The Meaning of Wife

A Provocative Look at Women and Marriage in the Twenty-first Century

Anne Kingston

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Meaning of Wife
Chapter 1
The Wife Gap
Wife. Four letters. One syllable. Simple, or so it seems. Yet this common word has become one of the most complex signifiers in the English language, weighted by past definitions, blurred by personal biases. The associations it elicits are bipolar in their scope: by the beginning of the twenty-first century, wife was variously presented as the source of female damnation or salvation, enchantment or disenchantment, captivity or rescue. Take your pick. Evidence can be marshaled to support either case. The truth exists in neither.
At one extreme, the role of wife is perceived as a straitjacket, one an increasing number of women refuse to don, as reflected in a marriage rate that has been declining, with the occasional uptick, in North America for the past one hundred years. By 2004, unmarried women were the fastest-growing demographic. A thirty-year-old woman was three times more likely to be single than she was in the 1970s; the more money a woman earned, the more likely she was to delay or even forgo matrimony. A much-reported 1999 study from the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University found that high school girls were more accepting of cohabitation and children born out of wedlock than they had been in two decades. While they expressed a desire to marry, they voiced declining confidence that their marriages could last a lifetime.This was not unrealistic. The nuclear family--husband, wife, 2.5 kids--had detonated, comprising only one-quarter of family formations in North America. Increasingly, women were giving birth to or adopting children without husbands or permanent partners. Single women professionals in their late thirties or forties came to represent 30 percent of people adopting Chinese babies nationwide in the United States, according to New Jersey-based Chinese Children Adoption International. Mainstream publications appeared to cheer them on. "Who Needs a Husband?" proclaimed a Time cover story in August 2000.
It was never a better time for women to be unmarried, or so we were told. Single women were the "new yuppies," according to one report. As People magazine put it: "Given so many choices [single women] don't have to settle and are willing to give up the old-fashioned romantic fantasy of being with a man in favor of the fantasy of independence." Certainly, tucking into a single serving of Lean Cuisine while watching reruns of Sex and the City was preferable to being a wife, according to the deluge of studies that reported how much more men benefit from marriage emotionally and financially than women and how men are far quicker to remarry after divorce or being widowed.
Media reports presented marriage as a dark domicile for women, dangerous and often sexless. Wifely victims of abuse and murder both proven and alleged achieved first-name status--Nicole, Laci, and, of course, Diana. The Australian sociologist Susan Maushart pilloried the role of the modern wife in Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women, published in 2002: "Becoming a wife will erode your mental health, reduce your leisure, decimate your libido, and increase the odds that you will be physically assaulted or murdered in your own home," she writes. Given such a scathing indictment, it would be reasonable to assume that Maushart had avoided the role as assiduously as she would salmonella poisoning. But no. She married twice, to divorce twice, and argued that the institution of marriage remains the best context available in which to raise children.
Within popular culture, wife is a ready term of derision, a sneer. On an episode of the television program Will & Grace that aired in 2001, Will, the gay central character, tells his straight female best friend,Grace, who has been nagging him, to "stop being a wife." Grace, of course, is insulted. "That's the nastiest thing you've ever said to me," she responds. The number-one Nielsen-rated domestic sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond conveyed the same message during an episode in which Raymond attempts to placate his wife after he criticizes her cooking. "You're a good wife," he tells her. She looks at him, horrified. "Don't you ever, ever call me that again," she says, as the laugh track swells.
The characteristics associated with the traditional good wife--servitude, subordination, self-sacrifice, summarized in the pejorative doormat--were discordant with the qualities of independence, "self-realization," and ambition glorified by the culture. Successful single women scoffed at the wifely role. "The moment I want to get married and have children is when I am tired of being Elizabeth Hurley," the actress confessed in an interview in 2000. Yet she did manage to remain Elizabeth Hurley even after giving birth to a son two years later, though there was no husband or male companion in sight.
The actress Lara Flynn Boyle invoked imagery from the 1950s when she was asked if she was "wife material" in a 2001 Vanity Fair interview. "'I would like to have a wife,' she responded. 'Who wouldn't. Let's see, what does a wife encompass exactly,' she asks, surveying the ladies brunching around us. 'A housemate. Maybe a pool boy. Does laundry. Misses out on all the fun. Doesn't sound too great, does it?'"
We need only look at two of the most dominant female cultural influences during the 1900s--the entrepreneur Martha Stewart and the media mogul Oprah Winfrey, both of whom are so famous that we know them by their first names--to see the disconnect between power and wife. Neither are married. Stewart divorced her husband in 1989 and never remarried. Winfrey, whose daily talk show serves up a virtual Greek chorus of the travails of modern wifedom, has never assumed the role. The talk-show host, one of the world's richest women, explained her decision not to marry her longtime companion, Stedman Graham, on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in February 2003: "I'm allowed a great deal of freedom in this relationship now," she said, "and I think that if I married--as good as Stedman is--I think that his expectations of what I should be would change. I really do. 'Cause I think he's pretty old-fashioned in thatrespect, you know, that a 'wife' ought to be home sometimes, and I'm not ready for that right now. I feel if I had the role of wife, I would become someone else. I would then start behaving like a wife."
Given the perceived limitations of the role of wife, it isn't surprising that divorce is presented as a form of female liberation. Women initiate divorce two times out of three, goes the oft-quoted statistic, and they are less likely to remarry than men. Only in leaving marriages, women are told, and shown in books and movies, could they truly "find themselves." This message is not new. It was conveyed more than a hundred years ago by Nora Helmer, the wife who leaves a suffocating marriage in Henrik Ibsen's once-shocking 1879 play, A Doll's House: "I must try and educate myself--you are not the man to help me in that," Nora tells her husband, Torvald. "I must do that for myself."
