When the King of Sweden asks Joan, the protagonist of the newly-released film The Wife, what she does for a living, she replies, ironically, “I am a king maker”. This poignant scene takes place towards the film’s end, as Joan (Glenn Close) takes part in the festive dinner celebrating her husband being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The Wife, which is based on Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel of the same name, centres on Joan, a bright young student at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, in the late 1950s. Joan’s promising writing career ends early in deference to her husband – her former literature professor and distinguished author, Joe Castleman. As the film unfolds, we learn that beneath the veneer of the happy housewife — that quintessential image of the “feminine mystique” — is a self-effacing woman who begrudgingly buried her dream of becoming an author in order to facilitate her husband’s literary success and eventual fame.
Today, this notion of “wifehood” has largely vanished from public discourse. Motherhood has taken its place. The assumption is that women no longer give up their careers to support that of their partners – if they do, it’s for the sake of their children.
Indeed, discussions about and images of motherhood proliferate in films, news, television, women’s magazines, advertising, celebrity, guidebooks, social media, and literary fiction. We live in a society which insists that women deserve equal opportunities to realise their talents in all spheres of life, while simultaneously inundating us with messages about women’s crucial roles as mothers and carers. Wifehood, however, seems to be a remnant of the past. This may be part of The Wife’s charm.
Motherhood vs wifehood
But recent figures show that significant numbers of highly educated women are leaving paid employment. In this respect, they are not very different from the film’s protagonist. However, the common explanation as to why these women leave their careers is that they underestimate the difficulties of combining employment and parenting. Lack of affordable childcare is another important factor that pushes mothers out of the workforce, although it affects poorer and less educated mothers far more than highly educated ones.
Yet the picture is more complex than this. In my new book, for which I interviewed a range of professional women who quit their jobs after having children, I found that the decision to leave the workforce and become stay-at-home mothers was a decision they made as much as wives as mothers.
The decision was as much about facilitating their husbands’ continued career advancement as it was about their desire to spend more time with their children. To be sure, the demands and expectations of motherhood had a significant impact on these women’s decision to step off the treadmill, as did the toxic working hours and conditions of both their and their husbands’ workplaces, which were utterly incompatible with family life.
But behind the women’s complex stories of motherhood and work, there lies another story. These former lawyers, accountants, teachers, artists, designers, academics, social workers and managers rarely spoke directly about it, but their stories revealed how the choices they have made and their everyday lives have been profoundly influenced by their roles as wives.
Tess, formerly a senior news producer, quit her successful career when her children were young. She felt needed at home, she told me, and her workplace gave her a generous redundancy package. “But there was another factor,” she admitted more than half way through our interview. Her husband’s career as a lawyer was about to take off and although at the time she earned substantially more than he did, she decided to leave her job.
This story is far from anomalous. Tanya, a former senior partner in a law firm, quit her career to enable the smooth running of her family, and crucially, she admits, of her husband’s career. Rachel, a mother of three and a former senior accountant, whose husband is a partner in an accountancy firm, confided that her husband strongly encouraged her to leave her job to look after the children full-time so “he doesn’t have to worry about it”. And when I asked former HR Manager Anne what she found most satisfying in her life, the first thing she said was cooking her husband the food he loves.
These women may sound like the reincarnation of the “captive wife” Hannah Gavron described in her book about homebound mothers in 1960s Britain. They may appear to be “retro housewives” or the “new traditionalist” – the professional woman who unambivalently throws over her career for family and homemaking. Yet they adamantly reject the label of “old-fashioned” or “traditional” wives, which they see as belonging in their mothers’ generation (and Joan Castleman’s), not theirs. They detest domesticity, keep their performance of household chores to the bare minimum, and see themselves as independent.
However, often indirectly, with pain and pause, many of them admitted that they have unwittingly deferred their identities to their husbands’. When the two-earner household could not cope with the pressures of both partners combining paid work and parenting, it was the woman who gave up her job.
Although these women are a minority, both socio-economically and in terms of their employment path, their stories about the central role of wifehood are crucial for understanding how gender inequality, both in relation to work and to family life, endures. Today’s wife may no longer be reliant on her husband’s status or money, nor does she labour in the kitchen. And, yet, the role of wife continues to shape, if subtly, the pursuit of her desires. The popularity of the acronym DH (for Dear Husband) in numerous threads on the popular parenting website Mumsnet teaches us that so many of the dilemmas, tensions, disappointments, as well as pleasures of motherhood, are inseparable from women’s identities as wives.
Interestingly, a YouGov survey of people in 24 countries found that Britain was the only country where more women than men agreed with the statement that “a wife’s first role is to look after her husband”. While the percentage of both female and male respondents agreeing with this statement was relatively low, mine and other studies, as well as anecdotal evidence, suggest that wifehood is far from passé.
In the wake of renewed discussions about women’s inequality in the workplace, it seems ever more crucial to understand how our desires continue to be shaped by the imperatives of male dominance, as women, mothers and as wives.