Saturday, March 27, 2010

How to Be a Good Wife

It's not news. I have been hearing about it in my office for more than two decades. Young women want to get married; they want to be brides; they want to be mothers... but they do not want to be wives.

If you are somewhat advanced in age, you can only greet this information with surprise. A marriage is a social relationship; it has defined rules and roles; these rules and roles imply obligations and duties. Without all of that you have two autonomous human monads going bump in the night. Not much of a marriage that.

I started reflecting about these questions while reading Lisa Belkin's columns on the topic. Links here and here.

I am not sure that it is fair to say that women object to being wives. After all, wife is merely a variant of the term woman. In French the same word femme serves double duty. It means woman and wife.

In truth, feminists object to the term wife, and no small number of them also believe that the term woman is prejudicial to their interests. They are offended by the fact that there is a "man" in wo-man. The indignity of it all...

This is of a piece with the larger theoretical effort to neuter the language and to tyrannize those who do not comply with politically correct dicta. Don't say man and woman; we are all persons. Replace mother and father with parents. In place of husband and wife, we have partners or spouses. And get rid of son and daughter. They are two gender specific. Your offspring must always be called children, even when they grow up.

Feminists are not just trying to unsex men; the more radical among them have been more than happy to unsex women tpp.

Feminism imagines that language creates reality, and that gender differences can be erased if they are banned from the language. It is a kind of willful self-blinding, the kind that only works if everyone has their head in the sand.

Feminists have imagined that group of male tyrants got together one day and created gender-specific terms in order to empower themselves and to make everyone else into chattel slaves. They concluded that the best way to correct this injustice was to empower themselves and to force everyone to talk the way they want them to talk.

If, however, our language reflects things as they are, if it helps us to make our way in the real world, then feminists have fallen prey to an illusion. They have failed to come to terms with reality. Refusing to look at something does not make it disappear.

Language develops through usage. Most of it is the product of the way everyday people talk. It feels like a marketplace phenomenon, where time and usage, the crucible of human experience, produces a language that works for people, that serves their purposes. You can always try to control or to rewrite the language, just as people try to control the marketplace, but it is surely a fool's errand.
In one sense feminists believe that language must be punished for dividing the sexes. In another they believe that certain words retain a link to customs that have been prejudicial to certain people.

If wives were prohibited from owning property in their own names a few centuries ago, then, according to feminist reasoning, every time you use the word wife you are dragging along this unpleasant history.

To which one might reply that the institution of marriage, during the better part of human history, involved arrangements in which women had very little, if any, say about the choice of a husband.

During the past few centuries, especially in the West, and most especially in Great Britain and America, women have gained the right to choose their husbands freely. Has the institution of marriage changed for as much? I would say that it has, in an important way. The new regimen brought love into marriage. When marriages were arranged, romantic love was the province of adultery... through courtly love, and with courtesans, concubines, favorites, mistresses, and the like.

If the institution has changed appreciable, then why don't we call it something other than marriage? Why are we not afraid that the word is so thoroughly charged with the sense of arrangement that every time you utter it you will evoke memories of the old days when women were forced to submit to arranged marriages?

Apparently, no one thinks that should happen.

Take another problem that has preoccupied feminists: naming. Today it is commonplace for a woman to feel that she has a free choice between taking her husband's name and keeping what is called her own name.

In some situations it is inconvenient for an established professional woman to change her name. This makes good sense.

But more is going on here. A woman's own name, the name she was given at birth, is her father's name. More accurately, it is the name of the man her mother declared to be the father. Or even better, according to the law, the father is simply the woman's husband.

Everyone knows that there is always some doubt about the identity of a child's father. For all I know, men were allowed to give their names to their wives' children as a positive affirmation of their paternity, to increase their investment in the child and make them more likely to work hard to support him.

Either way, a child has no choice in the matter of receiving her father's name. To say that a woman's father's name is her own name takes it a step too far. It is the most familiar name, but ownership is really something quite different.

So a woman in our society can choose between taking the last name of a man she has freely chosen as her husband and keeping a name that was given to her without her choice or consent. Happily, she is free to choose.

But the question is more complicated than feminists imagine.

Feminists have also declared that the term wife implies possession. They have even trotted out the notion that when a man uses the possessive expression "my wife" he is asserting that he owns his wife. Doesn't a possessive pronoun mean that he really wants to possess her body and soul?

This is almost too silly to address. If the same woman refers to a man as "my husband" does that also mean that she wants to possess him body and soul?

To believe that possessive pronouns imply chattel slavery is fatuous and mindless.

Someone will want to interject that feminists find it prejudicial that a girl receives her father's name. They have preferred hyphenated baby names: Johnny Smith-Jones or Sally Brown-Green.

Of course, this did not work in practice. What will happen when Johnny Smith-Jones marries Sally Brown-Green and the happy couple has a child named Morgan. You would have Morgan Smith-Jones-Brown-Green.

