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Why Would Anyone Ever Want To Be A Wife?

Benjamin Hoadly and his wife, oil painting by Francis Hayman, 18th century

To become a wife is to become complicit.

By Katie Schmid

The wife is dead; long live the wife.

The wife has died and everyone comes to gather at her corpse to participate in the communal ritual of grief by which her body becomes a public monument. The dead body of the wife retains heat, a brick building that has soaked up the sun. People begin to rub up against it to warm themselves. A wife is a technology of pleasantness that all may enjoy.

“Her stroganoff was unparalleled,” says one person, leaning into the body of the wife and letting out an involuntary moan as the heat eases a shoulder pain. A dead wife is better than a rubdown with Icy/Hot.

Another man lies face down next to the body of the wife, such is his reverence for it. “I hear she followed her husband from job to job for eight years,” he says.

The body of the wife has expanded now and the mourners swarm. A man curls into her palm. Just before he falls asleep, he whispers, “She was an excellent mother. Amazing, given that I heard she also pioneered several advancements in some kind of science.” [1]

It is the woman who is gendered first, who is seen as the exception to maleness, the one who exists in the category of not-male. [2] It is the woman who finds her “natural” state in marriage, as wife. Marriage is, in the popular imagination, something that a man must be coaxed into, as a wild animal must be coaxed into a cage with a bit of meat. The woman is happy to be the meat and thus, through a series of coaxings, also known as “feminine wiles” or “nagging,” she entices him to accept his cage. (For more insight into the deployment of “feminine wiles” aka “harpyism” aka “bitching,” “being a real c word,” “the use of mysterious titpowers,” “that Cold War thing she does,” and “shrill whining only the dog can hear,” please see every sitcom ever made.)

But why is this the popular narrative when, in fact, the state of marriage, for men, increases their happiness and wellbeing? Research has shown that masculinity as it is socialized in the United States is a life-threatening condition, produced via aggressive policing in homosocial environments, characterized by violence and limited emotional expression, one popular solution for which is the salutary prescription of taking a wife. [3]

Wives are a technology of health. In the popular imagination, a man’s reward is the wife, who cultivates his emotional silence like a beautiful garden, imbuing it with worth and meaning; as a gardener who has for months sung and coaxed a bloom into being, the wife thinks she can feel the plant emoting back at her. The wife has been taught to make even the harshest ground bear fruit. The wife has been taught to look at an apple seed and call it an apple. [4]

“Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen Painting a Portrait of His Wife” by Dirck Jacobsz, 1550

The man is allowed his “essential” maleness, and this maleness is not seen to be threatened by the state of being a husband, provided that the man can make jaunts into homosocial environments, doesn’t accidentally become a stay at home dad, and doesn’t become mysteriously drawn into the yonic terrorhole of his wife’s vagina [5] such that he begins enjoying interior decorating, couples’ retreats, and “I” statements during arguments.

Contemporary culture is thick with images of reluctant, “feminized” husbands. We internalize the narrative of the horrors of the man who has been infected by marriage — we inhabit the logic and call it truth. This “feminized” man is a monstrous creature forged in the fires of a wife’s shrewishness. We can see this logic at work in every Judd Apatow movie ever written: A white, blond ice queen inflicts her will onto an equally monstrous 40-year-old frat boy, who slouches, cowers, and grows hair as his primary occupations. By the end of the movie, after several fights, an equal or greater number of bong hits, a montage of his manscaping, and several ironic deployments of the word “cunt,” the transformation is complete — the chastened man becomes a husband. For her part, the woman in such a romantic comedy displays very little emotional range [6] — she is angry, she is a font of tears. These emotions are part of the man’s journey to “mature masculinity,” but they’re also part of the fun. A wife’s misery is the highest comedy.

