What does it mean to be a Wife? Today, “Wife” is a confusing battle-ground, with women’s identity at the center. With messages assaulting both men and women from all side, what are we to think?
Anne Kingston wades into the mess, separating out various influences on wifely-definition. She expertly weaves together pop culture, history and world events into a clear, compelling and frankly horrific narrative.
Anne demonstrates that “Wife” has always had predominantly negative associations:
Within popular culture, wife is a ready term of derision, a sneer. On an episode of the television program Will & Grace that aired in 2001, Will, the gay central character, tells his straight female best friend, Grace, who has been nagging him, to “stop being a wife.”
Further, “wife” is almost always disconnected from any positions of power:
We need only look at two of the most dominant female cultural influences during the 1900s—the entrepreneur Martha Stewart and the media mogul Oprah Winfrey, both of whom are so famous that we know them by their first names—to see the disconnect between power and wife. Neither are married.
But of course, “Wife” isn’t always negative. In fact, whole movements (several Evangelical Christian movements among them), elevate “Wife” to an alleged position of honor. Anne observes that:
The alternating currents of wifelash and wifelust, as discordant as they might appear, are inextricably linked, finely syncopated. What they represent is a conflict some forty years in the making, one that revolves around continuing attempts to dictate female identity through the definition of wife.
So what is a wife? And what does our answer mean for women (and, maybe, for men)?
After outlining the history of the Wife Wars, Anne systematically moves through various incarnations of the Wife. She skewers the Bridal industry (a chapter that deserves multiple awards), then moves on to discuss the specters of the abused wife, the homemaker, the first wife (left for a trophy wife) and more.
Each chapter is rich, complex and dark. And every instance, every story, every observation is another thread in a tapestry. The finished product is overwhelming, and it’s no wonder so many women feel lost beneath the Wife shadow.
What’s more surprising is how damaging the lack of clarity for Wives has been for men, too.
The truth is that real women are too complex to be reduced to a single, simple definition. Wife is a role, and a single role, no matter how clearly defined, cannot encapsulate a person. If we are to move forward, Anne urges us to cast away the twin Wife mythologies of Perfect Princess Cinderella and Independent, Evil Lilith.
Of course this very suggestion has been the crux of the argument. Somehow men fear that women having power somehow reduces ours. But Anne argues that gender roles aren’t a zero-sum game. Women gaining status, position and privilege in our culture does not necessarily mean that I lose mine as a man.
We come to the crux of the matter: the meaning of wife hinges on the meaning of husband, just as the meaning of woman hinges on the meaning of man.
As long as we continue to define gender roles in terms of power, privilege and position, someone’s always going to lose. Can we imagine a world in which “Wife” doesn’t imply a secondary position? Maybe not, especially given the long history to the contrary.
But what if we divorced Wife from its gender associations? In the end, this is Anne’s provocative, insightful and maybe even messianic suggestion:
Consider that the supportive wife role can extend to men, which would make wife a gender-neutral verb: to wife: to care for, to nurture, to support.
Marriage doesn’t have to be a power game. One person doesn’t have to rule at the expense of the other. Instead, both spouses can “wife” each other.
[Marriage is] a give-and-take of strength and weakness, that unpredictable choreography of dependence and independence… In such a fluid dance, movement depends on eliminating the idea that one partner is primary, the other secondary.
This is the picture of marriage the New Testament offers us: two persons wholly submitting themselves to the Other, for the good of the Other person. There’s no hierarchy, no jockeying for position. And that may be what it takes to save Marriage, to save Wives and to save Husbands.