Nora's words continue to resonate. Dr. Christine Northrup echoed the sentiment during an appearance on Oprah in 2001. The medical doctor, on a book tour for The Wisdom of Menopause, told the primarily female audience that menopause is a "time of opportunity and growth." It was during her own menopause, she confided, that she realized her marriage wasn't fulfilling. So she divorced and experienced a glorious rebirth. She spoke of "sleeping better, dreaming more, being happier and more creative." Weeks later, a cartoon in The New Yorker magazine parodied the buzz surrounding Northrup's book. Two ladies sit at lunch. The caption below them reads: "I was on hormone replacement for two years before I realized that what I really needed was Steve replacement." The jest was calculated to draw knowing laughter from women. Husband put-downs had replaced the now politically incorrect "Take my wife, please" humor of the 1950s and '60s. Women who meted out revenge on their cruel mates were cheered. Women who killed or maimed the bastards were lauded as heroines. The movies and books that told their stories could be counted on to draw large and appreciative female audiences.
Against this landscape of virulent antipathy toward the role of wife--a wifelash of sorts--a countervailing sentiment took root during the 1990s. Call it wifelust, as the traditional stay-at-home wife became the subject of a romantic revival. At a time when women were earning57 percent of bachelor degrees, young women were being bombarded with husband-snaring advice so heavy-handed that Jane Austen would have found it offensive. At a time of confused gender roles, dating advice that harked back to the 1950s flourished. Books like the phenomenally successful The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right advised women to play hard to get. Young women were also counseled to hang on to their virginity as if it were a negotiating tool, and to marry young, before their "best-before" dates expired.
Princely fairy-tale rescue was presented as a primal female desire, as Cinderella emerged as a female role model. When Carolyn Bessette walked down the aisle to marry John F. Kennedy, Jr., "the world's most eligible bachelor," in 1996, New York magazine dubbed her "Instant Princess." Oleg Cassini, who designed clothing for Jacqueline Kennedy, announced, "As soon as she married a Kennedy, that immediately elevated her to the rank of top Cinderella."
Famous brides like Bessette were lauded as the epitome of female success. To employ the lexicon of the rash of "reality" dating programs that came to air in the late 1990s, they were "winners." And we couldn't keep our eyes off them. Brides were front and center as an unprecedented wedding mania enveloped the culture. Diana's extravagant, doomed fairy-tale wedding would, ironically, provide the template. At a time when nearly half of marriages ended in divorce, the middle classes hedged their bets by investing in ceremonies that put sixteenth-century papal investitures to shame.
The newfound fascination with the wedding in the 1990s heralded another cultural shift for female identity. The "dress for success" mantra directed at women in the 1980s was replaced with the instruction that women should "marry for success." As if on cue, John T. Molloy, author of the '80s best seller Dress for Success, which told women to replace frills and pastels with "power" suiting, came out with Why Men Marry Some Women and Not Others in 2003. The how-to manual promised "fascinating research that can land you the husband of your dreams" and offered advice on "Dressing to Be a Wife, Not a One-Night Stand."
Molloy's timing was propitious. Becoming a full-time wife was presentedas the antidote to the female career frustration routinely documented in the press. Typical of the sensibility was an article that ran in Elle Canada in 2001 advising young women to take low-paying jobs in "glamorous industries" such as public relations or at auction houses because "marrying well is the best labour-saving device--and ritzy jobs can pave the way." Wives toiling in the workforce were beckoned back into the home by the siren song of domesticity. As one female social commentator wrote, "Staying at home in the 1990s has, for many educated women, become what getting an MBA was in the 1980s: a mark of achievement and status." In 1998, The New York Times proclaimed the stay-at-home wife a "contemporary status symbol." In 2000, Cosmopolitan magazine reported that young women, dubbed "housewife wannabes," longed to quit work. By 2004, the message was overt. "The Case for Staying Home" blasted the cover of Time's March 22 issue. Inside, a bold-faced pull-quote proclaimed a 3 percent drop in the number of mothers with children under three in the workplace since 1997. Of course, this is hardly an "exodus," especially during a recession when more than two million jobs were lost. Hidden in smaller print was that fact that 72 percent of mothers with children under eighteen remain in the workforce.
A new wave of panic prose aimed at single women flooded the market, from the fictional Bridget Jones, fretting about her thighs and her fear of "dying alone and being found three weeks later half-eaten by an Alsatian," to books with titles like Why There Are No Good Men Left: The Romantic Plight of the New Single. In an echo of the message given Victorian women, the twenty-first-century woman was told that having a career would interfere with her femininity and her fertility. The ever-ticking biological clock was discussed so frequently that one assumed it was an actual part of the female anatomy, a uterus-shaped hourglass.
A wife industry emerged, one that smothered women with advice, instruction, invective. Young unmarried women were deluged with mixed messages: on one hand, they were told they were having too much fun and would pay for it later; they were told that single equated with misery; that they should marry young, give up a career if they wanted a career; that they should fight for government policies andworkplace changes if they wanted to combine wife and mother. But basically the books all gave the same depressing advice: compromise, settle, tone yourself down, and do it sooner rather than later.
The alternating currents of wifelash and wifelust, as discordant as they might appear, are inextricably linked, finely syncopated. What they represent is a conflict some forty years in the making, one that revolves around continuing attempts to dictate female identity through the definition of wife.
 
 
Before we review how this conflict came to be, let's look at the shifting meaning of the word wife, one that serves as a kind of female Rorschach test. Utter it to a dozen women, wives and non-wives, and you'll receive a dozen different responses. You'll hear a few stories of contentment ("Being a wife has given my life its fullest meaning"). You'll hear tales of calcified resentment ("If I had it to do again, I would never have married"). You'll hear utterances of hope ("Getting married would make my life complete"). There will be accounts that will break your heart ("I was beaten for over a decade before I left him"). You'll be greeted with a blank stare ("I don't see myself as a wife; I see myself as a mother"). You'll hear bitter grotesqueries best suited to a daytime talk show ("After I found out he was screwing my sister, I fucked his best friend in our bed"). And you'll hear stories from women who harbor no illusions about marriage ("I was looking for Mr. Right but settled for Mr. Good Enough").
