Yalom, Marilyn. A History of the Wife. HarperCollins, 2001.
Most of us are probably at least vaguely familiar with Proverbs 31 10-31 which defines the
“virtuous woman . . . her price is far above rubies. [pearls or coral in some translations]
11 The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.
12 She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.
13 She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.
14 She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her food from afar.
15 She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.
16 She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.
17 She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.
18 She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night.
19 She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.
20 She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet.
22 She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.
24 She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.
25 Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.
26 She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.
27 She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.
29 Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all.
30 Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.
31 Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.
This version comes from the King James version of the Christian bible, and I quote it at length because I believe it lies at the heart of the Judeo/Christian conception of what a wife is, and it echoed at the back of my mind while I was reading Marilyn Yalom’s A History of the Wife.
What I notice first about these verses is the virtuous woman is defined as a married woman who has a lot of work to do while her husband hangs about with “the elders of the land.” However, all glib cynicism aside, I also notice some other interesting things apart from the apparent understanding that female virtue is best expressed in marriage. Verse 31 commands, “Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.” The Christian Revised Version translates the first part of this passage as “Praise her for all she has accomplished,” while the Complete Jewish Bible says, “Give her a share in what she produces.” What an excellent illustration of how translation is also often interpretation. Read carefully, this passage from Proverbs may not be as irritating as it may appear. Look at the introduction to Chapter 31 of Proverbs: “The words of Lemuel, king of Massa, with which his mother admonished him.” (Jewish Study Bible. My emphasis). The New English and the Revised English Bibles say, “which his mother taught him”; the Complete Jewish Bible says “disciplined.” The description of the “virtuous woman” comes not from the mouth of a man but from a woman. Indeed, the commentary on this passage in the Jewish Study Bible suggests the virtues outlined in this passage “are essentially shared by the ideal man described elsewhere . . . . Contrary to a common notion of woman’s status in the ancient world, this woman has considerable independence in interacting with outsiders and conducting business, even in acquiring real estate. This allows her husband to spend his time sitting in the city gates, presumably conducting civic business and serving as a judge” (JSB, eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler. Jewish Publication Society-OUPress. 1999.) If we accept that the husband in this case is not just “hanging” around the gates with the elders gossiping and drinking coffee while his wife does all the work but is in fact busily involved in civic business, then what we have presented as an ideal marriage is a shared partnership: one in which both partners contribute to and share in the social and financial benefits of their union.
The key word here, though, is ideal. As Marilyn Yalom’s book shows, marriage has not always been an ideal situation for women, and the designation “wife” not always a happy one.
As her book’s title suggests, Yalom examines the history of our idea of the wife. The book’s Introduction asks, “Is the Wife an Endangered Species?” and her last chapter “Toward the New Wife, 1950-2000” looks at what has changed and is changing about our understanding of what a wife is. The woman who married and the girl who grew up in the fifties have seen an immense change in some respects in the social status of women and in the expectations women have for themselves. Even greater changes have occurred since Yalom published this book in 2001, the year that the Netherlands became the first country to legalize gay marriage. More and more cohabiting couples defer or do without formal, legal marriage. With all this change, what does it mean to be a wife?
Does being a wife convey status, and if so, what kind? Certainly, as recently as the early seventies, I remember someone saying to me, “Why are you taking a degree; you already have your MRS?” In other words, to be married was seen as more important and conveying more status than completing an education. While for some, the title wife was positive; for others, it was negative. How many women have been at social events and when asked what they did replied something along the lines of “I’m at home raising two children,” or “I’m just a housewife” and found that people have lost interest in talking to them, even, as a friend reported to me, actually walking away. Notice, too, the use of that diminishing word “just,” to suggest something of minimal value.
I expect, too, many of us remember Judy (now Brady) Syfers’ essay “I Want a Wife” originally published in the first issue of Msand much anthologised since. It struck a nerve. It still does. Even if some contemporary couples share all responsibilities equally, many do not, and study after study shows that domestic tasks still fall primarily to the woman in any heterosexual partnership even if both partners hold down full-time jobs. Just type the question “How much of the housework is done by the working woman?” into your favourite search engine and see what you will see.
So what did and does it mean to be a wife? My OED compact edition devotes three and half compacted columns to looking at the history of the word wife. Yalom devotes ten chapters and an introduction. She begins with the Ancient world, especially the Greeks and Romans, looks at Mediaeval Europe, considers the effect of Protestantism in both Europe and North America, and considers the effect of Eighteenth Century Republicanism on attitudes towards wives and marriage. She then looks at the Victorian period in two chapters: one looking at both Europe and America, and one focussing particularly on the American frontier. Another chapter addresses the situation in the latter years of the Nineteenth Century and is followed by a chapter devoted to “Sex, Contraception, and Abortion in the United States, 1840-1940.” The penultimate chapter deals with the effect particularly of the second world war on women and work, and then she ends, as I mentioned earlier, with her chapter covering the second half of the twentieth century.
I found the book thought provoking, sometimes consciousness raising in the sense we used the term in the late sixties and seventies, and occasionally surprising even disturbing, for example, her use of the word “squaw” (233), a term generally held to be derogatory, in her discussion of the experience of first nations women. Unsurprisingly, since Yalom is American, the latter part of her book focuses primarily on the situation in the United States. I would have liked a somewhat broader perspective. What do contemporary African, Asian, and South American women expect from and experience in marriage? However, I realise that such a task would be encyclopaedic. Certainly of interest but probably not within the scope of this kind of a historical survey are the situations of women such as those covered recently in Extreme Wives,a mini-series presented by Kate Humble for the BBC, released in November 2017, and shown on Knowledge here in BC not long ago.
Each woman who chooses a life partner is going to experience that relationship individually and personally. Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in communities accepting of diverse lifestyles are certainly offered more choices than were offered to our mothers and grandmothers. At times, it may well seem that marriage and the whole idea of being a wife has been utterly transformed, and that transformation has been sudden. Yalom thinks otherwise. She sees a gradual evolution, arguing “that the transformation of wifehood in the past fifty years is, in many ways, the distillation of changes that have been going on for a long time—changes that have not been uniform across nations, religions, races, ethnic groups, and social classes yet tend to cluster around certain common issues” (xiii).
In clear prose, uncluttered by social science jargon, A History of the Wife offers an informative and thought-provoking overview of not those “common issues” and of the past that gave birth to them.