Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women

Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women

by Susan Maushart

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Wifework is a fiercely argued, in-depth look at the inequitable division of labor between husbands and wives. Bolstering her own personal experience as a twice-married mother of three with substantial research and broad statistical evidence, Susan Maushart explores the theoretical and evolutionary reasons behind marriage inequality. She forces us to consider why 50


Wifework is a fiercely argued, in-depth look at the inequitable division of labor between husbands and wives. Bolstering her own personal experience as a twice-married mother of three with substantial research and broad statistical evidence, Susan Maushart explores the theoretical and evolutionary reasons behind marriage inequality. She forces us to consider why 50 per cent of marriages end in divorce, and why women are responsible for initiating three-quarters of them. If family life is worth saving, and Maushart passionately believes it is, the job description for wives will have to be rewritten.

Susan Maushart was born in New York and has lived in Australia since 1985. Her first book, Sort of a Place Like Home, won a Festival Award for Literature at the Adelaide Festival in 1994, and her second, The Mask of Motherhood, was published to international acclaim. She is a senior research associate at Curtin University, a columnist for the Australian Magazine and lives in Perth with her three children.
'An often funny dissection of modern marriage...100 percent honest. [A] smart and witty book.' -Publishers Weekly
'With good-humored aplomb, Maushart makes clear she doesn't think marriage or men are "rotten", but that "the way we typically divide up the business-and the pleasure, too-of our adult relationships is inefficient, maladaptive, and unfair.'-Bookpage
'Maushart assembles an overwhelming amount of data documenting how marriage has perpetuated inequities between husband and wife.'-Christian Science Monitor Daily
'Susan Maushart's heartfelt and incendiary Wifework is a brief against traditional marriage that took me back to the galvanizing effect of reading Friedan.' -Salon.com
'A wake-up call for women feeling trapped by marriage.'-Booklist

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Maushart is able to show the amazing disparity between what we say and what we do within a marriage.” —The Weekend Australian
Publishers Weekly
Wifework, "the care and maintenance of men's bodies, minds and egos" is a one-way street, says Maushart, something wives do for husbands at great cost to their mental and physical health, with minimal reciprocation. According to her, even fully employed wives do a disproportionate amount of housework, in addition to "child-care drudgework," "monitoring His physical well-being," "deferring to His agenda in day-to-day conversation," maintaining "His extended family relationships," etc. Maushart (The Mask of Motherhood) counters that he, in contrast, is merely a "volunteer" in the marriage; apart from providing an income, he's really only expected to "turn up" at family events. That such inequality endures at least in Maushart's view despite feminism and economic progress for women, is a question the author explores here. This Australian writer asserts that while men use various denial mechanisms to avoid wifework (like trivializing the importance of cleaning), what's worse is that most wives seem to collude in "maintaining positive illusions" about the inequality in their marriages. Her solution? Readers may expect a call for the end of marriage, but Maushart pleads for the interests of the children, for whom she says divorce is worse than living with marital discord. Instead, she advocates that couples relieve some wifework by assigning broad areas of responsibility (laundry, cooking, etc.) to husbands. And women should expect less, she says; they should realize that "marriage entails a sort of base level of unhappiness that couples need to learn to anticipate and accept." Though that's a downbeat ending for an often funny dissection of modern marriage, it is 100% honest like the rest of this smart and witty book. (Mar.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
That marriage is a problematic institution comes as no surprise to anyone who's ever been in one or watched from the sidelines. To the spate of books claiming to have the answer to marriage's woes come two thoughtful and well-researched offerings, which take slightly different tacks. In Wifework, Maushart (Sort of a Place Like Home) suggests that the main reason divorce is so prevalent and is initiated by women three quarters of the time is that marriage is simply a better deal for men than for women. According to Maushart, women are too often expected to perform "wifework" the time-consuming and energy-draining effort to maintain men's bodies, minds, and egos. From preparing meals specifically to his taste and schedule to deferring to his agenda in day-to-day conversation, wives are involved, mentally and physically, with husband care. And it's not reciprocated. Maushart has put her finger on a marital hot spot, one voiced among women but rarely publicly. Still, this book isn't about blame but about realizing one aspect of the problem and working to fix it through true partnership, which Maushart emphasizes over any specific advice. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

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Bloomsbury USA
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

wifework: the job description

'Wife: 1. a. A woman: formerly in general sense; in later use restricted to a woman of humble rank or "of low employment".' Oxford English Dictionary

In many languages, there is a single word for 'wife' and 'woman'. Perhaps we should be thankful that English is no longer one of them. Somewhere in the last quarter-century, the term 'wife' has lost its neutrality. Once a simple descriptor of a woman's marital status, the word today evidently means a whole lot more—and a whole lot less—than it did a generation or two ago. Even sociologists and demographers speak of 'married women' or 'female partners', as if 'wife' were a four-letter word best left unspoken in polite company.

