is a term used to describe a situation wherein someone has more than one spouse at the same time. Polygyny (note the slight difference in spelling) refers specifically to having multiple wives simultaneously, whereas polyandry refers to having multiple husbands at the same time.

The term “polygamy” tends to be used more liberally to describe marriages involving more than one spouse, even when the more specific “polygyny” or “polyandry” would be better suited to each specific situation. For example, polyandry would be described as polygamy in most news writings in North America.

Because polygamy is used more commonly than the other two terms, even though it is technically correct, many mistakenly believe that polygamy is actually the opposite of polyandry when, in fact, it is just a more general description of the situation. For example, polyandry and polygamy were used as separate terms in a quote taken from the book Religious Freedom and World War: Can God and Caesar Coexist, which was written by the late Jesuit priest, Robert F. Drinan:

“Polyandry and polygamy, religiously authorized or mandatory, have not survived as legal institutions in the West.”

Polyandry Throughout History

Currently, polygamy, polygyny, and polyandry are illegal in the United States, even if the practice of polyandry throughout history has not been. The practice of one person having multiple spouses was banned by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1878 case of Reynolds v. United States. Before it was banned, however, early Mormon settlers practiced what they called “plural marriages” in places like Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado.

Following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Reynolds, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the “Mormons”) were instructed to end the practice of polygamy in 1890, by “the Manifesto,” issued by the President of the LDS Church at that time, Woodrow Wilson. Some of the people continued in the practice of polygamy, against the edicts of the Church. These people were eventually excommunicated, and some branched off, creating their own church.

While it may be mistakenly believed that polygamy is a common practice in the Mormon religion, and that the Mormon religion has supported polyandry throughout history, the fact remains that the Mormon people today do not practice polygamy, but consider it to be a serious offense against the laws of the land, as well as against the laws of the gospel.

Polyandry Example that Set Legal Precedent

George Reynolds belonged to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the “Mormon” Church) when he was charged with bigamy in 1874. The LDS Church believed at the time that the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862 was unconstitutional, as it denied the Church’s members the right to practice their religion freely by allowing them to have multiple spouses, which was part of their religion. The Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act was a law, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, that banned polygamy, and limited the amount of church- and non-profit-owned territories to a maximum value of $50,000.

As Utah was a far-flung colony, and Lincoln had his hands full with the burgeoning Civil War, the law was not enforced. The Church chose then to ignore the law. The reason for the charge against Reynolds was that he married Amelia Jane Schofield while he was still married to Mary Ann Tuddenham.

Reynolds was working as a secretary for the president of the LDS Church at the time. Meanwhile, the Church’s governing body agreed to assist the U.S. Supreme Court with a test case that would help determine the constitutionality of the anti-bigamy law by providing the Court with a defendant. Reynolds agreed to serve as that defendant, to test whether the law violated the people’s First Amendment rights. He then provided to the U.S. Attorney several witnesses who could testify to the fact that Reynolds did indeed have two wives, and that he was indicted for bigamy by a Grand Jury in October of 1874.

Reynolds attempted to have the trial court instruct the jury that if they believed he had committed bigamy for the sole purpose of following his religion, then he must be found not guilty. However, the court rejected his request and instead instructed the jury that if they found that Reynolds, under the influence of his religion:

“… deliberately married a second time, having a first wife living, the want of consciousness of evil intent—the want of understanding on his part that he was committing crime—did not excuse him, but the law inexorably, in such cases, implies criminal intent.”

Reynolds was convicted the following year, and was sentenced to two years of hard labor in prison, and was fined $500. He appealed, saying that his conviction should be overturned on four issues:

  • That it was his duty, as per his religion, to marry multiple times, and that the First Amendment protected his religious practices
  • That his grand jury had not been legally constituted (valid under the law)
  • That challenges that were brought up by certain jurors were improperly overruled by the court
  • That any testimony given was inadmissible due to the fact that it was offered up under another indictment

The Utah Territorial Supreme Court disagreed, however, and upheld Reynolds’ sentence in 1876. In the Court’s unanimous decision, it was stated that:

“Every person having a husband or wife living, who marries another, whether married or single, in a Territory, or other place over which the United States have exclusive jurisdiction, is guilty of bigamy, and shall be punished by a fine of not more than $500, and by imprisonment for a term of not more than five years.”

The Court did give consideration as to whether or not Reynolds could use his religious beliefs as a defense, since Reynolds had argued that, as a Mormon, it was his religious duty to practice polygamy.

The Court did recognize that Congress cannot pass a law that prohibits anyone from freely practicing their religion. However, the it held that the law that prohibits bigamy does not meet that standard, and that the idea that someone should have only one spouse could be traced all the way back to English law under King James I of England, upon which U.S. law was founded.

The Court also made the connection that if someone eventually argued that human sacrifice was necessary to practice for their religion, then:

“… to permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

The Court also quoted a letter penned by Thomas Jefferson, in which he wrote that there was a difference between someone’s religious beliefs and the acts that those religious beliefs inspired. While someone’s religious belief “lies solely between man and his God,” Jefferson speaks of the government’s interference with these acts as “the legislative powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions.”

Insofar as Reynolds’ argument that the indictment against him was illegal, he had based this solely on the fact that the grand jury that indicted him consisted of 15 individuals, and not the 16 that the law supposedly required. However, the court rejected this argument as well, noting that the Utah Territory had passed a law in 1870 requiring a minimum of 15 persons to serve on a grand jury.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Bigamy – The act of someone participating in a marriage ceremony when he is already married to someone else.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Indictment – A formal charge of a serious crime.
  • Overrule – To reject by exercising one’s authority.
  • Spouse – A husband or wife.