Anna Maxwell Martin in Motherland
Anna Maxwell Martin as Julia in Motherland (Photo: BBC)

OPINION

I Want A Wife – why a 46-year-old essay is still shockingly relevant

Feminist Judy Brady wrote about the role wives play in the smooth running of life back in 1971. It remains depressingly apt today, says Daisy Buchanan

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By Daisy Buchanan on

“I want a wife who knows that sometimes I need a night out by myself.”

“I want a wife who will take care of the details of my social life... [and] the babysitting arrangements. I want a wife to keep track of the children’s doctor and dentist appointments.”

“I want a wife who takes care of the children when they are sick... My wife must arrange to lose time at work and not lose the job.”

Where does this wish list come from? It could be something that emerged from one of the murkier, MRA-leaning Reddit forums. It could be part of a four-pint conversation between tipsy, self-defined alpha males in a raucous City bar. It could be the internal monologue of Paul, Julia’s husband in Motherland, who is conveniently “right behind” Julia but forever elsewhere, ordering a latte or careening around a corner on a go-kart when Julia is in the throes of a childcare crisis. But it was written by feminist activist Judy Brady in 1971 for Gloria Steinem’s Ms. magazine and republished by New York Magazine this week. 

Brady opens by explaining that a newly divorced male friend was on the search for a brand-new wife, and it occurred to her that she too could do with a wife of her own. With a wife, she could return to her studies, become better qualified, get a new job and become financially independent while her wife committed all of her energies to making her life as pleasant as possible. Brady would be liberated from childcare, domestic problems and all hospitality responsibilities. Her essay is now 46 years old, and it’s barely aged.

I’m a wife. I’m 32, and my husband and I don’t have any children. With my hand on my heart, I think I can say that our domestic responsibilities are split fairly evenly, and yet, maybe they aren’t. On Friday, we’re hosting a small dinner party. I organised an online shop, planned a menu, and asked whether my husband would make something for the main course. As I asked, I felt an odd pang of guilt. I had a strange feeling that I was shirking my duties, that somehow this should all be falling on me – and also, that my contribution to the cooking, dessert and side dishes, was less worthwhile and impressive than his efforts would be. It reminded me of when we first moved in together, and I discovered that he would buy ready-chopped vegetables and microwavable mashed potatoes. For most of my childhood, my mother didn’t go out to work, and made me feel as though there was something vaguely lazy and sinful about spending an extra 30 pence in order to get out of scrubbing and cutting your own carrots.

Today is Thanksgiving, and I wonder how many men and women are splitting the chores and responsibilities fairly and equally. I wonder how many husbands are telling their wives that they’ll put out some snacks or entertain their children just as soon as the game is over, or as soon as they’ve finished this beer. I wonder how many wives have been planning a meal for days and weeks, spending hours shopping, prepping, looking at recipes and curating Pinterest boards because they’ve felt responsible for the day, not just for feeding a family but making the day feel cosy, emotionally satisfying and perfect. Over here, in a month, we’ll get a go. I think of my own parents, and how I grew up seeing them and their friends and their parents produce this pattern.

Wives absorb every problem, obstacle and distraction and ensure that a husband’s path to success and self-fulfilment is set in a smooth, straight line

We see these images on every advertisement, saturating every part of pop culture. We even have a prime minister who divides domestic labour into “girl jobs” and “boy jobs”

There are exceptions that prove the rule. I know men who cheerfully identify as househusbands, wives who work as breadwinners and get home after a long day in the office to a hot dinner that was prepared by someone else. Still, so many of us feel that as wives, our main job, and the one that has the greatest value, is to be an emollient, putting the smooth running of our families' lives before success and progress in our own. My most enlightened, feminist friends will make pained jokes about male partners who don’t know how their vacuum cleaner works. “Do fathers have to pay nursery fees” is a Google search with nearly three million results. According to the Office for National Statistics, women’s earnings peak when we’re 34, and men’s peak when they’re 50. When do we start families? When do most of us have to take a year out of our careers? When do so many of us discover that economically and practically, it makes more sense for our partner to work full-time, while we go part-time or find childcare such an expensive struggle that we don’t go back at all?

According to Brady’s essay, to be a wife is to be a sponge. Wives absorb every problem, obstacle and distraction and ensure that a husband’s path to success and self-fulfilment is set in a smooth, straight line. She ends by asking “Who wouldn’t want a wife?” Indeed. We tell our girls and young women that they can do everything, but we need to start spreading the message that they really don’t have to. They should be able to pick and choose. In 2017, being a wife still means that we’re often putting in a double shift at work and at home, and being manipulated into the latter because we’re told it’s a labour of love. I don’t want a wife. I want every woman with a partner to be met in the middle, to never feel as though it’s entirely on them to ensure that everything is clean and everyone is fed. I want to make sure that in 32 years time, my niece never feels residually guilty about not making a main course, or cutting her own carrots. I’m pretty sure that I don’t need to worry about my nephew.

@NotRollergirl

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Anna Maxwell Martin as Julia in Motherland (Photo: BBC)
Tagged in:
Feminism
Marriage
Modern marriage

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