What is a Wife?

02 April 2010

   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. 


Comments (11)

Guest's picture


Saturday, April 10, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Wife won't play. That is, "play" on the "What is

Wife won't play. That is, "play" on the "What is a wife?" episode as posted on your website is currently non-functional.

mirugai's picture


Sunday, March 11, 2012 -- 5:00 PM


If I have learned anything from MJA, I am beginning to understand something like: ?truth = reality = is,? and just ?=?, alone, or just ?is,? alone. He would probably say that there is no need to legislate equality, it already ?is.? But when our hosts talk about equality, they are talking about legal equality, or legislative equality: the bundle of rights that come along with a legislative intention to mandate equality, i.e., ways to coerce some (supposedly) socially desirable relationships between very large groupings of people.
But while this legislated equality may be good for large group relations, it is not the best for individual relations, such as is in a marriage. Like it or not in the ideal, folks, some people are better at some things than others, and a good, small size, social organism?s well-being will be best served by letting those with better skills exercise (and practice) them. I don?t want to be equal with my wife; I want her to use her particular skills to move me (and everyone else she can, in her ?circle of influence?) in a good direction; and because of those skills, I am completely happy to be ?unequal? in this way. I can envision a good marriage where one party would completely, benevolently, rule. (Probably only philosophers could live this way, though.)

Guest's picture


Wednesday, March 14, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Marraige and Equality,

Marraige and Equality,
Surely men and women husbands and wives contribute best to their own personal marriage or community by giving their best, no matter how different or equal their best may be. Equal is equal no matter what One brings, when One gives his equitable best.
Perhaps an analogy might help to see:
Your hand and your foot is a marriage or unity of you. Although they differ dramatically in their duties, One could never argue which does more or serves One greater; nor would One ever try to equate them by asking their foot to feed then or put shoes on their hands to walk on. They live together in harmony because they share and give their natural and equitable best. Nothing more nothing less.
Someday mankind will know and live that equitable unity with the Universe, in harmony with nature, and our true Oneness will just and beautifully be, equal and free.
Although mankind is different than a star or a tree, we are truely and equally One.
All we really need to do is live and give our very best.
My best,

Guest's picture


Friday, March 16, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

I guess it depends a bit on

I guess it depends a bit on what one means by "equality." If it means "equivalent" then clearly a marriage won't work that way. A wife and a husband are not equivalent. My wife brings different abilities, different strengths and weaknesses, different likes and dislikes, into this partnership called a marriage, than do I. Which is good, I don't want to be married to myself.
I think what makes women really concerned is specifically the equality of authority - in Christian circles the word is "submission," and it is a constant topic of discussion and debate. I think C.S. Lewis explained the reason for unequal authority best - in a partnership of just two members, absolutely equal authority is a recipe for deadlock.
What makes this workable, loving, and not just a matter of enslaving the wife, is how the husband approaches this leadership role. Leadership is a servant's position. It is the duty of a leader to enable the success of those he leads - even so far as putting his own wants and needs aside to do that. Submission to a leader like that will never be onerous. And husbands who refuse to be that way don't merit submission.

Fred Griswold's picture

Fred Griswold

Saturday, March 17, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Men and women obviously aren

Men and women obviously aren't the same. So it's hard to say what "equal" would mean here. Calling everybody equal does have the advantage of making certain questions easier to answer. But I can't think of a difference among humans that's greater than gender, except for maybe age. Science has found many differences between men and women. It's not just skin deep, like race. Consider that there are no medical specialties (that I know of) devoted to particular races. But there are two (obstetrics and gynecology) devoted to a particular gender.

inggil's picture


Sunday, July 26, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

A wife is a soul mate :p jso

A wife is a soul mate :p

lovvlykate's picture


Friday, October 30, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

A wife is lot more than what

A wife is lot more than what a husband is. Enjoyed reading this article and recognizing the importance of my wife in a matrimonial relationship

Guest's picture


Sunday, June 5, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

A wife is everything in the

A wife is everything in the house. - buy soundcloud plays

Guest's picture


Monday, June 6, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

i like it your pages amazing

i like it your pages amazing.manfaat buah?manfaat tumbuhancara menghilangkan jerawatpenyebab komedo

Guest's picture


Sunday, August 28, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Don't want problems than

Don't want problems then never marry ) I've found a few ways here gloriousessays.com how to avoid such things ;)