The Meaning of Wife A Provocative Look at Women and Marriage in the Twenty-first Century

Anne Kingston




Trade Paperback

352 Pages


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The word 'wife' is, as the 21st-century begins, so fraught with ambiguity that it has become a litmus test, eliciting from women emotions ranging from longing to antipathy, anxiety to derision. This telling ambiguity is at the heart of Anne Kingston's The Meaning of Wife.

Delving into the complex, troubling, and sometimes humorous contradictions, illusions, and realities of contemporary wifehood, noted social critic Kingston takes us on a fascinating journey into the wedding industrial complex, which elevates the bride to a potent consumer icon; through the recent romanticization of domesticity; and across the conflicted terrain of wifely sexuality. She looks at "wife backlash," and the new wave of neo-traditionalism that urges women to marry before their "best-before" dates expire; explores the apotheosis of abused wives and the strange celebration of wives who kill; and muses on the fact that Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart, two of the world's wealthiest and most influential women, are both non-wives whose success has hinged on their understanding of wives.

The Meaning of Wife is an entertaining mix of social, cultural, sexual, historical, and economic commentary that is sure to challenge, inform, and enlighten and even as it reframes our view of both women and marriage.


Praise for The Meaning of Wife

"The Meaning of Wife styles itself in the tradition of Backlash and The Beauty Myth: It's a pop-culture-literate survey of the last twenty-five years that serves up feminist ideas with a lively touch."—The Village Voice

"Kingston's spirited romp across the kitchens and boardrooms, bedrooms, courtrooms, and shopping malls of modern culture yields important . . . insights about wifehood in the twenty-first century."—Chicago Tribune

"Entertaining . . . Kingston's quirky sensibility (shades of Caitlin Flanagan) and her clever readings of pop culture make this book stand out . . . The analysis is delightful."—Newsday

"Smart and sophisticated . . . Kingston's radar is, as always, acute . . . Here's one title the neighborhood book clubs absolutely do not want to wait for in paperback."—Toronto Star

"Fascinating . . . With considerable intelligence and objectivity, Kingston provides a historic perspective that elicits anger, sorrow, and belly laughs . . . [The book] raises important questions."—Elizabeth Simpson, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

"Kingston is a sharp writer with an engaging style, and she smartly avoids both right- and left-wing dogmatism . . . [The Meaning of Wife] proves thought-provoking [and zooms] in on all the right questions."—Catherine Tunnacliffe, Eye Weekly

"[This is] the most up-to-date and realistic point of view on the world's oldest profession . . . To wed or not to wed? and, once wed, what does the role of wife mean? Anne Kingston's analysis of these and related questions to the evolution of wife is bang on. Scrupulous research has resulted in this must-read for any woman . . . The mainstream media is littered with examples of womanhood and superwoman and Kingston considers it all. From Sex and the City, Ally McBeal, Pretty Woman—even from Princess Diana's fairy tale wedding to the abuse and murder of Nicole Simpson—Kingston leaves no aspect of wife or unwife unturned . . . Kingston's mastery of her craft is evident throughout, and she enlightens her readers without marginalizing men or creating the illusion that for women to be empowered, men must be emasculated. Nevertheless, she makes very clear the value of women's work and the status of wife that still exists, no matter how dishevelled the image may be . . . This straightforward analysis of how women are categorized into modern roles of womanhood is guaranteed to inform and reform how women view themselves as wives and women."—Christina Erl-Daniels, Empowerment4Women

"Provocative . . . An encyclopedic examination of wifedom . . . The Meaning of Wife offers an entertaining mix of social, sexual, historical, and economic commentary . . . With endnotes, a bibliography, and a handy index, it weighs in as a book that will keep you thinking long after you put it down."—Jennifer Davis McDaid, Richmond Times-Dispatch

"The word 'wife' has defined women for untold generations, but who is defining the word itself? Kingston has amassed a wealth of sociological research and tempered it with a wry wit to produce a compelling analysis of the forces behind the marriage message."—Suzanne Braun Levine, former editor of Ms. and author of Father Courage and Inventing the Rest of Our Lives

