Humphrey specialises in the anthropology of communities on the edges of the former Soviet Union, and has spent much of her career studying the Buyrat people who live north of the Mongolian border in Siberia. Humphrey says that anthropologists slowly build a deep knowledge and understanding of a place and culture, but nevertheless, her discovery that there is a polygamy lobby was a surprise.
"Friends of mine in Siberia told me that their friends were lobbying parliament to legalise polygamy," she says. "I always knew that there were men who like the idea of polygamy, but what I found fascinating was that women were also in support."
Apparently even professional anthropologists think that men would favor polygamy because they want to have sex with multiple women... even though it should be obvious that for every man with two wives there is one man with zero wives.
When poverty is widespread -- or men are scarce -- polygamy becomes very attractive for women.
"A lot of women live on what were collective farms, which are often deep in the forest and miles away from the nearest town," Humphrey says. "You live very close to nature, and life can be very hard – your heating is entirely through log stoves, there's no running water and inside sanitation is rare. If you are lucky enough to keep animals, you must care for and butcher them yourself. So if you are looking after children as well, life can be near impossible for a woman on her own."
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Humphrey's investigations have uncovered women who believe that "half a good man is better than none at all". "There are still some men around – they might be running things, with a job as an official, for example, or they might be doing an ordinary labouring job, but either way, there aren't very many of them," she says. "Women say that the legalisation of polygamy would be a godsend: it would give them rights to a man's financial and physical support, legitimacy for their children, and rights to state benefits."
A simple understanding of economics leads to this conclusion, but most people are still surprised to learn that women can benefit greatly from polygamy. A woman is generally concerned for her physical security and provision and for that of her children. If her husband is wealthy enough, those needs are not threatened by the existence of other wives. On the other hand, a man is generally interested in mating with as many women as possible and fathering as many children as possible, which is why polyandry (one woman with multiple husbands) is essentially unheard of (even in countries like China with a huge shortage of women).