In 1971, Judy Brady’s deadpan, yet tongue-in-cheek Ms. Magazine article “Why I Want a Wife”
articulated the previously ignored roles and responsibilities of
Wives. In her essay, she enumerates the unpaid emotional and
physical labor within the home that is expected of Wives. I’m
capitalizing Wife to refer to this specific archetype and call attention
to it as a word, to deconstruct and destabilize it. A Wife, then, is
defined not even by her status as a married woman, but through her
labor. We could see caregivers, nannies, and cleaning staff as
Wives (or alternate versions of Wives) as well.
When I read Brady’s piece in college, I was impacted by the long list
of duties that she perceived as a Wife’s work. Even my mother, a
product of Second Wave Feminism who works full-time outside of the home and outsourced much of her childcare, performs the role of a Wife.
“I want a wife who will not bother me with the rambling complaints about a wife’s duties.”
In doing so, she calls attention to the continued silencing of Wives
and of the ways this silencing perpetuates a lack of acknowledgement and
respect for a wife’s labor. Brady criticizes disposable nature of
a Wife’s labor:
“If by chance I find another person more suitable as a wife than the
wife I already have, I want the liberty to replace my present wife with
another one. Naturally, I will expect a fresh, new life; my wife will
take the children and be solely responsible for them so that I am left
While of course a wife is oppressed in a gender hierarchy of labor,
it would be irresponsible to forget the raced and classed nuances of
Wifehood, the privilege and power also implicit in being a Wife.
So when I found myself unemployed and underemployed for a few months
this past year and I giggled with friends about my life as a housewife,
going to the gym frequently and cooking meals for my family, I was
brought back to Brady’s essay and my privilege in being able to
(jokingly) call myself a Wife. What did it mean that I, as a
young, upper-middle class, unmarried, White, college-educated woman
living in a rent-free (and in many ways, responsibility-free) situation
without children, was relishing the role of a Wife?
Of course, I was channeling a very specific class of Wife, the type of housewife featured on Bravo’s reality TV shows that
has the privilege to enjoy Wifehood without (it seems), much of the
domestic labor responsibilities of a Wife. Of course, I do not
want to be a Wife, politically, as a feminist. But my days of
(f)unemployment and my lapse into “Wifehood” reminded me of my
privileges: my privilege to potentially adopt a Wifehood on my own terms
(and to envision being a Wife as a type of vacation), as well as my
privilege as a White woman with a college education and without children
to almost guarantee myself that Wifehood is not in my future.
I do not want Wives to be positions of unexplainable and inescapable unhappiness, as in the case of The Feminine Mystique.
I do not want Wives to be equated with unappreciated labor that
includes child rearing, cooking, laundry, keeping house, and always
associated with a female body. I want to work to understand and unpack
my own privileges as I enter adulthood and flirt with Wifehood and try
to re-imagine what family relationships and division of labor might look
like, especially in queer relationships where gendered divisions aren’t
always as clear. I do not want to be a Wife, at least not with a