If you can still stomach the possibility of being a wife, you then would want to know what makes for a good wife. Belkin seems to believe that women are less wifely if they do not know how to make bread from scratch. Why you would want to identify wifedom with household chores is beyond me. Aristocrats became wives and they certainly did not bake a lot of bread from scratch.

Happily for many people, modern technology and industry has changed the nature of housework, for the better.

This does not change the fact that women identify more closely with home than men do, and that women most often want to take more responsibility and exercise more authority in the home.

It is always good to see couples cooperating in these tasks, but, truth be told, for every woman who marvels at her husband's ability to iron the laundry there are a much larger number that are dismayed at masculine interference in their abode.

Many women have asserted to me that they cannot organize a household if their husbands are constantly interfering, constantly leaving things out of place, constantly undermining their authority.

Husband and wife define a household division of labor, one that is probably more efficient and more economical than having both domestic partners working together preparing meals.

But why should it be thus? Perhaps because men and women are different and have different relationships to child rearing. A woman has a larger investment of time and energy in producing a child and in raising the child. It makes sense that she would know her child better than her husband and would want to have greater authority in raising him.

Traditionally, this was buttressed by the fact that a man's sphere of influence was outside of the home. Men were breadwinners; they were out in the world; they supported the family, protected and provided for their wives and children.

Now, that role has been somewhat compromised because more and more women earn a living and contribute substantially to the household. Does this change the economy of housework and homemaking and childrearing? Surely, it does. Is this a reason to jettison the roles of husband and wife? No, it is not.

People adapt to circumstances, and women are perfectly capable of functioning and thriving in the world of work. It is true that men are somewhat capable of caring for home and hearth and children, but they seem ill-suited to it. Making a man into a househusband is fraught with dangers. And many women are far from comfortable leaving their children with their husbands... not because they do not care, not because they do not love his children, but because men's instincts are not as good as mothers'.

When it comes to the terms of husband and wife, we ought to recognize that these terms only prevail in only one of the world's many languages. If a husband and wife take a trip around the world, at every stop, whomever they meet, they can introduce each other as husband and wife, and be recognized as married. Trust me, if he says that sh is his wife, they are not going to think that she is a possession, like a lamp.

If, however, they introduce themselves as domestic partners, or as just plain partners, most of the world's peoples will look at them as though they are just plain weird.


vanderleun said...

Allow me to ferret out the hidden poetry:

Young women want to get married.
Young women want to be brides.
You women want to be mothers,
But they do not want to be wives.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Logically impeccable, don't you think?

vanderleun said...

Yes. Dainty too.

Somebody could make a fortune starting a business called "Wives for Hire (Sex Not Included)"

RKV said...

As a husband of 22 years (with the same woman that is), I'd like to make a few observations. 1) Feminism is a scam. The aim is to dispossess men from their natural biological role - namely to produce and protect offspring. 2) Feminism aims to replace the actual male husband with the state - treating men as second class humans and taxing them into submission. 3) Now that women have the vote the Feminists want to vote money out of men's wallets and into womens'. They want to buy protection from the state (e.g. police) rather than have to rely on those icky husbands they've neutered into submission.4) In the long run, it's not going to work. Men have wised up to the bad deal, and are voting with their dicks. They get the sex they want and refuse to "commit."

Susan Walsh said...

I had to laugh at your last line, having been an American who's been perceived as just plain weird in a number of countries.

I agree that language is a marketplace phenomenon. It often evolves to meet the needs of groups who seek to differentiate themselves. Adolescents rebelling against authority are probably the most common example, and the terms they create often manage to express something new and different about their experience. I find it enriching, and oppose any attempt to quash it. Feminists do this a lot, though they also try to promote their own terms into the mainstream.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Of course, I agree that adolescents are perfectly charming when they invent new words and expressions for their own experience. I don't much worry about it because it seems normal.

The feminist effort to change the language feels to me of a different order. Feminists are adults, not children, and they insist that everyone use pronouns the way they want, or else... you get accused of being sexist or get your reports downgraded or get your books reviewed negatively.

What bothers me more is that once a word like "wife" becomes a new four-letter word, too many women who want to be good feminists believe that they must change their behavior and the way they conduct their marriages in order to conform to the linguistic reality.

Kurt said...

It reminds me of a story I read some years back that some women of the feminist persuasion decided to get upset at being referred to as "ladies". I don't recall the particulars of what they thought was offensive in being called a lady, but there you have it.

Anonymous said...

If my memory of Anglo-Saxon language studies is still any good, "wereman" meant man and "wyfman" meant woman.

In other words to denude our language of the suffix "man" is inane. Its Anglo-Saxon root phrase meant "human."

Yuck - there's that oppressive three letter slur to women. Oops, there it is again!