This world envisaged the institution of marriage radically differently due to most male infants being born dead. Marriages would occur between sister-wives, who would share a man between them. This form of marriage would take the form of a collection of woman-woman unions, with the male serving as the legal partner. These unions between females wouldn't be sexual, but a pragmatic and stable way to produce heirs. These unions would take place between two or more women, but be limited to one husband to prevent conflict between families over reproductive rights. In some cases, marriage would be between business partners or political rivals to secure alliances. In others, it would be common for a woman to marry a relative to ensure that the child would have the same genetic material regardless of who the mother is.

All children produced within this group marriage would belong to that family, with lineage passed down through matrilineal lines. However, this would create certain problems with issues of succession, regarding who would gain the lion share of inherited wealth and lead the family after the previous generation was gone. The concept of "first born" would not work, as mothers would likely advocate for their child or children to inherit the most. This would lead to instability within families as sides would be taken against each other. This would be magnified within noble families, where the stakes are much higher.

How can the rules of inheritance and succession rights be constructed in a way to prevent this from happening?

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    $\begingroup$ With such large amounts of text It would be good to have subject headers to help organize the question. $\endgroup$ Feb 10, 2022 at 20:48
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    $\begingroup$ Why wouldn't first born work here too? With marriages being between women, no child inherits anything until all the women in the marriage have died, and having a national inheritance law will settle arguments. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Feb 10, 2022 at 20:52
  • $\begingroup$ "In the ancient world, marriage has served as a social contract to increase standing in the world": wow I did not know I was living in the ancient world. (And in most of the world, most of the time the firstborn son or daughter did not have any particularly privileged position when it came to inheritance. Outside special situations, such as inheritance of a royal crown, primogeniture was something quite specific to the weird Anglo-Saxon judicial system.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 11, 2022 at 3:23
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP First born privilege was very common in Ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, Persia, Judea, etc. It was only really just the Celtic and Germanic cultures that I know of who more evenly distributed inheritance in the classical world. The Franks spread thier even inheritance practices to a lot of the rest of Europe for a short while, but this lead to problems in the early medieval period (with the break up of Charlemagne's empire for example) which lead to nearly all of Europe and surrounding nations eventually adopting a privileged birth system (at least for thier nobility). $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Feb 11, 2022 at 15:28
  • $\begingroup$ But in the ancient world itself, the family unit was often seen as its own sort of mini-government so first born privilege was common even among less affluent families. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Feb 11, 2022 at 15:31

5 Answers 5


Women don't marry each other, they form feudal unions around husbands

A woman who has the power, money, and influence to marry a man will marry one. Since men are so rare, the dowrys could be quite high... but very much worth it. That man then belongs to her and only her... however, there are a lot of women who want heirs and could not come up with enough dowery to marry a man. Instead these women must swear fidelity to a woman who has a husband if she wants any children. So the married women who paid the original dowry becomes the legal lord and master to the other women who she shares her husband with.

Rather than each woman being an equal partner in the relationship, one women is clearly dominant to all the others. In this way, you still clearly have a first wife and her first born would clearly be the heir apparent.

In many cases, it would be common for a woman to marry a relative to ensure that the child would have the same genetic material regardless of who the mother is.

Outside of nobility, the most common practice could be for a female head of household to pay a dowry for a man to marry her eldest daughter, and for the other daughters and nieces of the house hold to serve under the eldest daughter and share the husband. In many cases a commoner family might lack the means for a meaningful dowry; so, instead a dowry, it may be common practice to trade your first born son with another families who was lucky enough to have a son, and then if you are lucky enough to get two sons, you dowry them off to whoever can afford it.


What makes stories interesting is how people solve problems - What makes worldbuilding interesting is how societies solve problems

You don't want a solution that makes the problem go away - you want a series of band-aids that would evolve over time to patch an arrangement which generates problems.

If the firstborn is the heir, and multiple wives might be the mother of that firstborn (and most of them want to be), how would that affect society?

Casting lots to have the husband first?

Who gets the head start with the husband? (He's unlikely to be up managing half a dozen wives on the first night.) Well, some kind of competition seems appropriate. Either a (supposed-to-be) entirely random thing, like rolling dice or drawing straws... Or you could have something more like a chess match, or athletic competition, so the smartest (or strongest, etc) woman gets a day's head start.

Do you have the marriage on the day when the most wives are likely to be near their peak fertility?

If having the first child means your child inherits the lion's share of the wealth, the family name, etc... The subject of fertility, and signs of it, will be a subject of a lot of study (and of superstition). It may be considered "fairest" to have the wedding when the most women are most likely to be ready to get pregnant.

