The cultural historian who gave us A History of the Breast takes stock of the wife from her conception by the Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans to her 20th-century manifestation as the New Woman. Beginning with the charter myth for the Judeo-Christian wife (Adam and Eve), Marilyn Yalom explains the religious, legal, and social practices of ancient civilizations that provided the template for the idea of wife as property of and subservient to her husband, with a role limited to mother and housekeeper. What she discovers is that the recent transformation of wifehood from sexless stay-at-home dependent to sexy supermom is actually the distillation of changes that have been going on for a long time, say a couple of thousand years. In fact, what makes Yalom's passage through time so fascinating is the steady rise and fall and rise again of the status of the wife and her struggle for greater autonomy. There are plenty of surprises: the first reciprocal marriages were actually had in Roman times; divorce became popular around the same time that monogamy was instituted; and while it's true that Puritans punished adultery harshly, it was they who brought the concepts of mutual love and lovemaking (other than for procreation) to America. The growing tension between women's impulses towards emancipation and the reaction against it was a quickly repeating theme in the 20th century, best exemplified by a WWII ad of a working woman pledging to "guard every bit of Beauty that he cherishes in me."
The wives in this revelatory genealogy resonate with the aid of illuminating stories and the lively voices found in letters and diaries. Through these, Yalom lithely demonstrates that the fantasy of the selfless devoted wife has always had an ineluctable twin, the archetypal powerful woman--and vice versa. While college women in the 1970s may have declared that "the idea that a woman's place is in the home is nonsense," Yalom points out that society still acts like every breadwinner has a stay-at-home wife, and the anxieties that are raised in advice columns today are not that different from those a hundred years ago. Greater independence and equality have not, as feared, led to the abandonment of the marital institution, nor many of the issues that haunt it. --Lesley Reed [via]