The Meaning of Wifeby Anne Kingston
There is a wife crisis in North America, a brewing storm of conflicting forces swirling around what it means to be a wife at the beginning of the 21st Century. The word is so fraught with ambiguity that it has become a litmus test,/b>
"One part The Beauty Myth . . . and one part Backlash"*--a provocative exploration of who and what a wife really is.
There is a wife crisis in North America, a brewing storm of conflicting forces swirling around what it means to be a wife at the beginning of the 21st Century. The word is so fraught with ambiguity that it has become a litmus test, eliciting from women emotions ranging from longing to antipathy, anxiety to derision. This crisis 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, Kingston takes the reader 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 thier understanding of wives. The result is an entertaining mix of social, sexual, historical, and economic commentary that is bound to stir debate even as it reframes our view of both women and marriage.
- HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from The Meaning of Wife by Anne Kingston. Copyright © 2004 by Anne Kingston. Published in March 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
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, comprisingonly 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.
0 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 1990s--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 that respect, 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 our 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 earning 57 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 presented as 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 and workplace 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.
Meet the Author
Anne Kingston's writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Saturday Night, Toronto Life and The Chicago Sun-Times Magazine. She is a columnist for the National Post, where she writes on social and cultural issues.
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