Husband’s Helper Wanted-Must Be Docile and Energetic

A History of the Wife , by Marilyn Yalom. HarperCollins, 441 pages, $30.

Didn’t anyone else feel the least bit upset when Gloria Steinem got married?

I was shocked by how unshocked everyone was by this news, how insignificant everybody seemed to think it was. It’s as if half the population presupposed that the other half was going to take umbrage–and were ready to rear up indignantly, defensively on Ms. Steinem’s behalf. But no defense was needed–nobody was offended! Of course, there is the beatific, “c’mon, let two middle-aged people have their happiness” tack, the collective Awww! , the temporary suspension of cynicism that one feels in the face of any wedding, but many feminist and feminist-lite outlets ( Jane magazine, for example) actually made special efforts to applaud the move as courageous. As if the founder of Ms. was actually doing something revolutionary by choosing, after two decades of challenging patriarchal norms, to become a missus. How long is it until Cosmo anoints her a “Fun Fearless Female”?

Maybe we have progressed so far as a sex that marriage is just another value-neutral “lifestyle choice,” even for famous feminists. But I’m not buying it. Not so long as it is hard to imagine a male companion volume to Marilyn Yalom’s new book, A History of the Wife . Being a husband has never denoted much beyond just the normal activities of being a man. But the term “wife” has always suggested a job unto itself: homemaker, hostess, cheerleader, chauffeur, Jill-of-all-trades. Who among us couldn’t use one?

However, Ms. Yalom’s study is not really a philosophical or semantic exploration of the term “wife”–though she hints that, with the legalization of same-sex marriages, the term could become obsolete, or at the very least gender-neutral. (Gloria Steinem may be married, but is she a wife?) A History of the Wife could have been called Wives in History . Slogging through its 400 pages–we begin with Biblical, Greek and Roman wives and proceed methodically to the present day–only slowly does one accumulate a sense of the gradual ebb and flow of the wife’s status over two dusty, grinding, formula-spattered millennia. It’s like an extended Encyclopedia Britannica entry. A long and virtuous Ken Burns documentary of a book: Wife . It will doubtless fail to snare the same titillated attention as A History of the Breast , the author’s previous book. The new tome is for long stretches pretty boring. But guess what? Being a wife is a pretty boring gig.

It’s exhausting, truly, to consider all those floors scrubbed, all those children suckled, all those dishes washed, all this mundane maintenance well under the radar of what history considers important, here dutifully restored to our attention. Wives in medieval Europe: “tending livestock and poultry, milking the cow, making butter, spinning and sewing.” Puritan wives: “Responsible for keeping … spaces clean, for cooking meals, washing and mending clothes, spinning wool, churning butter, making bread, preserving foods.” Prairie wives: “preparing food, cooking, sewing, mending, washing, ironing, tidying up, and making the home as attractive as possible with a minimum of articles.” Working-class wives of the 1950’s and early 1960’s: “make breakfast … send the children off to school …. Then she cleaned house and took care of the laundry and ironing.” You get the drift. It is not the most stimulating reading, but maybe that’s the point.

When she’s not rattling off the prototypical wife’s gradually shifting but pretty consistently dreary litany of tasks, Ms. Yalom–herself married for an impressive 46 years–singles out significant examples of the form, inspirational wives who stepped out of the box. It’s like Wives: The Hitmakers (Adam’s Eve, Abelard’s Heloise, John Adams’ Abigail!). Naturally, the author had to be selective, but one can’t help wondering why Elizabeth Cady Stanton gets nine full pages of biographical detail while Eleanor Roosevelt warrants only a single, fleeting mention.

Meanwhile, those expecting a consideration of modern Presidential mates will be disappointed. Hillary Clinton’s remarkable situation is dispensed with in a mere two paragraphs; and the book’s deadlines apparently did not permit a glimpse of the regressive model promised by Laura Bush, which has already excited some anxiety among the Manhattan liberal elite. (The new First Lady springs to mind as early as page 3, however, when Ms. Yalom describes Talmudic commentary as seeing the ezer –”sustainer” or “helpmeet”–”providing a moral check on her husband: ‘When he is good, she supports him, when he is bad, she rises up against him.'”)

Though the wife was idealized for brief periods of time, as in 12th-century feudal French romantic love, no one will be surprised that being one often proved to be something of a bummer. As recently as the mid-18th century, Anglo-American marital law “allowed a husband to give his wife ‘moderate correction’ and to beat her with a stick, provided that it be no larger than a finger and not so large as a man’s thumb.'” Wives in 1650 could be put to death for cheating. The Victorian woman was advised to fake orgasm and try to be a “household fairy.” An ancient Roman wedding rite still practiced in some cultures today includes a jolly ritual reminder of rape reenacted by the groom’s friends. Dowdy bonnets and housecoats seem to have been the de rigueur wifely garb for much of history.

While she should be commended for the breadth of her research, ambitious parameters are, perhaps inevitably, Ms. Yalom’s downfall. Her prose has something of the superficial, halting feel of a children’s textbook. Her wives are martyrs, heroines. There is no discussion of the trophy wife, nor of the successful commodification of traditional wifeliness demonstrated by, say, Martha Stewart. Moreover, all this energetic raking-together of historical and literary detail tends to obscure a more impassioned strain of argument (hinted at in the Introduction and picking up some steam in the final chapter, “Toward the New Wife”): the pitch Ms. Yalom makes for “companionate,” mutually supportive marriage, in which the two parties involved actually make each other not just richer and more secure, but happier and morally better people.

One can easily imagine A History of the Wife spawning several more interesting and focused books, like A History of Marital Contraception (note the set of cervical caps, circa 1925, lined up in a row like bowler hats; and who knew that women were deeming men “spongeworthy” as early as the 1840’s?). There will always be room on the shelf for A History of Divorce . And maybe even, looking hopefully forward, A History of the House Husband .

Alexandra Jacobs writes The Eight-Day Week.