In the popular imagination, the state of being a husband is seen to be an attractive accessory to masculinity, a cravat or a particularly lush sock that decorates a man’s essential maleness, which has been painted on his body like a Ken doll’s underwear. Perhaps marriage-as-accessory is not entirely accurate, for the marriage is not purely decorative. Instead, there is a utility to the thing that is overlooked — it is the wife who allows him to escape the stranglehold masculinity has placed on his person. Studies of the sexual scripts of middle-aged men show that men do experience expanded emotional and sexual understanding as a result of moving from the locker room to the marriage bower, though this comes thanks to new narratives of women’s sexuality (in part due to the work of the sexual revolution and the Second Wave) rather than men’s. A corresponding revolution in the image of heterosexual male sexuality and gender performance does not seem forthcoming, and heterosexual men currently continue to be socialized to experience male sexuality as predatory, until such time as they find themselves in a relationship with a woman, who does that good emotional labor and provides him with a new paradigm. And still, men by and large view these more egalitarian practices in their relationships with woman as existing solely in their relationships, unable to incorporate them into conceptualizing their performances of masculinity outside their relationships. [7]

We can hear it in the ways that marriage is seen to enhance a man’s character and soften him: He becomes more sensitive, he’s “opened up,” his “rough edges have been worn down,” he is seen to have “settled down” after “sowing his wild oats” (sexual metaphors for men are always either confusingly of the naturalist bent, or incredibly violent). These metaphors are often employed in tribute to the wife, as though the man were stupid or not capable of it in his pre-husbanded state, as though transformation of the man into the husband was the job of the wife.

As in, “Wow, Derek really has opened up recently, and I think that’s all on you, Fran; he used to be a sucking black hole of rudeness and defensiveness.” Often, this kind of discourse sets up a logic wherein the wife is responsible for representing the husband to others (“I’m sorry Hank’s grumpy, he isn’t feeling well today. Due to masculine socialization, he frequently sulks when there’s inclement weather”), and is, thus, responsible for his behavior in public. Consider how radical Audre Lorde’s musing on emotional labor looks, in light of this cultural expectation:

“…I do not exist to do his feeling for him. Men who are afraid to feel must keep women around to do their feeling for them while dismissing us for the same supposedly ‘inferior’ capacity to feel deeply. But in this way also, men deny themselves their own essential humanity, becoming trapped in dependency and fear.” [8]

Though in many ways women are still said to exist “to do his feeling for him,” to give him the practices and thought processes so that he might think himself out of the trap. To be fair, it is hard for a man to see his masculinity, much less theorize it, existing as it does in the form of covert, constricting nude Ken doll underpants. It is the wife’s job to delicately peel off the nude underpants, though she herself wears a choking pair of nude shapewear.

Portrait of Jane Stebbing, wife of Thomas Aynscombe, by John (or Johannes) Verelst or his niece Maria Verelst, circa 1706

Who, then, theorizes wifeliness with the wife? It is, of course, other wives. It is a peculiar phenomenon of marriage as it is socialized in the West that wives wife for their husbands, and wives also wife for other wives. Wives, once they have got the hang of wifing, tend to wife all over the place. Paradoxically, the very condition of wifeliness is predicated on curtailing a wife’s attachment to anything outside of the marriage, particularly if that thing threatens heterosexual monogamy. The condition of wifeliness is a technology meant to usher the unattached woman out of the dangers of being single. Wifeliness curtails the possibility of bonding between women, with its queer potential and oracular possibilities. Take, for instance, Clarissa Dalloway and Sally Seaton — one day, they’re kissing in gardens and composing political tracts in the attic. Everything is possible; they might be about to join the Bolsheviks. The next thing Clarissa knows, it’s 30 years later and Sally won’t stop bragging to her about the virile boys she’s birthed. It is the great tragedy of Mrs. Dalloway that Clarissa feels everything is possible with Sally, because there is no map for what they are to each other, but when next they meet, they are wives, and their prophetic potential has been subsumed into the language of wifedom.

