When I was growing up in the ’70s, marriage looked like it was on its last legs. Divorcées had invaded the mainstream media in series like
Alice and films like An Unmarried Woman. The term Ms. slipped into common parlance, granting women an identity beyond marital status. “Head and master” laws that had legally bound wives to husbands dissolved: A woman could now have her own credit history, keep her last name, and easily file for divorce. Wife became the dowdiest word in the world, synonymous with sucker. So I would’ve been pretty shocked back then if you’d told me that, at the dawn of the 21st century, young women would still be taking their husbands’ names, the American marketplace would be awash in bridal porn like TV wedding-makeover shows, and gay couples would demand entry to the very institution that feminists once considered a prison.
In The Meaning of Wife, Canadian journalist Anne Kingston trawls through contemporary pop culture in search of an explanation. She finds society in a state of sheer confusion about marriage, torn between “wifelust,” her snappy term for the nouvelle romanticization of domesticity, and “wifelash,” the ongoing disdain she spots all over the media. By focusing on the glamorous wedding day rather than marriage, we gloss over the problematic wife figure and focus all of our escapist energy on the bride, the 21st century’s “most potent consumer icon—one that can be counted on to elicit a Pavlovian triggering of female desire.” Having flipped through thousands of glossy bridal magazines, Kingston claims that she found less than a half-dozen references to the word
wife. Even bridal-gown diva Vera Wang downplays her spousal role, defining herself to a reporter as businesswoman and mother first, wife last.
“I feel that this whole question of woman’s rights turns on the point of the marriage relation,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in 1853, a critique that feminists from Simone de Beauvoir to Germaine Greer to Ti-Grace Atkinson further developed. One women’s rights group stormed New York City’s marriage license bureau in 1969, handing out leaflets that read, in part: “Do you know that you are your husband’s prisoner?” Marriage really was a control mechanism in the days of coverture laws—in legal terms, the wife’s identity was literally subsumed in her husband’s (something Stephanie Coontz traces over hundreds of years in her insightful new
Marriage, a History, a great companion volume to The Meaning of Wife).
Kingston dwells more on the present-day aftermath of coverture: American females are now free to buy houses in their own name, work outside the house, and choose when (or whether) to have a baby, yet studies show that most women still expect husbands to be the primary breadwinners, and companies still pay married males higher salaries than married or single females. On top of that, obstacles like glass ceilings and mommy tracks continue to frustrate working women. As Kingston points out, “By the turn of the 21st century, the corporation was presented as the prison for wives and mothers that the suburban home
had once been.” So it’s not all that surprising that some women are lulled by the siren song of full-time domesticity—albeit a very modern, Martha Stewart– style fantasy “free of financial concerns and drudgery, featuring a Mercedes SUV, yoga classes, and plenty of time for self-expression.”
The Meaning of Wife styles itself in the tradition of Backlash and The Beauty Myth
: It’s a pop-culture-literate survey of the last 25 years that serves up feminist ideas with a lively touch. But Kingston dashes through so many trendy phenomena that the book sometimes feels like a zeitgeist juggernaut. It leaps from fad to fad at breakneck speed: hymen-replacement kits, bridezillas, ex-wife revenge tales, singletons, stay-at-home-mom fever. And though Kingston critiques the infamous 1998
Time piece that declared feminism was dead, based on Ally McBeal
, she does something similar, leaning too heavily on media icons to make larger points about American culture—as if Elizabeth
Hurley’s thoughts on marriage really clue us in to what’s happening in society. Even so, her close readings are usually astute and her prose supremely entertaining: In a chapter on female sexual dysfunction, Kingston writes, “Viewed from a historical perspective, expecting the wife to maintain the marriage’s sizzle was like asking the incarcerated to tend the prison’s grounds.”
The book moves so swiftly over so much terrain that it’s sometimes hard to get a grip on Kingston’s central argument: that wifedom has been severed from its historical role but not reconfigured for the modern world, rendering it a dangerously “empty vessel, ready to be filled with new freight.” And her more serious points are buried under all of those sparkling media anecdotes—her disappointment, for instance, that society hasn’t adapted to women’s mass entry into the workplace. Instead of subsidized child care or other innovative family support solutions, Americans have developed what Kingston calls “a wife micro-economy” in which jobs such as child care and cleaning are poorly paid, while others (decorating, therapy) are considered more valuable. She’s optimistic that the “dominant male breadwinner/passive female homemaker model that formed the blueprint of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ is being dismantled.” Unfortunately, her supreme example of that isn’t exactly your typical American couple, but Bill and Hillary, role models for the marriage of the future.