The Pernicious Pedigree of Wifedom

Posted on October 25, 2016

offending_stocking-appeal2My best friend and I laughed at the thought. A wife school, I suggested, would have been essential in keeping me from the precipice of divorce. “You know–it can be a school for learning how to be a good wife,” I said as we browsed through the shoe section at Urban Outfitters. I made the suggestion out of my self-depreciating humor, but all humor contains a bit of truth. At the time there was a damaged, naive part of me who believed being a wife was a singular activity existing in the margins of well-cooked meals and conversational politesse that kept homes quiet enough for husbands’ comfort. When the waters of my matrimony were stirred I often blamed myself: I was too much, needed too much, came with too much. Surely, the younger me reconciled, I needed to be beaten into submission of a “real wife.”

I’m now six years removed from that conversation, six years removed from thinking if only I had been a better wife I could have saved my marriage, and six years from a one-dimensional, dogmatic approach to life. At 32, I know it takes much more than being domestic and submissive to sustain a marriage. I also know there’s a realm of possibilities for women outside of being married. That’s why, now being older and wiser, I was shocked to learn there is an actual wife school.

Be careful what you ask for, much? 

The Roots of Royal Wife School exists to teach women feminine grace, wealth building, and man charming among other things. Save for the wealth building, I’m certain the last thing women in 2016–the year in which America might finally find itself saying Madam President–need is a school for learning to become a “certified” wife. I take issue with the existence of a wife school, as we all should, not for the entrepreneurial endeavor of its founders but for what it says about society’s expectations of womanhood, marriage, and family life. The establishment of such a school dangerously perpetuates the idea of women as existing solely for men. And it furthers the unhealthy ideology that women can be pathologically molded to the whims of men’s desires. The need for a wife school says that women as we are, are not enough or are, perhaps, too much and therefore need “correcting” to be acceptable before being considered worthy partners.

If this feels like a reach, consider that it was less than a century ago when women were proliferated with advertisements shaming them for being less than men’s ideals. These non-starters included being too fat, too cranky, and having too many emotions. The vintage fearmongering approach used in advertising and societal rhetoric at the time (and still today to some degree) hinged upon women’s inevitable dependency to men. If a woman was considered undesirable for marriage, the implications of her singleness went further than the threat of growing into a spinster. The Single Woman was crippled by America’s limits placed on unmarried women. The single woman could not find employment, vote, or advocate for herself without the presence of a man. For many single women this meant staying tethered to their families where the father was often abusive and domineering or retreating to find a husband because marriage was the Single Woman’s only mode of survival. This dependency permitted a great number of (insecure) men in places of influence to build what I like to call the Betty Crocker Wife. 

The Betty Crocker Wife is the woman who keeps her home clean, has sex at her husband’s beck and call and dares not talk out of turn. She does not think for herself and is not permitted to exist in complexity lest she infringes upon her husband’s ego. It is this kind of wife and the dangers of expecting this kind of woman feminists have worked hard to abolish. Today, women no longer need to depend on men for our livelihood. We have made great strides since the 1930s. Women are leading across the globe while also finding footing as wives and mothers. We’re exploring what it means to be nuanced, independent and enjoying the developments along the way. A wife school, one that grooms women to become a certified wife before pairing her with a man, stuffs us back into chastity belts and corsets. Wife School reverses the progress so desperately needing to be sustained at a time when powerful, smart, and highly qualified women are called “nasty” by men.

Let’s also consider what the presence of a wife school means for gender politics and the roles men and women play in a marriage. I am most concerned that having a wife school assumes the marriage’s success or failure is incumbent on the woman. To presuppose that women going through the class can take etiquette, feminine grace, and man charming to her partner and build a successful marriage undermines what marriage actually is supposed to be (an institution, spiritual and practical, built on love, trust, communication, mutuality, and reciprocity) and the role each person  should play in building a healthy matrimony. Wife School asserts that women have it solely within their ability to make or break the marriage, which begs the question: if a woman attends this wife school and becomes certified yet her marriage does not last, what does this do to the woman’s sense of self-worth? How does she process the dissolution of the marriage in a way that doesn’t burden her with all the blame and guilt?  Further, what is the husband’s responsibility to his marriage? The Roots of Royal site notes that the man is to lead but offers no further explanation of what leading actually means and how men can learn to do so.

We’ve seen this degree of unbalanced responsibility in marriage placed on women in the 1950s when the divorce rate slowly began to increase after World War II. Women were entering the workforce in droves and finding financial independence apart from men. To curtail the rise in divorce phenomenon, therapists began offering couples therapy but with the premise of the wife shouldering the marriage’s failure. 

This is what a counselor at the American Institute of Family Relations told a woman whose husband had an affair after 27 years of marriage:

We have found in our experience, that when a husband leaves his home, he may be seeking refuge from an unpleasant environment. Could it be that your husband feels that he is not understood or appreciated in his own home? What might there be in your relations to him that could make him feel that way? Could you have stressed your contribution to your marriage in such a manner as to have belittled the part he has played and thus made him uncomfortable in his presence?*

An institution that stands to promote marriage as only being the woman’s responsibility risks oppressing a population of impressionable women who hope to one day be married.

If the existence of a wife school is depressing, we can find comfort in knowing most men do not seek certified wives groomed through classroom curriculum. The men in my life who I have the pleasure of having in-depth conversations are transparent in their desires. They want smart, funny women with quirks. They want women who can be their friends and partners in life. They want women who are nuanced and have depth. To suggest men need a certified wife is also insulting to the progress they have made and the complexity of what it means to exist as a man. Men are not monolithic in the same way women are not to be templated.  

I myself, a woman who believes in marriage and one day hopes to be married again, was once loved by a man who told me that what attracted him was me being me. No certification required. Me – like all women- is a host of imperfections who deserves to be loved in my fullness, not for being contrived or packaged to harness a man’s ego. Women cannot be built into the perfect, all-sacrificing, domicile wife no more than men can be emotionless, money-dispensing, knights in shining armor.

If single people are looking to be married and need resources on how to do so healthily, there are balanced approaches. Couples’ pre-marital classes allow women and men to walk through marriage building together with fair, open dialogue. This is the approach we should advocate for. Marriage, the most beautiful kind, is made up of two people who bring more to the table than certificates and gimmicks. 

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2 Replies to "The Pernicious Pedigree of Wifedom"

  • Heavenlee Young
    October 25, 2016 (12:34 pm)

    This article hit home, being a married woman. I think these days marriage is still very much weighed heavily on both partners yet I feel woman take more of a “blame” when things go wrong. I think we love hard, we care for others more then ourselves and still some how we find ourselves to blame when things don’t go planned. I think a lot weighs on a married woman, with children and a full-time job that goes unspoken. I thank God for understanding and supportive husbands who are willing to switch “roles” and get in the trenches with us. Now its just up to us women to release some of that “control” of what and how things should be done. Great article. I laughed at the idea of a “wife school”! lol

  • Sherri Joynes
    October 31, 2016 (8:32 am)

    Funny I just heard about this idea a couple weeks ago and found it pretty comical as well as appalling. On the other hand, playing devil’s advocate for a second, if we remove the connotation that a failed marriage is a woman’s responsibility, is it so wrong to have schools dedicated to teaching about marriage/relationships? I think I’d be an actual fan of that idea. However, as a mother, wife, “housewife”, and student; it saddens me to say that in my experience women tend to be the hardest and most judgmental towards other women, not men. Men may have traditionally set a standard but we have definitely prescribed to this faulty logic and propagate the message. I am so blessed to have female friends that live, express and support the differing faces of feminist, in both themselves and others. Thank you.