An out-of-work wife

October 31, 1994|By Anna Quindlen

IT SO HAPPENED that in the hours before Lady Diana Spencer was to become the Princess of Wales in 1981, I was working on a story on New York's Eighth Avenue, hanging out with a group of prostitutes. At daybreak I intended to go home and watch the royal wedding, my companions to get some sleep. But before we parted they gave an unforgettable valediction to the bride. "She's got the richest john in the world," one of the women said.

This purely commercial view of matrimony seemed exceedingly harsh. But if published reports are to be believed, the princess is nearly as cynical about her marriage now as the women working the West Side of Manhattan were on her wedding day. And a new biography of her husband reflects an arrangement more like a family business transaction than a love affair.

Like so many other women, the 19-year-old Diana, unsure of who she was and what she cared for, decided to make her career that of wife. Today that can be a very, very iffy line of work, particularly with nothing else to fall back on.

And what sometimes happens to the women who pursue it is the best argument imaginable for teaching girls that they should always be able to take care of themselves.

This is palpable in the letters from women who think the story of the century is that of their divorce. And for them, it is. Once upon a time they went into the wife business, and now they have been laid off, often because what their husband wanted years ago is not what he wants today.

They expected to share in his good fortune, to grow older amid the best that his salary could provide, in exchange for something once called homemaking. Instead they find themselves dusting off teaching credentials as old as their oldest child and trying to remake a life at middle age.

Studies of divorce in America have shown that after the split a woman's disposable income will plummet while that of her husband rises. The princess will survive the money crunch. But who will she be after the divorce? He gets the friends, the country house, even the country.

One of the cruelest parts of being an out-of-work wife is the loss of identity. One woman says that what finally did her in was the name, the "Mrs. John Smith" on another woman's stationery.

Take the case of Betty Broderick, serving a long prison sentence for the murders of her ex-husband and his second wife. Betty had seen her husband through professional school, skimped and saved in the early lean years, car-pooled the kids and cheered from the sidelines at soccer games.

She worked long and hard at wifehood, and then her husband left her. And she went berserk, incapable of building a new life because who she was, the job she had always counted on, was to be Mrs. Dan Broderick.

There are those who say that the changes in the lives of women in the last 25 years mean that the life Betty Broderick embraced has gone the way of the tuna casserole. But that ignores the truth: that statistics and trends and the ways of the world rarely dissuade us from the notion that we can somehow beat the odds, particularly where love is concerned.

Some months ago Parade magazine, in its column for young people, ran a letter one young man had written in 1991 about his dream woman: "I want to marry a woman of the '90s," he wrote. "The 1890s."

He wanted a wife who would "stay home, clean the house, wash dishes and clothes and do many other household tasks."

At the time a young woman responded, "That's the kind of person I've always wanted to be. ... I don't really ever want to work." And when I read her letter I wanted to pick up the phone, to warn her that men leave, that maybe some day the boy who wanted a woman of the 1890s would opt for a 21st-century fox instead.

They plan to marry in March.

I thought my acquaintances monumentally cynical that warm night in June 1981, even taking into account how many times they had traded sex for money with a man wearing a wedding ring. How long ago that seems.

The princess, once an emblem of romantic love, has now become a representative of how horribly things sometimes turn out when a woman hitches all her hopes to one man's star, an object lesson in the need for self-reliance and a life of one's own.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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