Centuries of trouble and strife

The History of the Wife
March 1, 2002

June Purvis discovers marriage for life was easier when it meant just ten years.

In this majestic tour de force , Marilyn Yalom offers a history of the wife in western societies from biblical times to the present. It is a timely assessment as the pattern of marriage in the West has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. Cohabitation without a marriage ceremony now carries no social stigma, while single motherhood is commonplace. Marriage to one person is no longer a lifelong commitment as half of all marriages end in divorce.

Women today rebel against the expectations of a wife "as a man's chattel, as his dependant, as his means for acquiring legal offspring, as the caretaker of his children, as his cook and housekeeper". These ancient expectations had their origins in biblical, Greek and Roman times. St Paul's exhortation: "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church," was echoed relentlessly by patriarchal advocates for the next 2,000 years.

In medieval Europe, the Catholic church gradually took over the jurisdiction of marriage, and two important changes took place. First, individuals were pressured to be married by a priest in a church, in the presence of witnesses. Second, the need for parental consent was downplayed and the mutual wishes of the couple came to be seen as the main basis for the match. But husbands were still regarded as the masters, and wives were encouraged to see sexual intercourse as a duty, not a pleasure. The medieval mystic Margery Kempe took the matter to extremes. Unbeknown to her husband, she wore a hair shirt in the bedroom as a penance for his lust. In medieval times, wives and husbands were usually together until the death of one of them, but this meant that they were married for not more than ten or 15 years. Staying married then, supported by religion, family and community, was easier than today. Despite the changes brought about by the Reformation, the authority of the husband over the wife was still upheld and embodied in the marriage service in the new Prayer Book of 1552: it was only the bride who was asked "to obey".

During the Victorian era, a dominant middle-class vision of love-based marriage prevailed on both sides of the Atlantic. However, couples were expected to desist from intercourse until they were married and until the man could financially support his wife as a full-time mistress of their household. The long wait often involved moral introspection and frustration. During her five-year engagement to John Austin, Sarah Taylor received stilted letters from him asking her to examine her past conduct for "slight stains" on her reputation and to consider whether her soul was "really worthy to hold communion" with his. While John studied law in London, Sarah stayed in Norwich reading from a list of authors he had suggested. "Eventually," comments Yalom, "she made the grade", and they were married in August 1819.

Being married in early Victorian times brought no equality for wives, whose property, income and personhood were subsumed within those of the husband. In her discussion of feminist reformers who pressed for change, Yalom is stronger on the American than the English evidence. She mentions the campaigns of English feminists such as Caroline Norton and Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon that led to the 1857 Divorce Act, which allowed married women the same property rights as single women, and the 1870 Married Women's Property Act, which gave wives control of their personal property and income. But women who were outspoken critics of the less visible issues - Frances Power Cobbe on domestic violence or Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy on rape in marriage - are ignored.

Similarly, while she covers the American feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, founder of the women's rights movement in the United States, who with Susan B. Anthony campaigned so hard and successfully for women's suffrage, Yalom gives no space to those transatlantic suffrage links that were established, nor to the efforts of internationally known British feminists such as Millicent Garrett Fawcett or Emmeline Pankhurst, to win the parliamentary vote for women.

Nevertheless, some of the tales of French or American Victorian women are heartbreaking. Rose Williams, a black American slave, recollected how she had been forced by her master to mate with a slave she did not like called Rufus. "(M)assa call me and tell me, 'Woman, I's pay big money for you and I's done dat for de cause I wants yous to raise me chillens. I's puts yous to live with Rufus for dat purpose. Now, if you doesn't want whippin' at de stake, yous do what I wants'."

"The Woman Question", as it was known, became such a controversial issue because it challenged male supremacy. The first production of Ibsen's play A Doll's House , in Copenhagen in 1879, caused a scandal because it portrayed women not as creatures relative to men but as autonomous individuals in their own right. Helmer, the husband, told his wife: "Before everything else, you're a wife and a mother." Nora responded, not submiss-ively but assertively: "I don't believe that any longer. I believe that before everything else I'm a human being." Things were never quite the same again. When Mona Caird brought the question to public attention in England in 1888 with her article on marriage, even the conservative Daily Telegraph received more than ,000 letters in two months.

As Yalom continues with her Whiggish approach to the history of the wife, illustrating how in the 1930s liberal-thinking women assumed that they had a right to sexual pleasure in marriage and to birth control, it comes as a shock to read some of the views of women in the 1950s. Although the second world war accelerated the trend for more wives to leave the home for the workplace, the postwar situation encouraged an increased emphasis on domesticity, which some wives welcomed.

"A woman wants a lot of affection," said one American home-maker. "She wants to know she's important in the man's life. When he came home from work, I dolled up like I was going on a date. I always did that."

Thus we come to the present, with its freer sexuality, high divorce rate and large number of single-parent families. Yalom offers no solutions to today's problems but claims that she still believes that it is "a good thing" to have a wife and to be a wife, provided there is equality between the spouses, mutual respect and affection.

It is inevitable in a fast-moving, broad-sweep book such as this that some evidence is omitted and some complexities glossed over. But, overall, Yalom offers a skilful synthesis of a vast range of literature that will be of interest to students and academics in higher education, as well as to the general reader.

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, University of Portsmouth.

The History of the Wife

Author - Marilyn Yalom
ISBN - 0 86358 426 8
Publisher - Pandora
Price - £20.00
Pages - 441

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