"Billion dollar wedding industry notwithstanding, it appears that as women get more rights, both women and men need a wife and fewer people want to be one. With insight and humor Anne Kingston analyzes the wife, and reveals the many inequalities that still face women."—Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, co-authors of Manifesta and Grassroots

"Kingston has written that rarest of books—a work of trenchant social analysis that is also compulsively readable and culturally hip."—Letty Cottin Pogrebin, founding editor of Ms. and author of Three Daughters

"Every wife, former wife, and wife-to-be—every woman, period—should read this impeccably researched, important, and enlightening book about what the 'w' word means today. Kudos and gratitude to Anne Kingston."—Cathi Hanauer, editor of The Bitch in the House and author of My Sister's Bones

"This encyclopedic examination of wifedom should trump wedding magazines on the list of required reading for prospective brides. Canadian journalist Kingston's behind-the-scenes tour of not-always-holy matrimony begins with a visit to the inner sanctum of Vera Wang's exclusive Madison Avenue bridal boutique and ends with an analysis of how much a wife is worth in economic terms. Along the way, she shines her spotlight on the bedroom, several real-world first wives' clubs, Carrie Bradshaw's single-girl lair, and the worlds of women who have killed or maimed abusive husbands . . . Kingston asks some important questions—How does marriage affect a woman's sense of self? Is it possible to place a dollar value on a mother's work? How is our idea of the wife shaped over the decades?—and challenges a new generation of brides to come up with their own creative answers."—Publishers Weekly

"Kingston, an award-winning Canadian journalist, explores the changing meaning of marriage and, hence, of a woman's identity as a wife (or nonwife) over the past 40 years. Writing from a cultural and historical context, she connects disparate issues such as the current 'wife gap' (if the traditional caregivers are out working, who will take on the responsibilities that are critically important to our culture but are devalued economically?); how the 'wedding industrial complex' compels single women to plan a budget-blowing dream wedding yet ignores the reality that married women still do most of the drudge work; and the clinical problem of wives having no libido. The author also examines pop culture, e.g., the television show Sex and the City, and what it tells us about the ambiguity that American women feel about the wife role. The book is a fun read."—Library Journal

"A wonderfully entertaining look at society's ambivalent attitudes about wives. Canadian journalist Kingston points out that wife, not hooker, is the oldest profession, but the idea of what constitutes a wife is full of contradictions and ambiguities, at least in Western society. Drawing on a wealth of material garnered from movies, television, books, newspapers, and magazines, she looks at the many facets of wifedom: wife-to-be, working wife, abused wife, trophy wife, power wife, ex-wife. The perpetuation by the 'wedding industrial complex' of the myth of the modern bride as fairy-tale heroine, the romanticizing of domesticity by the media in the 1990s (think Martha Stewart), the justifications for spousal-abuse retaliation, the economic value of a wife, the financial repercussions of divorce—all are explored with a host of examples, mostly from pop culture, but also from interviews with wives, ex-wives, and other experts. A chapter on ex-wives shows us the calculated and joyous revenge of the jilted wives in Olivia Goldsmith's The First Wives Club, the wrath of Medea, and the real-life rage of Betty Broderick, a middle-aged American woman who, in 1989, shot her ex-husband and his new young wife as they lay sleeping . . . Well-padded with stories about famous and infamous wives, including Princess Diana, Hillary Clinton, Lorena Bobbit, Nicole Brown Simpson, and a slew of heroines from novels and TV sitcoms, the book is pleasantly amusing, wonderfully readable, and sometimes thought-provoking . . . Kingston concludes that there is no singular meaning of wife [and her journey to] that conclusion is definitely a diverting one."—Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

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,...

Read the full excerpt


  • Anne Kingston

  • Anne Kingston is a highly regarded social commentator in her native Canada. Her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Saturday Night, Toronto Life, and The Chicago Sun-Times Magazine. Kingston is a columnist for the National Post, where she writes on social and cultural issues.

  • Anne Kingston



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