But the meaning of wife transcends personal experience. It's a cultural concept that fibrillates through a broader landscape. There you will find "good" wives, "bad" wives, fictional wives, real wives, historical wives, mythic wives. Note that wives tend to be qualified by adjectives. That's because they've always been judged according to a paradigm, an unwritten script we all know by heart. More on that later. For now, let's just observe the scene. There's Diana, of course, along with June Cleaver and Hillary Rodham or Hillary Clinton or Hillary Rodham Clinton, depending on the era in which you're observing her. We will see the biblical Eve, Adam's subservient wife, in conflict withLilith, who, according to Hebrew folklore, was Adam's rebellious first wife. There's Medea, Cherie Booth Blair, Isabella Beeton, Yoko Ono, and Sylvia Plath. And don't forget the Simpsons--Mrs. Wallis, Marge, and Jessica. And Margaret Trudeau, the ex-wife of former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who famously ran off with the Rolling Stones. On this landscape, one will also witness Lady Macbeth, Nicole Brown Simpson, serial wife Elizabeth Taylor, Elena Ceausescu, Eva Perón, Madonna, and Virginia Woolf (along with all her characters and her devoted husband, Leonard, who was known to be her "wife"). There are all six wives of Henry VIII, the unfortunate Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard minus their heads. Plus an ever-changing parade of celebrities whose prominent love affairs and marriages we watch with voyeuristic thrill, waiting for the inevitable denouement.
We see the mythic Penelope spinning, waiting for Odysseus to return, Emma Bovary fatally seeking romance, Anna Karenina throwing herself in front of that train, Madama Butterfly in her tragic final aria as she kills herself after being replaced by a more socially acceptable wife. There's the overpowering silence of the attic-bound Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre, the brilliant Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady who is resigned to an unhappy marriage, and, of course, Lucy Ricardo cowering in front of her husband, Ricky, who's telling her she has "some 'splainin' to do."
In an exalted position is Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, with her mahogany bubble of hair, standing stoic on that gray November day in 1963, her pink Chanel suit stained with her slain husband's blood. Less conspicuous, though no less a heroine to some women, is Lorena Bobbitt, also smeared with her spouse's blood after she severed his penis with a kitchen knife. But wait, further confusing the wife optics, there are two Jackies. First, the first-lady widow Jacqueline, but also Jackie O, the ultimate trophy wife as the tan, pampered spouse of Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. (Of course, we can't forget that the wife landscape wouldn't exist without men, who are there too, if less visible. And these men include centuries of legislators, statesmen, as well as famous and infamous husbands.) All in all, a surreal scene.
An enterprising type could invent a parlor game in which one linksfamous wives who share the same name. Take Nora. Three influential Noras come to mind--four, if you want to include Nora Barnacle, James Joyce's wife and muse. The most famous is Nora from A Doll's House. Then there is Nora Charles, the happily married socialite played by Myrna Loy in the Thin Man movies of the 1930s and '40s. That Nora is my wife heroine, a sharp cookie who teams up with her husband to solve murder mysteries and who is always ready with a dry martini and an astringent quip. Better known to the modern audience is Nora Ephron, author of the 1983 novel Heartburn, a scathing, thinly veiled account of her failed marriage to the journalist Carl Bernstein. This Nora is a pioneer of the wife-revenge genre that entertained us during the latter decades of the twentieth century. See, it's simple. Yet so freighted with subtext.
If you look up the word wife in The Oxford English Dictionary, you'll come across clues into the meaning but little illumination. Wife is a noun, a passive quantity, eager to conform to adjectival construction, be it as a faculty wife, a military wife, a political wife, or a housewife. The word husband is far more flexible, functioning as either a noun or a verb. To husband can mean "to till the ground, to tend trees and plants, to manage as a husbandman or to cultivate." To husband also means "to save," an association that takes on an ironic meaning, given the current obsession with the prince-rescue fantasy. Husbandable, fittingly, has commercial connotations, meaning "capable of being economically used." But husband hasn't historically taken on adjectives; terms like military husband or faculty husband do not readily trip off the tongue.
The role of wife has always defined a woman in the way husband does not define a man. It is a full-time job encompassing homemaker, hostess, cheerleader, mother, chauffeur, Jill-of all-trades. The first reference to wife in the Bible, in Genesis 2:18, makes clear her supportive function: "And the Lord God said, it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him." And for centuries, the help-meet, later helpmate, is what a wife represented, at least publicly; she was the domestic backup and emotional support required so her husband could go out and make a living.
But the wife had been untethered from her conventional mooringsby the turn of the twenty-first century. By then, more than 70 percent of married women in Western countries worked outside the home. No longer was the wife legally defined by or economically dependent on her husband. No longer was wife necessarily a lifetime role. No longer were women expected to be virgins when they walked down the aisle. Nor were they legally required to take their husbands' names. Wife was not necessarily synonymous with mother. And for the first time in history, a wife did not have to acquiesce to the sexual demands of her husband without recourse to legal reprisal.
The freeing of the wife from her traditional restraints (restraints, it should be noted, many women successfully ignored) came as the result of the slow dismantling in Western culture of a universal and fundamental notion that had long defined the marital relation: coverture, the common law that dictated that a wife's identity be legally subsumed by her husband's. Under coverture, a married couple would literally become "one," a conceit still swooned over in romance novels. Its terms are spelled out in Sir William Blackstone's 1753 Commentaries on the Laws of England: "By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything; and is therefore called in our law--in French a femme-covert ... it is said to be a covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord, and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture."
