Friday, January 25, 2013

What I Read:: The Meaning of Wife by Anne Kingston: Part One

My reflection on this book really ended up taking on a life of it's own and it is incredibly long, so I decided to break it up into a series of posts. This is part one.


I just started watching the second season of Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta. This is a guilty pleasure and I make no apologies. I admit that I have a love for trashy reality television, but considering that I don't have cable, my viewing choices are limited to what I can get on Netflix. Also, I live in the Atlanta area and despite eccentricities that I like to think fly in the face of this fact, I am southern, born and raised. So, I like this show. I cringe when I wonder what non-southerners must think of us based on the stereotypes they see on reality T.V. Anyway, this is the headspace I was in when I chose my next book and I bought this one when I was planning my wedding. It was a new release and the timing was such that I felt compelled to buy it. Now, seven years later I am finally getting around to reading it.

Look at the cover. Provocative, right?

Wifelust vs. Wifelash

The very first thing I took issue with was her argument about what she calls "wifelust." She said that women seek to be traditional stay-at-home moms because society tells us that is what we should want and that the ability to do this is considered the ultimate status symbol in current society. Maybe if this were Stepford, Connecticut. I currently work and my husband is a stay-at-home dad. This is how things worked out best for us when we discovered we were unexpectedly pregnant. I am the breadwinner in our household and one of our entire paychecks would have gone to childcare, so it just made the most fiscal sense for my husband to stay home. This is a role he cherishes dearly and he rues the day our son starts school and he doesn't get to spend all day with him. I think we are incredibly lucky that our son gets to stay at home with one of us, but in no way does it feel like a symbol of status. Is that because my husband is the one staying home? At any rate, we had to make quite a few financial sacrifices to make this work. We don't have new cars, we don't have cable television, we live in a tiny house in a depressed neighborhood, we rarely go out the eat, we rarely buy things we don't really need. BUT these sacrifices are well worth the ability to care for our child in the way that we feel is best.

Stay-at-home dad-ing
I know stay-at-home dads are an unconventional arrangement that are becoming increasingly common in a society where gender roles are somewhat less rigid and the recession sometimes necessitates this choice. James Griffioen tells the New York Times that modern stay-at-home dads are not Mr. Moms, but rather an evolving archetype of the father as provider and I would agree with this, but this article also asserts that the family hierarchy is currently in flux. Why does there have to be a hierarchy? ABCNews reports that gender roles are reversing and that families are struggling with this development. Really? Maybe changing attitudes about marriage and gender roles in younger generations is causing Kingston's wifelust to be in flux. I consider Donnie's contribution to our family to be equally as valuable as mine and both of our responsibilities come with joys and frustrations, although I would argue that child-rearing is more rewarding that 9-to-5-ing in our case. I know he feels the same way. But I would give almost anything to get to be the one to stay home with my son. He is growing up so fast and the only time I get with him is two hours in the evening, between when I get home from work and his bedtime, and on the weekends.  I miss him and think about him all day and I resent Kingston for shaming me for feeling this way.

Next, let me just say thank goodness the idea of coverture has been essentially dismantled in modern times. Coverture is a legal construct that dictates that a woman's identity is legally subsumed by her husband's:

"By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: this is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything..." 

Kingston does an excellent job of explaining this load of horseshit and its eventual undoing. I will say, though, that I have been to two weddings in recent years where this idea was romanticized during the vows and both times I was appalled. Are they exhibiting wifelust by embracing these outdated ideals? Am I exhibiting wifelash by being disgusted by it? These wives promised to obey their husbands in the vow swapping of these very religious ceremonies. I even voiced my shock at the antiquity of the sentiments in these modern weddings, but my family could not relate to my opinion. I remember my step mom saying that of course the wife obeys the husband. In return, he promises to protect and take care of her. And what's worse is this idea was viewed as holy, romantic, and ideal. In 2012, some women are still treated like children in the name of matrimony. I guess I begrudgingly support their right to choose this type of relationship for themselves and I thank the brave and outspoken ladies that came before me that I don't have to.

