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The Trials of the 21st Century Wife

Becoming a wife can still mean losing our independence — and it's not our husbands who are making us feel this way. So then who is?

It’s not easy being a wife.

Eight years ago, my friend Olivia was planning her wedding. She and her boyfriend Jack had been together for seven years, living together for four. He had proposed on millennium eve, and they’d spent more than a year organizing a lavish party across the country, where most of her large family lives.

However, two months before the big event, with most of the details in place, she called me. "I don’t think I can get married," she said.

"Well, that’s okay," I said, snapping into automatic support mode. "You don’t have to. There’s no reason you should marry Jack if you don’t think he’s right for you. Better to realize that now … "

"No, that’s not it," she cut me off in mid-support. "It’s not Jack. I just don’t want to be married. I don’t want to be a wife. I don’t want to have the kind of marriage my parents have."

I’ve known Olivia for almost 20 years now, and have met quite a few members of her family. They are from the Mediterranean, and conservative. Girls in the family are expected to become wives and mothers, and make that their priority. Though both Olivia’s mother and grandmother (on Olivia’s father’s side) had advanced college degrees, neither made careers of them. One cousin, Olivia once told me, is a cancer researcher who is making inroads in curing the dreaded disease. But whenever this cousin goes home for a visit, her family won’t stop berating her for being single and childless.

Olivia, a rebel from way back, shocked her parents when she and Jack started living together. Her mother took to calling her long-distance, tearfully quoting Dr. Laura Schlessinger. When Olivia and Jack finally got engaged, she stopped. And it became Olivia’s turn to worry about what she was getting into.

Olivia wound up marrying Jack, but I don’t think I quite understood the depth of her concern until I got married five years later. That’s when I truly understood what a socially fraught term "wife" is, and how, despite the dynamics of my own relationship -- and I find myself happily married to a wonderful man going on three years now -- it is often difficult and tiresome to deal with such baggage.

And lately, as the economy quakes and the feminist backlash continues, I worry that the progress wives have made will vanish. True, wifedom has changed in the last century. Just ask Gloria Steinem, who got married at age 63, saying she thought society had made enough strides that an equal partnership between husbands and wives is now possible.

She wasn’t kidding that progress had been made -– but that’s mostly because there was no where to go but up. Until the 1850s in this former British colony (English women had to wait until 1882), married women could not own property. Additionally, any money they had before the marriage (usually through inheritance or dowries) went to their husbands. A married couple was considered "one person," and that "one person" wasn’t female. He had total legal control, and that included any children, who inevitably went to him if she wanted out of the marriage even though, in most cases, he was definitely not the primary caregiver.

For all the supposed status having a husband gave you back then (and even now, since as girls we are still socialized to think our greatest achievement is to get married), it seems the only way to be your own person was to be a spinster (with its contemptuous tinge) or a widow. If you were a widow, you’d also better hope dear departed hubby hadn’t spent all your money. And if you had sons, your financial future pretty much depended on their mercy, since they had full inheritance rights -- not you.

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