For centuries, the role of wife served as the ultimate female control mechanism. She was property, transferred between male caretakers. Relations between a husband and wife were seen to be reciprocal rather than equal. It was the husband's responsibility to support his family; in return, the wife was expected to act as a companion, housekeeper, and mother. Wives ran family businesses, set the domestic agenda, and provided emotional ballast for their families, it is true. Under laws that stretched into the twentieth century, however, they were treated as unreasoning infants. Publicly, their voices were rarely heard, their stories seldom told. Only a husband could sue or be sued, draft wills, makecontracts, or buy and sell property, even property that had originally belonged to his wife. A husband, but not a wife, could seek damages for the loss of consortium--meaning services, affection, and companionship--resulting from injuries to the spouse. If a wife committed a criminal act in her husband's presence, it was assumed to be under his direction. In that wives and husbands were viewed as one legal unit, they could not conspire against each other or steal each other's property. And just as a wife was her husband's property, so were any children born to the union, no matter who the biological father was.
The historian Lawrence Stone defined the situation of married women in England well into the nineteenth century as "the nearest approximation in free society to a slave. Her person, her property both real and personal, her earnings, and her children all passed on marriage into the absolute control of her husband." In Democracy in America, published in 1840, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville expressed shock at the limited rights of the American wife: "In America, the independence of women is irrevocably lost in the bounds of matrimony: if an unmarried woman is less constrained there than elsewhere, a wife is subjected to stricter obligations."
Coverture was the focus of feminist ire for centuries. In Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen, written in 1791, the French feminist Olympe de Gouges discussed the need for wives to have the right to divorce and to control property in a marriage. In 1853, the feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was married, wrote to Susan B. Anthony, who wasn't: "I feel that this whole question of woman's rights turns on the point of the marriage relation," she said in reference to wives' lack of autonomy over their bodies. When the suffragist Lucy Stone married Henry Blackwell in 1855, the couple declared that their agreement to marry in no way implied sanction of the then-present laws of marriage that "refuse to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being." Stone was doubly militant in being the first American woman to refuse to take her husband's name.
Coverture reflected the view that women were weaker vessels, put on Earth to serve their husbands and to bear children. Women were excluded from public life, unable to vote, own property, hold publicoffice, or sit on a jury. But the role of the wife shifted with the Industrial Revolution, as women proved useful factory workers. Married women were allowed to be joint guardians with their husbands of children following divorce. In rare cases, they were given sole custody. By the end of the nineteenth century, women had achieved the right to property in marital breakdown, and many jurisdictions allowed wives control over their incomes. Laws changed, giving women access to higher education and the vote. Consistent with the fact that marital rights echo citizen rights, women were also allowed increased autonomy within marriage.
Still, the role of wife remained emblematic of female oppression. In The Second Sex, the groundbreaking feminist tract published in 1949, Simone de Beauvoir, who never married, made the extreme claim that marriage rendered women "parasitic": "Marriage is the destiny traditionally offered to women by society," she writes. "Far from freeing the matron, her occupation makes her dependent upon husband and children; she is justified through them; but in their lives she is only an inessential intermediary ... . However respected she may be, she is subordinate, secondary, parasitic." It isn't until the institution of marriage is obliterated, she believed, that inequality between the sexes would end: "When we abolish the slavery of half of humanity, together with the whole system of hypocrisy it implies, then the 'division' of humanity will reveal its genuine significance and the human couple will find its true form." The message so inspired some women that they broke free of unhappy marriages. Years later, Norman Mailer admitted that after the first of his many wives read The Second Sex, she promptly divorced him.
The wife as political prisoner became an audience-grabbing motif of twentieth-century feminism, one that dovetailed neatly with political unrest, the civil rights movement, and a shifting economy. Betty Friedan's monumental treatise, The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, resonated with millions in its claim that educated women were being held captive in their own homes: "In the past sixty years we have come full circle and the American housewife is once again trapped in a squirrel cage. If the cage is now a modern plateglass-and-broadloom ranch house or a convenient modern apartment, the situation is no lesspainful than when her grandmother sat over an embroidery hoop in her gilt-and-plush parlor and muttered angrily about women's rights. Is she trapped simply by the enormous demands of her role as modern housewife: wife, mistress, mother, nurse, consumer, cook, chauffeur, expert on interior decoration, child care, appliance repair, furniture refinishing, nutrition, and educator?"
Even though Friedan acknowledged that most women would marry and that, when raising a family, dependence was a necessary fact of life, a wife chasm began within the feminist movement. Being "pro-woman" by default translated into being "anti-wife." The National Organization for Women, founded in 1966 by Friedan with others, sought to eliminate wifely distinction from the vernacular in its proposal that the salutation Ms. be used to describe all women, whether married or not. It made sense: men were not categorized according to their marital status, so why should women be?
During the 1970s, the feminist journalist Gloria Steinem was elevated to role model when she vowed she would never marry. "I serve a purpose by being happily unmarried," she once said. "If everyone were married, it wouldn't be a choice." Steinem had little good to say about the institution, comparing it at various times to "a fascist dictatorship," "a slave plantation," "a prison," and an institution that rendered a woman "a semi-non person." She made famous the line "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle," a catchy conceit that became the smug slogan for a generation.
Steinem readily admitted that becoming a wife held little allure for her at the time. She graduated from Smith College magna cum laude in 1956 and was briefly engaged before she broke it off. "It didn't take courage not to want the picture of marriage that had been painted for us," she once said. "Once you got married, you could make no other choices; that was it. You took his name, his credit rating, his social identity. I have no idea why I resisted when so many other women who felt the same way did not. Maybe it's because I didn't go to school until I was 12, so I missed a little bit of social conditioning."
Though it was never said explicitly, marrying was seen to be a violation of the sisterhood. In The Female Eunuch, published to enthusiasticresponse in 1970, Germaine Greer echoed Beauvoir, claiming that "if women are to effect a significant amelioration in their condition it seems obvious that they must refuse to marry."
