The Meaning of Wife

In 2004, wifehood is an increasingly popular commodity

| September 9, 2004

What does it mean to be a wife in 2004? Is wifedom an increasingly desired occupation, or an antiquated and inherently unequal institution? These questions have been raised and debated for decades, and now they are being taken up with new fervor in The Meaning of Wife by Anne Kingston. Kingston analyzes her version of a feminist backlash, which she calls 'the wife gap,' describing a trend toward wifehood and domesticity among professional women. Women who do not have the choice to return to the home are practically ignored. Kingston scrutinizes wedding rituals, sexless marriages, domestic abuse, divorce laws, popular perceptions of single women, and the economic value of unpaid domestic labor using all usual suspects as tools: novels, self-help books, television shows, surveys, statistics, and like any good feminist, ad campaigns.

Kingston begins by examining the renewed enthusiasm for Cinderella brides, reality wedding shows, and books like The Rules. All these are evidence that wifehood is becoming the subject of a 'romantic revival.' Kingston's sources say that more women are embracing so-called traditional values by choosing elaborate white weddings, expansive engagement rings, and their husband's surname.

But of course, many different social forces can be at work. For Kingston, female career frustration and the glass ceiling, and the failure of the promises of feminism are causing woman to seek what they perceive as more fulfilling roles at home. Maybe more fulfilling simply means encountering less adversity. Similarly, Kingston believes that the pressure to balance work and family is too difficult. Another failed promise of feminism was that men would share these burdens, which by and large they do not.

But lavish weddings need not necessarily mean the status of wifehood has been elevated to anything more than a fetish. Lavish weddings could be an example of an increased commercialization of the ritual of marriage. After all, the more divorces one has the more elaborate weddings in which one can become a wife.

In addition, books like The Rules have emerged not only because women are encountering glass ceilings at work, but because, at least according to Barbara Erenrich in her acclaimed 1982 work, The Hearts of Men, the post-1960's American male does not feel the kind of monogamous commitments and or adhere to the kind of breadwinner ethic that men of previous generations ascribed to. The question then, is not whether marriage is an unequal institution, as Kingston maintains, but why women are seeking books like The Rules for advice on all kinds of relationships, marriage or otherwise? Why has tradition become a more important value in recent times?

The Meaning of Wife ends by offering some solutions, most of which have been on the feminist agenda for a long time: better childcare, removing the bias against working wives, equal divisions of domestic labor, acknowledging the value of wives' work.

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