    Many married women today actually shun the designation 'wife'. They fantasise about acquiring a wife, not becoming one. 'Well, I'd have another wedding,' one divorced woman explained, 'but next time around I'd make sure I married someone who didn't want a wife.' I'd wager that 99 per cent of ever-married women know exactly what she means—and that a similar proportion of ever-married men wouldn't have a clue.

    Wives, it seems, have gone the way of patterned lino, fondue pots and ironed sheets—a cultural collectable now viewed with amused disdain. 'Take my wife ... please!' went the old gag. It used to make husbands laugh until they were weak. Yet somewhere in the last few decades, it seems somebody hastaken her.

    We hear a lot these days about the breakdown of the family. We've been hearing it for a long time now. In the US, the divorce rate now exceeds 50 per cent; in the UK it is only slightly under that figure. Even in conservative Australia, 43 per cent of all marriages end in divorce. In raw figures, that's 50,000 divorces a year—carrying an estimated price tag of six billion dollars in court, health and social security costs. Young people are especially divorce-prone, with most break-ups occurring after two to four years of marriage. In the UK, it is estimated that a third of couples marrying right now will be divorced within fifteen years. In the US, reflecting trends throughout the English-speaking world, approximately one child in four now lives with a single parent—no surprise when you realise that roughly two-thirds of all American marriages that end in divorce involve children. So-called 'traditional' families—two parents plus dependent children—now constitute only a quarter of all US households, and the profile is similar throughout the industrialised world.

    And yet social researchers, with apparent seriousness of purpose, continue to struggle with the question of whether marriage still 'works'. Maybe it's just habit. Books with titles like The Future of Marriage or (more ominously) The End of Marriage have been pouring from both academic and popular presses for decades. They all seem to conclude the same way: acknowledging that there are 'difficulties', yet ultimately promising 'real change'.

    Such faith is touching. It is also a little puzzling. As social critic Dalma Heyn observes in her book Marriage Shock, any other social institution with a track record this dismal would have been dismantled long ago. Imagine a public-school system in which half the students dropped out. Or a justice system in which a third of law-breakers could be counted on to re-offend—or in which a third of juries handed down demonstrably false verdicts. Imagine a health-care system that disabled four in ten of its users, or an institution of higher learning rendering half of its graduates unemployable for life. For a society to tolerate such obvious inefficiencies and ineptitudes would seem unthinkable. Yet when it comes to marriage, we are willing, even eager, to make exceptions. Why?

    Why do we remain agnostic on the question of whether we 'believe in' marriage? Why, despite an avalanche of evidence for the prosecution, do we remain reluctant to convict?

    The reason, I have become convinced, is quite simple. As everybody knows, marriage works for some people, but not for others. It follows logically that we can't really analyse 'marriage' until we know whose marriage we're talking about. Yet by that I do not mean the Smiths' marriage versus the Joneses', or the Finkelsteins' versus the Fongs', or a 'good' marriage versus a 'bad' one.

    I mean His marriage versus Her marriage. The husband's marriage versus the wife's.

    We can't make up our minds about marriage because we have not yet acknowledged that these two versions of the one relationship are fundamentally and perhaps irreconcilably divergent. And, more to the point, we have not yet acknowledged—perhaps not even to ourselves—that His marriage still works. And Hers doesn't.

    It was the noted American sociologist Jessie Bernard who first articulated the concept of the two marriages. 'Anyone ... discussing the future of marriage has to specify whose marriage he is talking about: the husband's or the wife's,' she observed. 'For there is by now a very considerable body of well authenticated research to show that there really are two marriages in every marital union, and that they do not always coincide.' Bernard wrote those words almost thirty years ago. Today, of course, we live in a different world. Today, they almost never coincide.