Donnie and I on our wedding day in 2005. Look how I gaze adoringly at him while he looks at the camera. Our photographer told us to pose this way because it is a very common wedding photo pose. Now when I look at it I think it is popular because maybe people still unconsciously subscribe to the idea of man and wife. The wife is an accessory to the man.
Now, I am considered a social black sheep in my family in some ways and my marriage experience was very different from this. My husband and I got married seven years ago at an old historic hotel in middle-of-nowhere, Georgia. My dad did walk me down the aisle, because I love him and wanted to share that quintessential experience with him, but no one gave anyone away and Donnie and I exchanged vows to be equal partners and best friends. I also was very clear with our Justice of the Peace that I wanted him to pronounce us husband and wife, not man and wife. Kingston discusses how Gloria Steinem, who famously said "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle," chose to use the term "partners" throughout her marriage ceremony when she did eventually marry at 66 because it is the more egalitarian option. During our rehearsal our Justice of the Peace said, "Oh, are you a fire breathing feminist?" Well, yes. Of course I am. I felt that fact was irrelevant, though, because I thought my beliefs were more mainstream for my generation than they evidently are. Also, we wanted to be married our way without judgement, coercion, or snark, which is why we hired a Justice of the Peace, but after all, this is the south.

This is one of my favorite photos from our wedding. So arty.
Kingston says that there was a shift in the 1960s and women could now marry of their own free will: "Love, not legislation, is the new exacting master." Because there still has to be a master, right? I would argue that while women are choosing to marry later in life than in the past, or choosing not to marry at all, there is still extreme social pressure to marry in our 20s. I think the frustration women feel when this doesn't happen is what fuels the popularity of books, films, and television programs about single women searching for Mr. Right (Sex and the City, Bridget Jones Diary, The Bachelorette, etc). I suppose this supports her idea of wifelust, but I'm not convinced women are so much lusting after wifehood as we are boxed in by the heteronormative social construct that tells us this is what we are supposed to have. Millie Kerr writes in The Atlantic that single people should get to have weddings too because milestone celebrations are reserved for couples. Is this veiled wifelust? It does highlight the idea that being married brings a woman social validation that she does not otherwise have. Jenn Levya writes that while marriage affords women social comfort is really is just a misogynistic status quo and we as a society need to develop new, more egalitarian support structures for one another. I agree that marriage should not be held up on a pedestal to which nothing else can compare. Also, it should be more inclusive. But Levya and I are two very different kinds of feminists because she goes on to say that even though she is a feminist she does not have to support other women's decisions to marry, specifically, "I'm not interested in privileged white women making choices." Ouch. Feels like wifelash to me.  

Spy Magazine cover (1995) ridiculing Hillary for daring to have figuartive balls via Fading Ad. We'll save the discussion for how offensively transphobic this cover is for another day. 
Finally, Kingston discusses Hillary Rodham Clinton as a wife who has been both celebrated and vilified. She is the embodiment of wifelust vs. wifelash. When she and then-governor Bill Clinton first came on the national scene she was the loving wife of a powerful and successful man. Wifelust. During her husband's presidential campaign she competed in a cookie bake-off with Barbara Bush. How quaint. How dutiful. But this was after she commented that she chose her career over the choice to "stay home and bake cookies." Then she was scorned for presenting herself as an autonomous spouse with the ability to dictate presidential policy because she was expected to remain a secondary counterpart to her husband. Wifelash. Kingston asserts that she was celebrated for ultimately "standing by her man," when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. Evidently that is what a good wife would do. Wifelust. I was only 16 at the time, but this is not how I remember it. I remember hearing people sneer about how weak she was for staying with him in light of the infidelity. People reported on the matter in 1998 and while they recognized the difficult situation Rodham Clinton was in, they still said:

"everyone wonders how the First Lady—or for that matter any intelligent woman who doesn't need a man for financial security—can tolerate indignity so complete that she has been caricatured in a Claymation bout with Monica Lewinsky on MTV's Celebrity Death Match."

I even remember thinking at the time that she should leave him for embarrassing and disrespecting her like that and thinking that was the progressive, feminist, and correct mindset to have. Wifelash. My older self is more able to discern nuance and gray-area and I realize that it was politically expedient for her to stay. It seems evident now that the choice was calculated and ultimately in the best interest of herself and her family. Kingston's book was written in 2005 and here we are in 2013 where Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State and Bill was the democratic darling of President Barack Obama's 2012 bid for re-election.   


Edited 03/20/2013: I have decided not to write anymore on this book. Once I said I would it seemed really daunting and I don't want to write a treatise on modern marriage. I just want to put this book behind me.

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