Whether renting one or being one, ask 'What is a wife?'

ALICE STEINBACH

September 06, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

Quick: What instantly comes to mind when I mention a business called "Rent-A-Wife?"

Do you think of women who can be hired to clean, shop, cook, run errands, do laundry, play chauffeur, water the plants and feed the pets?

If your answer is yes, then give yourself a perfect score of 100.

"Rent-A-Wife" is the brainchild of Florida businesswoman Ellen Martin, who figured there are a lot of men without wives who

would jump at the chance to pay $10 to $12 an hour for such wifely" services. And the business, now in its second year, is just as successful as she imagined.

What Martin didn't project correctly, however, is this: Ninety-five percent of "Rent-A-Wife's" clients are women. And many of them are married women with children.

Which brings up the question: In today's society, what exactly is a wife?

We've certainly heard a lot of discussion in the current presidential campaign about the role of wives. In fact, not since the early days of contemporary feminism has there been so much scrutiny of the "wifely" role of women. For the most part it's not been a productive discussion, serving instead to further the polarization of women: The stay-at-home-wife vs. the wife-with-a-job.

But as the success of Ellen Martin's Rent-A-Wife business suggests, even those wives who stay at home may want to toss overboard some of the duties traditionally performed by the captain of the matrimonial ship. Which is to say: the wife.

Of course, different husbands see the role of a wife in different ways. Writer Joseph Conrad, for instance, saw a wife as someone who helped a husband's creativity along by "making the flow of daily life easy and noiseless." In some ways, it is a definition that locates the essence of "wifedom" as regarded by many men. And women, too.

Until recently, it was considered quite acceptable to refer to a wife as: the little woman. The better half. The ball and chain. And, as Ronald Reagan referred to wife Nancy: Mommy.

Someone once observed that the qualities most desirable in a wife are similar to those you look for in a good Boy Scout: She should be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, courteous, obedient, cheerful, thrifty.

Still, wives have come a long way since Barbara Bodichon published in 1854 a pamphlet, "Married Women and the Law," which cited the following legal status of wives:

"A man and a wife are one person in law; the wife loses all her rights as a single woman, and her existence is entirely absorbed in that of her husband. . . . A woman's body belongs to her husband; she is in his custody. . . . What was her personal property before marriage becomes absolutely her husband's. . . . The legal custody of children belongs to the father. . .. The mother has no rights over the children."

Feminist writer Carolyn Heilbrun calls the pamphlet a "record of a married woman's nonpersonhood" which "reminds us exactly where women were almost 150 years ago."

Moving closer to the present, we pass through the era of the pioneer wives, the Victorian wives, the war wives and the 1950s suburban wives. But whether holding off wolves in an isolated Kansas cabin, as pioneer wives did, or keeping the house in the suburbs running smoothly, the "wifely" role was one that freed the husband to do "important" work outside the home.

Historically speaking, you might say the heroism of women has found expression largely in the way they've overcome the limitations of a male-dominated society. Nonetheless, it is a true heroism, one based on summoning up the exhilaration and courage necessary to face the challenges of such restrictive lives.

Remembering the heroism of such women -- of their struggle to move from nonpersonhood to full personhood -- makes one realize how demeaning the concept behind Rent-A-Wife is: the glorified housekeeper who makes it possible for others -- women as well as men -- to go out and do the "real" work.

And remembering the heroism of so many wives makes it all the more painful to find current politics -- feminist and non-feminist politics as well as presidential politics -- pitting wife against wife, woman against woman.

I have always been intrigued by a remark Barbara Bush made in 1975 when her last child was about to leave the nest and her husband about to take on a time-consuming job as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Suddenly, a hole opened up in front of her, and this perfect wife who had smoothed everyone else's path fell into a deep depression. "Suddenly women's lib had made me feel my life had been wasted," Mrs. Bush said at the time.

What women haven't yet learned, it seems, is that not only do they have the right to own property and make contracts, they also have the right to choose what kind of wife they want to be.

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