    Ironically, our belief that the two marriages should coincide, indeed that they must do so, has grown ever stronger. Our new egalitarian convictions have made it even harder to penetrate beyond the veil, as it were. Both males and females in our society publicly profess their dedication to the ideal of what social researchers call 'companionate marriage'—a covenant between two equally loving and nurturant partners, in which the divisions of labour and leisure are negotiated rationally, equitably and, above all, without reference to gender.

    But when a woman marries, what she sees is not what she gets. The exterior architecture of the contemporary marriage emphasises fluidity, simplicity and light. No wonder it's got such fantastic street appeal. Venture inside, however, and you're in for a nasty shock. Notwithstanding the tastefully renovated facade, the interior of today's marriages remains as dusty, cramped and overelaborated as a Victorian drawing-room. It looks awful. And it feels worse. Is it really so surprising that so many of us eventually pack up and leave that house—even if it renders us literally homeless to do so?

    Look closely at the facts surrounding so-called family breakdown and a surprising pattern emerges. The edifice that's crumbling is not really 'marriage' at all. Being married is not the problem. Nor is being a parent, or at least not in the same way. The problem is being a wife.

    Everyone knows the divorce rate in our society has skyrocketed, but few realise that two-thirds to three-quarters of those divorces are initiated by women. The inescapable conclusion is that women are more dissatisfied within marriage than men. Perhaps even more telling, the vast majority of divorced women—more than eight in ten, according to Australian Institute of Family Studies researchers Irene Wolcott and Jody Hughes—report having no regrets about their choice. They are also nearly twice as likely as divorced men to describe themselves as being happy. No wonder ex-wives are so much slower to remarry than ex-husbands. Married women who imagine they might be better off single often find, upon divorce, that they really are better off single. Not financially—divorce typically lowers a woman's standard of living by 73 per cent and raises a man's by 42 per cent—but emotionally. Psychologically. Spiritually. Even physically.

    In a review of studies of adult well-being conducted over a period of three decades, sociologist Janice Steil found that married women consistently fare worse on every measure—including feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression—than their husbands. Unemployed wives are the most disadvantaged of all females. These women consistently report the greatest number of psychiatric symptoms and experience the highest incidence of depression.

    Indeed, for females, depression and marriage go together like the proverbial horse and carriage. Wives report levels of depression two to three times higher than unmarried women, and, if they are unhappily married, three times higher than that of their husbands. (Bizarrely, the depression rate for women in 'happy marriages' is higher still!) As Dalma Heyn has observed, compared to single women, wives suffer 'more nervous breakdowns, inertia, loneliness, unhappiness with their looks; more insomnia, heart palpitations, nervousness, and nightmares; more phobias; more feelings of incompetence, guilt, shame, and low self-esteem'. 'Many problems brought to individual psychotherapy are really relationship problems,' notes Howard Markman, head of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. 'First and foremost is depression among women. Our studies show a co-variation of depression and marital problems.'

    It's not that marriage is bad for women. On most well-being indicators, in fact, married women score slightly higher than their single sisters. But what sociologists call the 'protective effect' of marriage is far weaker for women than it is for men. 'Marriage is pretty good for the goose most of the time, but golden for the gander practically all the time,' notes Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Natalie Angier, author of Woman: An Intimate Geography. That's a fair summation of the research. But it also begs a number of questions. Questions like, 'pretty good' compared to what? And 'Is "pretty good" good enough for a woman to stake her life on?'

    Studies of adult well-being do show that married women edge out their single sisters—often narrowly—on many indicators. But for women, there are some significant holes in the marital ozone layer. Women gain from marriage, no question. But the ratio of benefits to costs is nowhere near as advantageous to wives as it is to husbands.

    Women who tell themselves that marriage is 'just a piece of paper', that 'it won't make any difference to our relationship at all', are kidding themselves. If you are female, marriage will make a huge difference—and a surprising proportion of that difference will be negative. 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. Is it any wonder that increasing numbers of single women are happy to stay that way? Although three-quarters of all people who divorce will eventually re-marry, men are three times more likely to do so than women? In the US, the number of unmarried couples has nearly doubled in the 1990s, from 3.2 to 5.5 million. In 2000, for the first time ever, the number of Americans living alone—26 per cent of all households—surpassed the number of married-couple households with children. Families headed by women who have children grew nearly five times faster in the 1990s than did two-parent nuclear families. Demographers are now predicting that, among Australian women thirty-five and younger, up to 45 per cent will never marry at all. In the UK, out of 3.8 million women in their thirties, almost a million are single or divorced. The British Office for National Statistics forecasts that a quarter of all women will be single by the year 2020.

