This study examines the reproductive success of men and women in rural Ethiopia as a function of their marital status, specifically by comparing polygamously and monogamously married individuals. In line with predictions from evolutionary theory, polygamy is beneficial to male reproductive success (i.e. producing larger numbers of surviving offspring). The success of polygamously married females depends on wife rank: the first wives of polygamous husbands do better than monogamously married women and much better than second or third wives. These effects are mirrored in child nutritional status: the children of second and third wives have lower weight for height. Due to potential, largely unmeasurable differences in marriageability (quality) between individuals, it was not possible to support a model of either resource-holding polygyny combined with female choice or female coercion into unwanted marriages. First wives of polygamously married men marry at a younger age and attract a higher brideprice, suggesting that both the males and females in the marriage are likely to be of higher quality (due to wealth, family status or some other factor such as beauty). Unions that end up monogamous are likely to be between slightly lower quality individuals; and second and third wives, who marry at the oldest ages and attract the lowest brideprice, may be ‘making the best of a bad job’. The relatively long gap between first and second marriages may mean that first wives of highly marriageable males can enjoy considerable reproductive success before their husbands marry again.