And bad luck for you if you're the wife who's not in the majority on that day. And bad luck for the impatient husband, if the sister-wives put off the marriage for a year or two, waiting for the most fair occasion.

Will 8-month-pregnant women take long hikes or do heavy exercise, trying to steal a few weeks?

Early births are auspicious births (if the baby survives). This only applies if multiple sister-wives were successfully impregnated at nearly the same time, and if it's (thereby) the first child.

On the other hand, some mothers might take the opposite strategy, going for a longer pregnancy, hoping for a healthier child who will live when the early-born child might not make it through childhood. (Infant mortality was quite high in ancient times - if you want that to be part of the story.)

Early-born boys might be seen as a mixed blessing

"Hurray! I had a son, and he survived! Our family will get an expensive dowry for him. But that means that Ayesha's child, a girl, will be the heir, even though she was born a whole 3 days later..."

It may be an obligation of the primary heir to marry sisters or cousins with particularly poor inheritances

If it is accepted practice for near-kin women to "marry," it might also be an obligation for them to do so, to otherwise protect some of their kin from poverty.

On the other hand, significant complications might arise if, on the primary heir's death, the next in line inherits (and not the wives of the primary heir, if they haven't produced an heir for the next generation yet), because that means a whole group might suddenly go from being head-group of the family to being something else.

So maybe the stabilizing obligation cuts the other way, and the first 2 or 3 heirs in line will (traditionally, but not be required to?) marry, to prevent such uncertainty.

Or maybe the current heir in a given marriage gets to make or tweak any/all of the above rules... But if one of the sister-wives still manages to have the first daughter, that's still the next generation's heir.

Complex rules with obscure exceptions are great for story-tension... As long as it can all be communicated before it becomes important to the story, without boring or confusing the reader.

  • $\begingroup$ And then there's the question of the relative ages of sister-wives... $\endgroup$
    – Jedediah
    Feb 10, 2022 at 22:13

Practically, you are talking about polygyny, in which, one man has multiple wives. This thing is in practice in many parts of the world as explained here.

Marriage as contract with rules

In Islam, polygyny is allowed and practiced in many countries. Girlfriend, boyfriend, gayfriend or other kind of sexual relations are strictly prohibited and considered as punishable sin and immoral in the society. Marriage is a legal contract between man and woman. Each wife has privileges and rights according to the clauses of the contract. There are many rules governing this contract. Some rules of marriage are explained here and here.

The Exit clause (Divorce)

The rules governing divorce are mentioned here. There are general rules and additional clauses can be put in the contract.

Inheritance and succession rights

There are rules and laws governing the inheritance. Many books are written on this topic. Some introduction is given here and here.

  • $\begingroup$ One slight disadvantage for the man, it'll really show-up if he's infertile - unless there's an "under the stairs" arrangement to cover-up any shortfalls. $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2022 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ On the contrary, men had many more children than in monogamous societies. Punishment of "under the stairs" arrangement is death. $\endgroup$
    – imtaar
    Feb 14, 2022 at 7:18

Why wouldn't "firstborn" work? Yes, mothers would prefer their own children, but politicking to get your child chosen has a long history of causing dead children.

A pragmatic way to help limit it would for a family to be actual sisters and choose a husband between them. (A Brother's Price by Wen Spencer has a society like this.) It helps limit the infighting if the rivals are your nieces as well as your children's half-siblings.

Alternatively, inheritance is through the maternal line. No matter how many children your sister-wives have, they have no claim on your personal property. Indeed, your own sisters have a higher claim. Property belonging to the union means that your heirs must bought out by the survivors if you die.


Lets tweak the family structure a bit and see what happens.

Take the group marriage concept a bit further and there's no need for succession. Individuals die, but the household endures.

A household has a bare minimim of one male and one female. Most households have several males and many females.

Male children are sold or swapped off to other households.

When they reach the age of majority, daughters can remain in the household they were born into or else go join another household.

Each household can set its own rules about decision making. The three most common are:

  1. The oldest female is in charge.
  2. A group of the oldest females make the decisions.
  3. All adult females work together to make decisions.

Sometimes a household gets too big. Not enough land, too many people disagreeing with decisions, etc. In cases like this, some will stay and some will go set up a new household. The division of assets can be very peaceful... or not.

With some daughters staying and others marrying in, a well run household can continue indefinitely. Some internal power struggles will happen (as they do in all families), but the whole thing about heirs fighting to see who gets to grab the family fortune can be minimized.


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