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Becoming a Wife

Lisa Wade, PhD., editor and writer for Sociological Images, just posted a retort to an article published by Traci McMillan called “Why You’re Not Married.” Dedicated to women, McMillan states that the reasons women are still not married include the following:

  1. You’re a Bitch
  2. You’re Shallow
  3. You’re a Slut
  4. You’re a Liar
  5. You’re Selfish
  6. You’re Not Good Enough (at least, you don’t think so)

According to McMillan, these are the main reasons that women continue to be single today, even though they woke up one morning and decided that they wanted to be married—and were not.

In her retort, Lisa Wade makes the following points as to why she is not married. The one that is most interesting and inspires our discussion is this:

I’m not married because the history of marriage is ugly and anti-woman; because I don’t like the common meanings of the words “wife” and “husband”; and because even today, and even among couples that call themselves feminist, gender inequality in relationships is known to increase when a couple moves from cohabitation to marriage (and I don’t think I’m so special that I’ll be the anomaly).

This is something I think about all the time—ever since I said my own “I do,” and ever since I assumed the title of “wife.” It is what spurred me to run out and buy Marilyn Yalom’s A History of the Wife (HarperCollins, 2001).

A scholar and writer focused on deconstructing the ways with which institutions have normalized archaic attitudes toward women, Yalom uses this book to examine the role of the wife beginning from Ancient times all the way to the new millennium—when this book was published. In the present, women have choices. This is the new feminism. Women earn degrees, get top-notch careers, and if they choose to, leave those high-paying positions in order to assume the “traditional” roles of women—wife and mother. This is a choice. Today’s women are not thrown into these roles with the kind of force and limited objectives of the past. In the past, women had no choices. Becoming a wife and a mother was their destiny—and all other goals were deferred or completely let go. But even today’s women have the same problems that Wade refers to: inequality in marriage. Being a wife today is a choice, but once women become wives, their role within the home is prescribed and enforced. Wives—no matter the era—still have the same tasks: children and housework. And no matter how progressive the husband—or the couple—the men tend to do less with both.

This is not to say that men aren’t stepping up to the plate of domesticity and taking responsibility for their children. Some are. But when it comes to most childcare issues and housework, these are still tasks allotted  to women. Yalom counters the argument that even though men have taken steps toward equality in marriage and domestic responsibilities, “they have not yet become full partners as caretakers and homemakers, while most women are working as hard as the men in the workplace and slowly narrowing the gender gap in earning power” (xv). When it comes to women entering the workforce, they are exceeding the requirements placed upon them by the public spaces of masculinity. They’re hard-working, ambitious, and tenacious. Men, on the other hand, when asked to contribute to their family in ways other than financial means, aren’t as motivated. While women gain power, men perceive the domestic sphere of wives and children as lacking in power, and they are not as willing to lower their standards or “reconceptualize [their] masculinity” by doing women’s work.

But there was nothing wrong with it when women were doing it—when women were simply wives and mothers. It is a lowly placed designed for women—and they have assumed these roles, as Yalom points out, for centuries. According to Yalom, “From the biblical days to the 1950s, it was a husband’s duty to provide for his wife. She, in turn, was expected to to provide sex, children, and housekeeping” (xiv). Beginning with Judeo-Christian ideology and its representation of Eve, Adam’s “other,” formed from him and for him, and leading into the 1900’s women did not have the choices we have today. The men in their lives, whether they were fathers, husbands, uncles, or sons were the masters of women’s fate. Men governed inside and outside the home. Wives did as they were told, or else they suffered consequences the likes of beatings, rapes, or divorce.

Today, women primarily marry for love, not for status or protection. And yet, as soon as we choose love, choose marriage, choose to stay at home with our children, we also choose the kind of marriage that is as “ugly and anti-woman” as Lisa Wade describes it. Aware of how marriage continues to uphold sexist norms of women, Wade chooses love over marriage. She does so because she can; it’s her choice. But she also chooses this because she is aware of how marriage is an old institution that forces men and women to subscribe to old styles of living. Husbands and wives, no longer lovers, preserve attitudes that were established in patriarchal roots, steeped in religious and ideological beliefs prevalent circa ancient times. Yalom asserts the same concerns in her chapter on “Toward the New Wife, 1950-2000.” Marriage is often viewed as more of a positive experience for men, but not so for many women because it “is not yet truly equal…wives experience greater stress than husbands from their career/family obligations, and that women put more time into caring for children, aged parents, and sick relatives” (394).

Ten years after the publication of Yalom’s book, it is interesting to find that not much has changed. What is changing, slowly, is the way we perceive our roles as women and as wives. The choices that we have today offer us individual and unique ways with which to redefine “wifehood” for ourselves. As Yalom states, “To be a wife today…is a truly creative endeavor” (400). No one knows when we will completely rid society of its dependence on the “little woman” (400) idea that persists even in the present post-feminist era, but a new kind of wife is on the horizon as we endeavor to balance work, life, and family to suit our individual needs.


Marina DelVecchio
Marina DelVecchio is the author of The Prostitute's Daughter, a memoir in which she shows how she has used literature to combat a life of abuse and poverty. She blogs about female agency and the necessary empowerment of our daughters at http://marinagraphy.com. Her work can be found at the Huffington Post, The New Agenda, the WM Parenting Connection, and BlogHer. She teaches writing and literature on the college level.
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  • Kate Robinson

    I think it is up to women to demand equality within marriage and not marry men who are not truly egalitarian. I would not be married to someone who didn’t equally share every chore/task. From articles like the one you refer to herein to the one in last month’s Atlantic Magazine, I see women mostly SEEKING paychecks so they can choose to stay home when they have kids. Hence, why shouldn’t the person at home bear the burden of most of the housework, etc.? When my husband was home full time when I worked when the kids were babies, HE did it all.

  • L.George Alexander

    I did not want to be married after seeing what my mother and the mothers of my friends went through as a youngster. I wanted to be in charge of my own life. I tried it anyhow because I wanted children. It was exactly as I feared. Many people out there choose to be married and some do not. I am happy I have that choice. Many women in this world do not. When I fall down in the work place, I have to pick myself up and get back into the game. No one is going to support me but me. Luckily, I had children but I raised them on my own and they are fine. The key here is choice. I am lucky that I was able to do that and although I live in a country that I could do that, it wasn’t easy. I lost promotions to men all of the time, and it was so glaring obvious that I lost it to them because they were men I had to restrain myself from hitting my head against the wall. One promotion, I was told was given to a man who had a two year degree in the general education and I had a graduate degree in the field.They said they gave it to him because of his education so thus my desire for head bashing. They gave me a raise anyhow and I took it. I found another job that paid more and had better benefits later. That is what women do, look for better opportunities. Marriage is not a place of better opportunities. It is a chance to marry money, that is true; but it is always someone else’s money. I wanted my own. Today, I may not have much; but it is all mine. Inequality exists in marriage because of the expectation of male and female roles. When I did marry I found myself doing what I said I would never do, following behind my husband as he established the time and place we did things and cleaning up as we went along. Now, I establish the route I take and although I still clean up it is only my mess that I clean and only my wash that I do. Maybe a generation will come along when these expectations will not be in place. I hope so, but it won’t have me in the marriage harness to see if it will work out. That is something for a future generation. The definition of marriage and family do change as the years go by and thank goodness it does.

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