Meanwhile, that definition of wife was changing radically in the 1970s and '80s, to the point that diehard traditionalists would rightly wonder what the point of marriage was. No longer did women need their husbands' permission for access to credit or to start up a business. "Head and master" laws, which gave a husband control over any income brought into the household, were phased out. A man was no longer allowed to govern his wife physically. Husbands could be charged with raping their wives. Women were given the right to retain their own names after marriage and to maintain a separate home. Women who stayed at home minding families received a more equitable percentage of family assets upon the dissolution of marriage.
Wives entered the workforce in record numbers during these decades, spurred by stagnating real wages, a shift to an information-service-based economy, and the availability of the birth control pill as much as, if not more than, feminist treatises. Yet feminism provided a compelling ideology that both explained and animated the societal shift. And forty years later, it gets the credit, or the blame, for redefining the social role of women, depending on who's doing the talking.
 
 
This is where the story of wife becomes complicated, where the catch-22 of modern wifedom takes root. And that's because the majority of women become wives, for at least some part of their lives. But most of these women also work outside the home, which has resulted in a wife deficit within the home. Indeed, following the wifely exodus into the marketplace in the 1970s, demand for the kind of domestic services and support traditionally provided by the homemaker grew to the point that women themselves routinely complained that they needed domestic backup. This female rallying call was first voiced in the satiric essay "Why I Want a Wife" by Judy Syfers, which was published in the first mass-circulation issue of Ms. magazine in 1972. The magazine's cover image conveyed the modern wife's burden: a pregnant woman is shownwith eight arms extended, echoing the eight-armed Hindu goddess warrior, Durga. In each of her eight hands are the various accoutrements of modern wifedom: a frying pan, a clock, a duster, a typewriter, a steering wheel, an iron, a telephone, and a mirror. Syfers's conceit was a clever one: the modern wife needed her own wife. There was only one niggling detail: where would this fresh new wife supply come from?
Most women, when marrying, don't see themselves saddled with mops and babies. Some do, as is their imperative. But the social needs that have always governed marriage have shifted: Western women today marry of free will, spurred by personal desire. No longer is the institution perceived as a "sacred obligation," as the U.S. Supreme Court defined it in the late nineteenth century. By 1965, that judiciary described marriage vaguely, as an "association of two individuals." The reciprocal legal covenant that once bonded couples has been replaced by a far more demanding tyranny--the expectation that marriage provides happiness and self-fulfillment. Love, not legislation, is the new exacting master.
Couples marry not only for security and to raise a family but for romance, a grand adventure, that ephemeral happily-ever-after. Practical reasons for marriage did not even figure into respondents' answers to a Virginia Slims/Roper Starch Opinion Poll conducted in 2000 that asked, "What makes a good marriage?" Both women and men rated "respect for each other" at the top of the list. "Being in love" was second, followed by "sexual fidelity," "communication about feeling," and "keeping romance alive." "Financial security" ranked far lower on the list for both men and women, with only 59 percent of both groups claiming that it contributed to a stable, happy union.
Women want to become wives for a host of reasons unique to them. But there is a more basic reason. Like the word husband, wife is a word without synonym. It confers a unique status: there can be only one sanctioned wife for a man in Western culture, at least at a time. Even the wife-denigrating Simone de Beauvoir was not exempt from the word's primacy. In many letters to her lover, the writer Nelson Algren, written while she was working on The Second Sex, she referred to him as her husband and herself as his wife: "My beloved husband," she once wrote."You must write to me often, my beloved friend and lover, my dearest husband; for we must not feel apart from each other ... . We have not parted and we'll never part. I am your wife for ever." Clearly the writer was seeking emotional resonance, the Hallmark moment that only a sanctioned marital relationship provides.
Unsurprisingly, Beauvoir had a difficult time admitting such vulnerability: "I am humiliated by being such an adoring wife, finding nothing to disagree with," she wrote Algren another time. "If it's true that men despise women who worship them, then I am on the wrong track. How come you get to be the big crocodile and I am just the little frog?"
(Algren was not Beauvoir's only foray into "wifely" behavior. Biographers later discovered that her lifelong seemingly egalitarian relationship with the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre included regular bouts of subjugation. Beauvoir stooped when they were together to permit the shorter Sartre to feel taller. She bought him leather-bound books in which to write, while using cheap children's exercise paper for her own work. When near death in 1980, Sartre acknowledged the sacrifices she made, telling her, "You are a good wife.")
The singularity of the word wife--like that of husband--confers the comforting illusion of permanence, of being the One. This we witnessed in the slight--and temporary--spike in engagements and marriages after September II, 2001. It explains why Raymond Carver married the poet Tess Gallagher, with whom he had lived for years, in a quickie Reno ceremony in 1988, when he learned he had only months to live. One of his last poems, "Cherish," describes watching her after their wedding as he savors her intractable position in his life: "Saying it then, against / what comes: wife, while I can, while my breath, each hurried petal / can still find her."
Even Gloria Steinem--poster--person for single life--married. On September 6, 2000, she wed David Bale, a man she had known a mere ten months, in a Cherokee ceremony officiated by a female justice of the peace. Unsurprisingly, the sixty-six-year-old feminist shunned the standard bridal fanfare--there was no white satin dress, no white dove release, no giving away of the bride, no gift registry at Restoration Hardware. The bride wore blue jeans.
The media treated Steinem's marriage not as a historical milestone but as an amusing news brightener, a millennial practical joke. "It was as if the Grand Mufti had renounced Islam," reported Britain's Telegraph. Esquire referred to Steinem's marriage in its "Dubious Achievements 2000" issue, declaring, "Turns out a fish does need a bicycle."
In interviews after the wedding, Steinem talked up the unique status that marriage conferred. "For us, we wanted a way of saying that we were committed to each other," she told Time magazine. "If we'd been younger, perhaps we would have had a child or done something else to say that we are committed together." She suggested that "what seemed conformist at 26--getting married--seems rebellious at 66." Being a wife no longer entailed subjugation, she claimed. "If I had got married when I was supposed to get married, I would have lost all my civil rights," she told Dave Tianen of The Milwaukee Journal. "It is possible now to make an equal marriage."
