In classifying marriage we have to consider the possible parties to a marriage and their number.
1. A union one man with one woman;
2. Of one man with two or more woman; or
3. Of two or more men with one woman; or
4. of a group of men with a group of women.
All these are types of marriage which exist or alleged to have existed. Monogamy is the type of marriage in which there is a union of one with a woman. Approximately the ratio of the male and female births is even and monogamy seems to be natural condition.
However if the natural ratio is disturbed the result is plural marriage which may be either of the type of polygamy. Monogamy is the rule of some primitive tribes. The Hopinsist upon it so do various pygmy groups. More frequently it is not compulsory but actually prevalent. One mostly contented themselves with a single woman.
Polygamy is a type of union of one man with more than one i.e. two or more wives. Polygamy depends not only on the ratio of adult men and women but also on economic and social factors. When the women farm, as often happens in Africa, every additional wife adds to the ladder.
In Africa absolute monarchs take unlimited number of wives by royal prerogative, and wealthy stock breeders can buy many wives. Polygamy is neither primarily due to masculine just nor it is considered degrading for women.
In primitive societies men had sexual relation outside matrimony and without its duties. They married additional wives because it enhanced their social prestige and economic value. In some cases the first wife induced her husband to get another wife and several wives got along with surprising harmony.
Polyandry as an established institution is very rare. When one woman consorts with more than one man, the result is polyandry. It is true that many primitive tribes permitted a wife to consort with many men.
This simple means plural sexual relation but not plural marriage. Marriage does not imply only sexual intercourse but a bond with specific mutual duties. Thus an Eskimo may marriage systems oblige a visitor by surrendering his wife temporarily, but it is no polyandry.
In some cases several brothers jointly live with a woman, all being socially on at par both as husbands and as fathers of all her offspring. When the husband are unrelated they may live in different villages and the woman usually spends a month with each in turn. All the men enjoy equal marital relations but the official status of a ‘father’ to the children is established by a ritual.
Marriage being a permanent bond of fixed mutual rights and duties there is no such thing as a group marriage anywhere. Temporary looseness is not to be confused with the group marriage, which is purely hypothetical condition. For instance, the Masai warriors live together with the girls of the settlement. But this involves no further obligation and therefore cannot be classed as fixed marriage relationship.
There is, no evidence of any group marriage as such so there may be found some exogamous group practising some sort of combination of polygamy and polyandry. But to say that it constitutes a group marriage is a sweeping sunrise. One can hardly say that these different types of marriages had any appreciable effect on the status of woman. On the whole the status of woman in the primitive society was very low.
Hobhouse goes to the length of saying that “Favourable as the position of woman under mother-right-family appears on the surface the truth is that it is not bar whatever to complete legal subjection. Among the Cribs for instance the position of women was inferior.” In short, the different types of marriage according to number, in the primitive society do not have any direct impact or influence off the status of women.
The status was due to economic and physiological reasons. And as we have already mentioned, polygamy was not considered into be a result of masculine lust nor was: it a degradation of woman. It was not the type of marriage that was responsible for the subjection of women.
In cases of polyandry women did enjoy a great degree; of freedom but it seems to be confined to the capacity of maintaining plural sexual relations. In polygamy of course the man retained all the authority in him; but even there women were not regarded as chattels. In the majority of cases woman’s status remained inferior.