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Tracing a 'Wife' throughout history

2006-09-08 14:12

    Despite the bad rap wives get — for being passive, retro, hopelessly un-hip — Marilyn Yalom finds magic in "the little word, 'wife.' " The author of A History of the Breast has written a valentine to wives and in her wife-o-centric history from Greek and Roman times to the present, she presents carnage, corny jokes and interesting facts:

    In Rome, fathers negotiated the betrothal of daughters as young as 6.

    In the Middle Ages, a husband had a legal right to his wife's clothes, jewelry, even her bed linens. He also had the legal right to beat her.

    In England in the 17th century, between 20% and 30% of brides arrived at the altar pregnant. Adultery was cited in more than half the divorce cases filed in New England in the 1600s, including one where a wife claimed her husband admitted "that he had Rogered other women and meant to Roger Every Likely Woman He Could and as many as would Let Him."

    During the 18th century, husbands placed newspaper advertisements about wayward wives: "CATHERINE TREEN having, in violation of her solemn vow, behaved herself in the most disgraceful manner, by leaving her own place of abode, and living in a criminal state with a certain William Collins, a plaisterer, under whose bed she was last night, discovered "

    From 1852 to 1890, polygamy was a "fundamental tenet" of the Mormon religion. Not all wives complained. Hannah Crosby says she married not because she loved her husband (she didn't), but because "I loved his wives and the spirit of their home."

    In 1869, a 21-year-old Irish-Catholic woman in New York married, had 11 children and died "exhausted and consumptive" in 1899. Her daughter, Margaret Sanger, would devote herself to making contraception "legal and available to married women."

    By the mid-1930s, "millions of condoms were being produced and sold" in drugstores, gas stations, barbershops and other venues. During World War II, The Good Housekeeping Cookbook told housewives: "Save every scrap of fat that you would ordinarily throw out." The fat was used to manufacture explosives. Housewives spent between 51 and 56 hours per week on household tasks from the 1920s to the 1960s.

    By the end of the 20th century, jokes about husbands began supplanting jokes about wives. This one circulated on the Internet: "Behind every successful man is a surprised woman."

    After reading Yalom's history, one thing is clear: Marriage is not for the faint-hearted. Irvin Yalom (Marilyn's husband of 46 years), the author of Love's Executioner & Other Tales of Psychotherapy, reaches a similar conclusion. A study of 900 Michigan wives showed that in the first two years of marriage, 52% of wives were "very satisfied." After 20 years, only 6% were. But things start looking up after the third decade of marriage, according to the survey.

    Marilyn Yalom, a senior scholar at Stanford University, speaks from experience : "To be the intimate witness of another person's life is a privilege one can fully appreciate only with time."

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