    One can only speculate how many among this growing number will remain 'never-married' by choice. The evidence, however, strongly suggests that single women are increasingly cynical about their marriage prospects. Data from the 1993 US General Social Survey showed that three in four never-married men under the age of thirty described getting married as important for their lives—compared with only two-thirds of young women. From one point of view, of course, both are absurd underestimates. Marriage profoundly affects all of us, 100 per cent, male and female alike. Whether we ever personally undertake it, whether we even choose to 'believe' in it, marriage remains the basic building block of our social structure, the very touchstone of adult identity.

    Monogamy is supposed to be 'a compromise offering something for everyone', argues evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. Evidently, what it's offering women today is simply not enough.

    The research shows that His marriage feels better the more closely it approaches the traditional nuclear template. Her marriage feels better the further it retreats from that ideal. Wives experience the highest levels of physical and psychological well-being in marriages where there are few or no young children, where the gap between their own and their husbands' incomes is relatively small, and where they continuously pursue a full-time career that predates the marriage. As researchers have been quick to point out, these factors all increase a woman's power in the relationship, and empowered women—surprise, surprise!—are happier with their lives and therefore happier as wives.

    One would think this would make for stronger, more successful marriages. One would be wrong.

    It doesn't take a PhD in sociology to observe that the better women fare in the workforce the worse they (and their partners) seem to fare in marriage. Indeed, a look at the figures reveals a clear inverse relationship between marriage dissolution and women's improving socio-economic status. Some researchers have suggested that for high-earning women, the 'opportunity costs' of marriage may simply prove exorbitant. Without doubt, what the sociological establishment still euphemistically calls 'status inconsistency' has become a big risk factor for marital instability—but only when the wife's professional rank exceeds her husband's. When his status is higher, the inconsistency, it seems, is, well, consistent. A woman's educational attainments are also inversely linked to marital stability. As her qualifications increase, so does the likelihood that her marriage will come unstuck.

    What's more—and more disturbing—is that the greater a wife's earnings relative to her husband, the worse she says she feels about herself as a spouse. For men, it's exactly the opposite. It seems that, despite the worst fears of most males, if women had their way in marriage they would no more seek to dominate men than they would seek to weave themselves into doormats. So what do women want? The answer, the research suggests, is something far more elusive. Researchers call it 'equality'. You and I might call it 'justice'.

    Men want equality in marriage, too, of course. The difference is, they think they already have it. If we accept that 'equal' has become a kind of code word for 'unproblematic'—and I am convinced it has—then this perception becomes a great deal more explicable.

    Marriage is not only unproblematic for men, it is positively and empirically life-enhancing. Men do not initiate divorce for one very simple reason: they like being married. For men, marriage not only still feels good. It is good. And the more traditional that marriage is, the better it gets. What gets better? Just about everything, if the research is to be believed. In the words of University of Virginia sociologist Steven Nock, 'Men reap greater gains than women for virtually every outcome affected by marriage'. Marriage increases men's wages. It reduces substance abuse, drinking and other unhealthy behaviours. Married men see their relatives more often, attend church more regularly, go to the pub less, and have greater involvement in community organisations. They are also more philanthropic (he may be less likely to help out a friend, but a married man is more likely to assist a relative or make a public donation). Married men live longer, in part because they are less likely to be murdered than unmarried men. Marriage enhances men's mental health, providing a particular bulwark against depression. For men, it is not marriage, but divorce, that poses the greatest risk for depression. Divorced men are not only more depressed than married men, they are more depressed than anybody, of any marital status.


Excerpted from WIFEWORK by Susan Maushart. Copyright © 2001 by Susan Maushart. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Susan Maushart was born in New York and has lived in Australia since 1985. Her first book, Sort of a Place Like Home, won a Festival Award for Literature at the Adelaide Festival in 1994, and her second, The Mask of Motherhood, was published to international acclaim. She is a senior research associate at Curtin University, a columnist for the Australian Magazine and lives in Perth with her three children.

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