The Meaning of Wife by Anne Kingston

The Meaning of Wife by Anne Kingston

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover (available in trade), 336 pages (incl. 44 pages of notes, index and bibliography), 2004

Rating: 7/10

Reason for Reading: The spectacular, attention-grabbing cover.

Synopsis: Kingston investigates the role that women take on when they become a wife, as influenced by things like marketing blitzes from the bridal industry, feminism, the recent backlash against feminism that produced such books as The Rules, and the economic consequences of marriage. The main focus is on the past fifty years, when previously concrete ideas of a “wife” changed and endless possibilities of what defined a wife emerged.

Why you should read this book: An unbiased opinion is presented within the book so that the broad spectrum of wives is covered fairly. For example, there’s no labelling stay-at-home wives, working wives, ‘unwives’ (unmarried women) as either good or bad. Rest assured, despite the cover, this goes beyond the angry rantings of the ‘second sex.’ Kingston openly admits that there is no ‘one-size fits all’ definition of a wife, yet women are taught to see it that way by various forms of media. It’s fascinating to see all the different ideas and stereotypes of the past fifty years lined up in a row, especially those of the past decade, as women are denounced and lauded within the same breath both for being single and for being married. The chapter on the economic value of a wife is eye-opening as well, raising conundrums such as working women generally earning 76 cents for every dollar earned by men; yet staying at home to care for children is also undervalued in the court systems, often dropping post-divorce standards of living by a third, certainly a lose-lose situation. A lot of jarring questions are raised in this book, especially for a society that seems content to close the book after the wedding and the promise of ‘happily ever after’ – unless, of course, it can be used as fodder for the tabloids.

Why you should avoid this book: A lot of time is spent recounting plots of books, movies, television shows, and Cosmo articles without Kingston venturing to state an opinion of her own. This means, first of all, that there are spoilers for all of the above, without warning, and not just the well-known classics, but books, etc. that have only been released in the past year or two. Not a pleasant discovery. Secondly, Kingston puts a lot of weight on fictional characters. Presuming, for example, that Lucille Ball was representing all wives of her time on I Love Lucy is quite the stretch. There’s almost no comments from the “everyday,” average women that are wives, which was a disappointment because the picture feels far from complete as a result.

Opening paragraph:

Wife. Four letters. One syllable. Simple, or so it seems. Yet this common word has become one of the most complex signifiers in the English language, weighted by past definitions, blurred by personal biases. The associations it elicits are bipolar in their scope: by the beginning of the twenty-first century, wife was variously presented as the source of female damnation or salvation, enchantment or disenchantment, captivity or rescue. Take your pick. Evidence can be marshaled to support either case. But the truth exists in neither.

Fabulous quotes:

The character was emblematic of the way the alpha female was presented by both popular culture and the media. We saw it too in the treatment of Allison Schieffelihn, a forty-year-old corporate bond trader in New York, who in 1998 charged her employer, Morgan Stanley, with sex discrimination, alleging that was the reason the firm had not promoted her to the position of managing director. The press presented Schieffelin as a sad case – a broken marriage behind her and no children, because, as she put it, her brutal work schedule meant ‘I couldn’t even handle a goldfish.’ Her identity was so wrapped up in her professional persona that when she was fired, she asked tearfully, ‘Couldn’t I just keep my ID badge as a memento?’ The Chicago Tribune summed up Schieffelin’s alienated statues in the title of a story about her: ‘From High-Flyer to Outcast.’
As an antidote, services sprung up telling women the answer was to reclaim their femininity. One much-publicized example is Bully Broads, a monthly gathering held at the Growth and Leadership Center in Mountain View, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley, designed to tamp down women’s agressive instincts. The seminar is the brainchild of Jean Hollands, who set it up for ‘oppositional’ females in 1998. The goal is for these women to become less intimidating, to let go of their need to control, to soften their edges by smiling more and lowering their voices, and not to fear appearing vulnerable. Participants are present under strict orders from their employers, who are paying $15,000 to wean them away from their controlling, bullying, aggressive ways.

In 1999, Philip Morris Company used one of Donna Ferrato’s photographs as part of its national campaign against domestic violence. The cause was shrewdly selected, given the company’s need to burnish its image at a time when its principal product, tobacco, was being excoriated as a social evil. It spent $2 million on domestic violence programs nationally, a small fraction of the $60 million it spent on charity in 1999. That same year, it spent $108 million on advertising to tell the public about it, an expenditure that allowed the company to circumvent rules that prohibit cigarette companies from advertising.

Also recommended: Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood by Naomi Wolf; Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.

Also by this author: The Edible Man: Dave Nichol, President’s Choice & The Making of Popular Taste.

Fun tidbit: Kingston is a regular columnist for the newspaper National Post, and a frequent contributer to Saturday Night magazine.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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