It is no accident that the language at the heart of descriptions of these types of relationships rests in the unknown. The queer power at the heart of many types of relationships between women is profound and unrealized. Adrienne Rich theorizes:

“Woman identification is a source of energy, a potential springhead of female power, curtailed and contained under the institution of heterosexuality. The denial of reality and visibility to women’s passion for women, women’s choice of women as allies, life companions, and community, the forcing of such relationships into dissimulation and their disintegration under intense pressure have meant an incalculable loss to the power of all women to change the social relations of the sexes, to liberate ourselves and each other.” [9]

Consider Toni Morrison’s Paradise — the black womanist magic at the heart of the relationships amongst the women who live together at the convent. One by one, each woman comes to the convent to gather her strength apart from the world. A kind of power grows at the heart of their relationships with one another. It is so alien, such an affront to the known world, that the townsmen come and destroy it. It imagines another world. It is therefore destroyed by ours.

Every loving relationship between women is fed by an economy of care, the tools of which have been formed within heterosexist patriarchy, but which are profoundly antithetical to patriarchy. “Woman-identified,” a Second Wave term Rich uses, is meant to describe relationships between women that are undefined by patriarchy and exist, as much as they are able, in resistance to it. Rich draws upon Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic” to define the erotic energy at the heart of “woman-identified” relationships between women as existing on “a lesbian continuum” where the erotic is “diffuse” and generative, a creative force, and springs up from “the sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, or psychic.”

These pockets of anti-marriage wifing crop up between wives, who turn to each other to repair one another. It is a betrayal. It threatens the very heart of the institution of marriage, which is hostile to all that it cannot contain.

Li Ch’ung (李充) and his wife before his mother, lacquer painting over wood, Northern Wei, by unknown artist of North Wei dynasty, circa 5th century

The wife is a technology that winnows potential. To become a wife is to move from the state of being something unknown or threatening into a state of intelligibility, to move from anti-meaning (a place of resistance) to stasis (a place of deadness). To even acknowledge the extent to which wives already wife for each other is a threat not only to the state of marriage, but to the state.

The state of wifeliness can determine the existence of both allegiance to nationhood (in the form of access to contingent citizenship) and the existence of state-acknowledged personhood (in the form of access to civil rights). Wifeliness is a lens through which the great eye of the state may focus on the individual. To deny someone the ability to become a wife has traditionally been a line of demarcation between those kinds of relationships the state considers sufficiently human, and those kinds of relationships the state does not wish to understand. [10]

The condition of wifeliness has often been exploited by the state to achieve state’s ends. Think of the mainstreaming of LGBTQ rights into marriage rights and the state’s continued marginalization of the myriad other queer relationships and families. Think of the practice of some slave owners allowing a contingent kind of informal marriage in order to answer abolitionists’ charge of the cruelty of separating families. [11]

It is the wife who is the symbol of nation. In the West, traditionally, the body of the white wife is the foundation of empire; the progenitor of nation whose purity is the battleground upon which all wars are fought. It is the reason Emmett Till was murdered. The wife is a technology of supremacy inextricable from white heterosexist supremacy. To become a wife is to become complicit.

The wife is dead; long live the wife. It begins again every generation with a fictive exceptionalism: Our marriages will be different. There is no language and no framework for a feminist marriage trying to solve the problem of emotional labor. To place the burden of making the marriage egalitarian onto the choices of the individual parties involved ignores the hateful, rotting boards of the building the couple willingly enters into. There is a wound at the heart of every heterosexual relationship. There is a wound at the heart of marriage itself. To pretend otherwise places more burden and invisible labor on the already burdened wife. Why would anyone ever want to be a wife?