But before we stamp a politically correct Good Housekeeping seal of approval on the role (Steinem was, after all, the older, the more powerful and famous of the couple), consider the fact that the word wife was not once uttered during the ceremony. Steinem and Bale referred to themselves as partners, a gender-neutral term that implied theirs would be an egalitarian union, absent of the legacy of ownership, domestic servitude, or submission.
Indeed, it was Bale who cheerfully admitted to being the less dominant partner, as revealed in an interview the couple gave to Barbara Walters on 20/20 shortly after their wedding in which he joked that he occasionally introduced himself as "Mr. Gloria Steinem." (Tragically, the union would be short-lived; Bale died of a brain lymphoma in December 2003.)
The semantic jest, along with Steinem's refusal to refer to herself as a wife, is telling of the fact that despite legislative changes, the role of wife continues to be freighted with retrograde associations, as if the shadows and echoes of the past loom and reverberate through a wife script that has not been rewritten to accommodate the new modern wife.
This script is not taught, at least not explicitly. Western brides are no longer handed primers on the eve of their weddings with quaint, pedantic titles such as The Lady's New Year's Gift, Maxims for MarriedLadies, or The Young Lady's Friend. Women are not routinely subject to the explicit wife training that greeted female immigrants to Quebec in the seventeenth century. That said, wife schools do exist. The USO arm of the U.S. military runs a ten-day tutorial in Seoul, Korea, to train Korean women engaged to marry American soldiers and businessmen in the customs, behavioral requirements, and legal rights of the American wife. Similarly, faculty wives' clubs and parliamentary spousal groups offer gentle suasion in terms of how to play the role.
And that role comes with unspoken rules. We use the term wife material as shorthand to describe women suited to the role. These are not women who throw back Jagermeister shots or table dance on the first date. They are agreeable, devoted, hardworking; they do not want to draw attention to themselves. They follow instruction. And wife instruction is plentiful, delivered covertly via television programming, movies, magazine articles chronicling women's stunted professional advancement, advice books that lecture women on how to capture a husband, how to keep their marriages "hot," and, finally, how to emerge triumphant from divorce. This tacit script is also apparent in the current, unceasing wave of chick-lit entertainment, as well as in the growth industries that induce women to become brides and to embrace domesticity.
This unwritten code is most evident if we look back to the landscape where wives are celebrated and/or vilified. Exhibit A is Hillary Rodham Clinton, America's ur-wife during the 1990s, the decade in which the standoff between wifelash and wifelust began. The former first lady, like many women, believed that she could write her own script after marriage. She sparked her first wife-related furor during a 60 Minutes interview she gave with her husband during the 1992 presidential campaign. That was the one in which she made the famous proclamation "I'm not sitting here as some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette." Evidently, she was oblivious to the irony that (a) she was there, standing, or rather sitting, by her man and that (b) Tammy Wynette had married five times.
Rodham Clinton's attempts to present herself as an autonomous spouse who had a voice in government policy were met with sneeringcondescension by a parochial press and her husband's political enemies. Other first ladies had been involved in dictating policy in the past, but they were not as public about it. In 1914, Edith Wilson lobbied quietly for the Alley Dwelling bill of 1914 to demolish slums and build new housing with federal money. Eleanor Roosevelt stoked controversy when she pressed a resistant secretary of war to integrate the officer corps and fought for anti-lynching laws and workers' rights. Nancy Reagan, too, was believed to be a power behind the throne, which was rendered palatable because she stared adoringly at her husband in public. But a first lady who dared present herself as an equal was seen to be unnatural, even a freak. This we saw reflected in an image of Rodham Clinton that ran in the satiric magazine Spy in 1995 showing her as an androgyne--female on top, male below. Even in the 1990s, thirty years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, decades after legislative changes had freed the wife, political wives, those highly visible public role models, were expected to remain submissive, secondary.
Hillary Rodham Clinton would prove adept at dipping in and out of the script when it was politically expedient to do so. She kept her maiden name after marriage (adding and subtracting Clinton over the years) but sacrificed her own career advancement by moving with her new husband to Arkansas so he could pursue his political ambitions. She participated in policy decisions but also willingly played the domesticated wife when required. Who remembers flinching in embarrassment as Rodham Clinton participated in a silly chocolate-chip-cookie bake-off with Barbara Bush during the 1996 presidential campaign? She won (rolled oats were her secret ingredient). Less successful were her forays into political policy. After her plans for health-care reform fizzled, Rodham Clinton was reduced to churning out conventional first lady feel-good books--It Takes a Village, Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids' Letters to the First Pets, and An Invitation to the White House, a glossy tome one might have expected from Jacqueline Kennedy. She fussed with her appearance, particularly her hair, which became a political metaphor, as the public debated the semiotics of her bangs and the wisdom of her hairbands.
It wasn't until Rodham Clinton stood by her man during his adultery scandal starring Monica Lewinsky, however, that her approval ratings soared. It was predictable. Finally, she resembled a familiar wife model--bowed, subservient, humiliated. No longer was Rodham Clinton the manic, dangerous career gal like the one played by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, an entertaining piece of fluff that would be elevated to a much-cited benchmark of millennial gender politics. She had morphed into the sympathetic, devoted stay-at-home wife played by Anne Archer, who defends her home from external threat and welcomes her philandering husband back to the hearth.
Even so, Rodham Clinton's defense of her husband created unease. The public didn't want to be reminded that modern marriages are often calculated partnerships requiring unfathomable compromise. Hers was a no-win scenario: where once she was criticized for being too independent, she was later ridiculed for not being independent enough. It was the same conundrum experienced by another political wife, Cherie Booth Blair, who is married to the British prime minister, Tony Blair. In 2001, Booth Blair stoked controversy when she chose to take a leave from her practice as a prominent human rights lawyer to travel with her husband. Germaine Greer, worked into a self-righteous lather, said in an interview that Booth Blair was like a "concubine." She went on to say that the prime minister's wife is "an intelligent woman doing an important job. I don't want to see her coming around being a wife."
