The concept of a wife has been embedded in cultures, religious practices, social customs and economic patterns of wildly different sorts.
Our topic this week is "What is a wife?" Now we know that that may sound like a sexist question, at least at first. Why focus just on wives? What about husbands? And what about homosexual marriages? Why not be gender-neutral and politically correct? Why not ask: what is a spouse?
Beside the fact that it doesn’t have the same ring, our main answer is that neither the category "husband" nor the category "spouse" is as historically, culturally, or philosophically interesting as the category "wife." In one form or another, the institution of marriage has been around for thousands of years. But but until very recently what was there really to say about husbands? You could sum it up in a few sentences. Husbands were the dominant partners in marriage, the masters, the breadwinners, the ones who could own property – including their wives.
By contrast, there are all manner of things to say about wives. Wives used to be little more than property – material property and sexual property. In some cultures, wives were confined to the home, had little choice as to whom they would marry and could even be legally put to death for cheating on their husbands. That doesn't, of course, sound much like a contemporary wife. A contemporary wife is her husband’s equal -- sexually, financially, educationally. A growing number are better educated, earn more money, and work longer hours outside the home than their husbands.
Wives have changed tremendously over the centuries -- so much so that the contemporary wife can sound more like the husband of old than the wife of old. Of course, contemporary wives don’t dominate their husbands like the husbands of old used to dominate their wives. It’s just that the needs and desires of the contemporary wife play at least as big a role as the needs and desires of the contemporary husband in deciding fundamental matters in the family.
At least that's the ideal -- even if the facts on the ground always live up to that ideal. But the bare fact that our ideal of marriage has evolved in this way represents progress. Marriage used to be explicitly conceived of as a theater of inequality between men and woman. Being a wife was a way of being oppressed. True, the oppression was often dressed up with poetry and roses, and was justified by philosophical and theological doctrines designed to make the oppression more palatable to women. But it was oppression all the same. To be sure, for many women, in many cultures, including certain subcultures right here in the good old USA, marriage still functions as a theater of inequality and oppression. And there are still people of both genders who think that’s the way it ought to stay.
We think that there is lots of insight to be gained not just about wives, but about husbands and also about larger social trends by thinking about what exactly a wife is and should be. We want to use the very idea of a wife as a window onto the larger social world.
It might not do the entire trick. That's because there are marriages that may stress the very idea of the wife or the husband to a breaking point. We're thinking of gay marriage, of course. Whether one is pro or con -- gay marriage is at least a little puzzling in the context of of thinking about the concept of a wife. When two people of the same gender get married, does it still make sense to think of marriage as a relationship between a husband and a wife? Or can there be a marriage with two husbands or two wives? Do ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ have to be tied to gender and sex roles at all? Maybe we’re entering a brave new world in which roles in marriage are cut entirely free from traditional sex and gender roles.
Clearly, there's a lot to think about. And with the help of Marilyn Yalom, author of A History of the Wife, we hope we made at least a little progress on the topic. But tune in and judge for yourself.