1. Loosely taken from The New York Times’ obituary of Yvonne Brill.

2. Simone De Beauvoir. Post-structural feminism is helpful here. Judith Butler: “If one is a girl to the extent that one does not want a girl, then wanting a girl will bring being a girl into question; within this matrix, homosexual desire thus panics gender” (Judith Butler, “Melancholy Gender: Refused Identification,” in Gender in Psychoanalytic Space: between clinic and culture, ed. Murial Dimen and Virginia Goldner (New York: Other Press, 2010)). We can see this logic in the way (dis)ability is produced, in part, by public spaces that take a certain kind of body as “neutral” and “normal,” but thereby create the non-“normal” body as disabled (Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor, Examined Life interview series, (Accessed April 04, 2016)). The term “natural” is a logic of power that attempts to produce subjects, but then hides that production of subjects by pretending that their adherence to a law outside of them in fact originates in their bodies.

3. Michelle Adams and Scott Coltrane, in “Boys and Men in Families,” note that the state of adolescent maleness as it is currently socialized is detrimental to men’s health: “In 1996, for example, 2,110 suicides in the United States involved youth under the age of 19, 80% of whom were male,” while “…married men are less depressed and have lower rates of mental disorder than do married women.” From Handbook of Studies on Men and Masculinities, ed. R.W. Connell, Jeff Hearn and Michael S. Kimmel (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2005).

4. “When you are hungry/learn to eat/whatever sustains you/until morning” (“For Each of You”) Audre Lorde, The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000).

5. Vaginas are whirlpools from which you may never return. The sirens of the Greek myths who lured sailors to their doom enticed them into the ocean, which everyone knows is an endless void, which everyone knows is a vagina. All vaginas lead via a network of oceanic tunnels to The Great Vagina, aka Terrible Nothingness.

6. A now famous New Yorker profile of Anna Faris revealed that movie studios require that a woman is reduced to tears within the first 10 minutes of the romantic comedy genre, in order to ensure that she is likeable.

7. In “Beyond the sex machine? Sexual practices and masculinity in adult men’s heterosexual accounts,” authors Chiara Bertone and Raffaella Ferrero Camoletto assert that much is to be gained by men from their interactions and heterosexual relationships with women, especially in the expansion of emotional and sexual scripts for men, but that this does not help the man construct a less restrictive conception of masculinity: “…the intimacy script allows him to redefine his sexual positioning in couple interaction, but not to construct a sense of self based on a new model of masculinity: he only distances himself from a masculinity which he keeps defining as predatory.” The authors assert that sex role changes occurred because of the “…sexual revolution, which were based on a collective redefinition of female sexuality and femininity, but even when activating a change in how men experienced sexuality, [this] lacked a corresponding collective redefinition of masculinity.”

8. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, (Berkeley: Crossing Press Feminist Series, 2007).

9. Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” in Feminism and Sexuality, ed. Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

10. See, for example: the way the ability to wife has become the primary aim of the mainstream LGBTQA movement, thus eliding the concerns and civil rights of less mainstream members of the movement. Michael Warner, in The Trouble With Normal, attempts to envision a world where marriage is only one part of a larger push toward civil rights in the gay movement: “Is it possible to have a politics in which marriage could be seen as one step to a larger goal, and in which its own discriminatory effects could be confronted rather than simply ignored? […] It would have to say that marriage is a desirable goal only insofar as we can also extend health care, tax reform, rights of intimate association extending to immigration, recognition for joint parenting, and other entitlements currently yoked to marital status. It would have to say that marriage is desirable only insofar as we can eliminate adultery laws and other status-discriminatory regulations for sexuality. […] Above all, a program for change should be accountable to the queer ethos, responsive to the lived arrangements of queer life, and articulated into queer publics.” Of course, as Warner acknowledges here and elsewhere in the text, to extend these rights beyond marriage would change the nature of marriage, and would involve widespread acknowledgement that “legal” marriage is a controlling function of the state, rather than the sacred bond it is regularly cast as. Such acknowledgement does not seem forthcoming.

Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (New York: Free Press, 1999).

11. Tera Hunter and Michael Martin, “Slave Marriages, Families Were Often Shattered By Auction Block.” Interview by Michael Martin and Tera Hunter. NPR. (Accessed April 04, 2016.)