But Rodham Clinton also illustrates the complex, hidden power of wife. She exploited hard-won wife leverage to become a U.S. senator, to secure an $8-million advance for her autobiography, and to position herself for a possible run for the U.S. presidency. Any such campaign will be problematic, of course, just as it has been for other women with such lofty aspirations. And that stems from another lingering legacy of the wife script: the false assumption that wives, and by extension women, cannot be dominant; by definition they're beta, never alpha, that quality required in a leader. George W Bush made this clear in a comment he made while he was governor of Texas. Praising his wife, Laura, while clearly taking a jab at Hillary Clinton, he said, "I have thebest wife for the line of work that I'm in. She doesn't try to steal the limelight."
The fact that power and wife are antithetical concepts extends more broadly to how women are perceived in the public realm. Pat Schroeder, the former congresswoman from Colorado who dropped out from a run at the presidency in 1988, once described the White House as "a big tree house with a sign reading NO WOMEN ALLOWED." So entrenched is the notion of the exclusionary "boys' club" (which, more accurately, should be called the "husbands' club") that there is rarely public questioning of why more women don't run for top office. The author Erica Jong pinpointed the problem indirectly in a column that ran on the op-ed page of The New York Times in 2001. "What do American women want in a president?" she asked. "The same thing we want in a husband. Someday we might have a woman candidate, but until then, women want someone masculine but not so masculine that we can't control him." It is a stunning assertion, one that links masculinity to husband to public leadership. There is no room for wives, and by extension women, in that equation.
Jong's comment reflects the entrenched definition of wife as beta. And this is true even when the role is being played by a man, as it increasingly is. In Hello, He Lied, the producer Lynda Rosen Obst observes that in Hollywood, "wife" is the name given to the "nonpro," or a nonplayer, member of a couple: "When one spouse is a nonpro, he or she is definitely the wife, whatever the gender," she writes. "Doctor-husbands of lady agents are routinely ignored at dinner parties (unless they are plastic surgeons) ... ." To return to another definition in The Oxford English Dictionary, it's worth noting that the word wife is used to describe "the passive member of a homosexual partnership."
Though that is shifting, social discomfort prevails when the female wife is the more powerful member of the union. "Mr. Sharon Stone" was the sneering title accorded Phil Bronstein, a San Francisco newspaper executive, when he married the actress in 1998. Such a mindset takes us back to the 1950s, and the Cold War, when the wife holding the upper hand was registered as unnatural, even un-American. One psychological profile of Communist behavior read by both President Eisenhowerand FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover during this period explained that "the tendency seems to be that in Communist marriages the wife is the more dominant partner." When the notorious Communist sympathizers Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in 1953 for espionage, they were described thus: "Julius is the slave and his wife, Ethel, the master."
 
 
Even though Ozzie and Harriet have been replaced by Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, the 1950s housewife embodied by television icons Harriet Nelson, Donna Reed, and June Cleaver continues to dominate wifely imagery. Here we should pause to consider that the roles of these fictional women were the creations of male scriptwriters, which, as we will see, meant that they mirrored the roles played by actual women for centuries.
Depicting the modern wife is a confusing prospect, one captured on the cover of the June 1990 issue of Esquire magazine, which was devoted to "The Secret Life of the American Wife." The image depicted the multiple roles played by the modern Western wife. A photograph of a woman was bisected into quarters: she was a career woman in a dress-for-success business suit; she was a lover in lingerie; she was a domestic worker attired in an apron; she was a mother, as indicated by a superimposed graphic of her reproductive system.
The image drew fire. "How dare a woman be depicted as a side of cattle in a butcher shop?" letter writers fumed. Yet it reflected brilliantly the fragmented reality of the wifely role. The first cover mock-up for this book, in fact, featured an anonymous woman eerily resembling a 1950s sitcom wife. I rejected it, though no more contemporary image readily leaped to mind. Similarly, the British book jacket for Susan Maushart's Wifework, published in 2002, features a retro 1950s photograph of a housewife ironing. The image reflects a great big vacuum--a wife gap, if you will--that exists in the culture. On one side of this gap, the wife remains freeze-dried in a mythical 1950s and early 1960s, the point at which the twentieth-century feminist movement mourned her as being enslaved. On the other side of the chasm, the role of wife is breezily assumed to be a free-form improvisation,like Twyla Thwarp's choreography or an extended Ornette Coleman saxophone solo.
Within this wife gap exists an obvious, though unacknowledged, social conundrum. Women have been freed from the legal shackles traditionally associated with the role of wife. Yet that traditional wife has not been unshackled from our social, economic, and political infrastructures, a fact that affects all women, married or not. Meanwhile, June Cleaver has been left by the roadside, her important, if invisible, social and economic contributions marginalized.
Certainly we're aware women are being held back by something. We've been deluged by books, magazine articles, academic papers, and talk-show pundits offering the latest theory on why women aren't jetting to the top of corporations or political parties, why marriages have become war zones, why relationships between men and women had become so fraught. Solutions are tossed out with abandon. Women are told to "dress for success," to get on the "mommy track," to get off the "mommy track," to become more aggressive, to become less aggressive, to not marry or have children if we want to succeed, and, finally, just to throw in the towel and make wife a career.
Bookstores are filled with volumes of wife-related advice. We are held in the thrall of both fictional and real-wife stories, be they happy or sad, though we prefer the grisly ones. Yet the complex role the wife plays in the jigsaw puzzle of female identity is rarely examined. Not that this should surprise us. The wife has always been a supporting role, never the main act.
Vacuums tend to be filled. The wife gap is no exception. As we will see, it has been infiltrated by political agendas, corporate imperatives, and commercial forces that use the meaning of wife to exercise an insidious control. Despite legislative changes, the role of wife continues to be used as a female control mechanism. Where coverture shackled wives to husbands in centuries past, that shackling today takes a myriad of forms. As such, the meaning of wife doesn't simply influence married women. It has implications for both fourteen-year-old girls and forty-one-year-old divorcees, in that it influences perceptions of what it means to be a woman, even women's choice of career.
The wife gap is an abstraction, but its consequences affect the day-to-day lives of women. As the poet Jill Bialosky observes in an essay published in The Bitch in the House: "I had wanted to get married, but I realized now that I had never wanted to be a 'wife.'" A similar confusion is expressed by Peggy Orenstein in Flux, published in 2000. Orenstein writes that she "fiercely resisted the idea of being a 'wife'" when she married. Yet she also acknowledged that she easily "slipped into the role, especially when it seems, at least in the short term, to benefit me." In the first years of her marriage, she followed the old-fashioned husband-as-breadwinner script with a modern twist: she regarded her own earnings as belonging to her while her husband's earnings were to be shared by the two of them.
Women in the twenty-first century may go out into the workplace to become the men they once wanted to marry--another classic Steinemism--yet they remain influenced by the pull of a script assumed to have been abandoned in the 1950s. When Oprah Winfrey expressed concern on The Tonight Show about becoming "someone else" were she to marry, someone who will "start behaving like a wife," the audience understood she wasn't talking about behaving like a wife who was a Supreme Court judge or an astronaut or even Hillary Rodham Clinton. She was speaking of devolving into a June Cleaver clone dutifully dusting the living room, making the Beaver's lunch, and then preparing a jellied salad to take to the church social.
Vestiges of the old script continue to shadow women who have never even heard the word coverture. Studies reveal, for instance, that young women expect their husbands to be the primary breadwinners, even when wives work outside the home. Another report indicates that three-quarters of female college students believe that the employment of their future husbands should take precedence and that women are more likely to relocate for a spouse's career than men.
This shouldn't surprise us. For all the legislative change that redefined married women's status, for all the social shifting that reshaped women's place in society, for all the dreary droning on about gender, this perplexing juncture we find ourselves in stems in good part from the fact that the old-script wife, that meta-beta Wife, remains institutionallyentrenched. No one has bothered to liberate her. So there she sits, like Mrs. Rochester in the attic, ignored but ever-present.
In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan predicted that once enough women entered the workforce, necessary social changes such as government-sponsored "professionally run nurseries" would follow. That didn't happen. Rather, women learned to joke, with increasing bitterness, about needing wives of their own. On cue, a Wife micro-economy emerged. Occasionally its goods and services are sold at a premium, as is the case with catering, decorating, and therapy. More commonly, however, it employs a new underclass paid consistently with the negligible value traditionally placed on wife labor.
The presence of the institutional Wife is felt in other ways. Consider the ongoing media fascination with the "trend," one not backed by statistics, that wives and mothers are fleeing the workplace, tired of bashing their heads against the mythical glass ceiling (clearly not realizing that it is the entrenched Wife who's pushing her down). This has given birth to yet another wave of feminist backlash in which feminists of the '60s and '70s are routinely blamed for underplaying the satisfactions of domesticity and family. More grieviously, they are taking the heat for enslaving women in the new Wife economy, most famously in Caitlin Flanagan's much-raked-over article in the March 2004 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Dispatches from the Nanny Wars: How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement. In that, Flanagan defined "wife work" as "shit work."
Not surprisingly, feminism has become a convenient scapegoat for social dissent. The "women's movement," which never was a singular "movement" at all, is readily blamed for the anger and frustration over how women's roles have--and, more to the point, have not--evolved. But before we heap on more blame, remember that feminism initiatives of the 1960s and '70s didn't come with guarantees. More to the point, the "movement" suffered from its own wife gap. This is apparent in the June 29, 1998, issue of Time, the one that famously asked "Is Feminism Dead?" The accompanying article argued that the women's movement had "devolved into the silly" between the 1970s and the 1990s, using as evidence the contrast between the ditzy single character Ally McBealand the level-headed single character Mary Richards from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Let's leave aside for a moment the foolishness of basing a critique of modern feminism on the behavior of television characters, even though the approach echoes the common, incorrect reflex to reduce the movement to the behavior of upper-middle-class women in the workforce. And let's not waste time blaming Ally McBeal's creator, David E. Kelley, for undermining hundreds of years of feminism. Like all network-television savants, he was merely adapting cultural currents--or in this case, cultural static--into mass-market fare.
The cover of that issue pictured the faces of feminist leaders Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem, along with Ally McBeal. None was a wife. Nineteenth-century suffragist Anthony never married. "I never felt I could give up my life of freedom to become a man's housekeeper," she once said. Friedan had been a wife, a miserable one. She divorced in 1969, six years after The Feminine Mystique was published, and never remarried. Later she would claim that her husband had beaten her. Yet she would also go on to admit that she exaggerated housewives' unhappiness in her landmark book. In her memoir Life So Far, published in 2000, Freidan wrote that she was "ashamed" she had denied the truth that "as a suburban wife and mother, I had many happy hours with my kids, my husband, my friends and neighbors ..."
Obviously it was more effective, and incendiary, to present the wife as straight-out imprisoned victim. Which leaves us some forty years later trying to untangle grey from black and white as we cut through increasingly polarized meanings of wife that pit woman against woman and threaten to take us back to a time before women's rights could be taken for granted. Again, this isn't surprising. Every culture, every era, reshapes the wife to suit its purposes. Ours is no different. This will become apparent as we venture into the wife gap. There, the first apparition to greet us will be the bride--a commercialized, anesthetized creature awaiting her magical transformation.
THE MEANING OF WIFE. Copyright © 2004 by Anne Kingston. All rights reserved. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.