I Read Wifework So You Don’t Have To

Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women If you throw out all the bullshit and the intro-level patriarchy-blaming, Susan Maushart’s Wifework magically transforms from a 247-page eye-roller into an insightful 10-page essay. I will now extract the most interesting points from that essay, so that you’re excused from having to slog through her excruciatingly uncritical presentation of her favorite evolutionary just-so stories.

Maushart starts by establishing that wives, on average, do more work – household labor, emotional caretaking, spousal ego-boosting, childcare – than their husbands. They are less happy about their marriages, and gain fewer of the tangible benefits (longer lives, more money) that accrue to married men. This takes her some time; there are various interesting factoids along the way, and quite a bit of repetition which should be unnecessary for an audience that’s gotten past Feminism 101. To be fair, that’s not the audience of the book, but it is largely the audience of this blog so I feel no compunction in complaining about the mismatch.

Anyway: this inequality persists despite our best efforts. It is not affected by relative earnings within a household.

Wifework explains the two trends of happily submissive wives, and embittered divorced MRAs, with one fell swoop. Maushart’s crucial observation is that even though most marriages aren’t really very egalitarian, we have a lot invested in the illusion of equality. Actively maintaining the illusion of an equal, happy marriage is part of wifework. If a wife does a good job, her husband has absolutely no idea that their marriage is unequal or unhappy – which means that many men are completely blindsided when their wives decide to stop doing the wifework and get a divorce. Male privilege plays a role in this blindness, of course, but this is one of many cases where women collude in their own oppression.

Contrariwise, if women openly take a submissive position in marriage, they no longer have to work to maintain the illusion of equality. Cognitive dissonance is a big downer, so it shouldn’t surprise us that these women really do find their married lives more satisfying than their “egalitarian” counterparts.

She sneaks in some practical advice:

  • If you want to see the inequalities in your relationship, don’t compare your situation to that of other women; compare it to that of your husband.
  • Unless you’re making temporary amendments to an existing, explicit division of labor, don’t offer to “help” your partner with the chores. That only reaffirms the idea that it’s her job in the first place. If you think you’re not doing your fair share, start cleaning, or ask to renegotiate the division of labor so you can take on more responsibilities.
  • Don’t expect to solve all your problems by hiring a maid. There’s still the emotional division of labor, which makes waaaay more difference to the health of a marriage than the household division of labor.

That’s it! Unless you’re super-keen to hear Maushart’s take on what kids do to marriage (surprise! they make it really difficult, especially from a gender-equity perspective!), what marriage is good for anyway (kids), or why women evolved to be nurturers who seek a mate who’s a good provider (blech), you’ve got no reason to read the book.


  1. Dr. Shellie wrote:

    uh, so were you convinced that women did in fact evolve to be nurturers who seek mates who are good providers, or did you decide it was bullshit?

  2. yami wrote:

    Mostly I decided that her examination of the issue was shallow and bullshit – she places the assertions on the page several times, but doesn’t actually make the argument. Her insistence on discussing things only in the context of the evolution of monogamy, when polygamy is so damn prevalent over human history, smelled pretty bullshitty to me too.

  3. Lab Lemming wrote:

    How do you determine the prevalance of various mating strategies over the course of human evolution? Your fossils must be WAY more interestig to look at than the stuff we learned homonid evolution from.

  4. yami wrote:

    Well, for human history you do some ethnography, take a peek at the written record, and extrapolate. Hell if I know how you say anything definitive about mating strategies over the full course of hominid evolution, though – perhaps you should ask Maushart, she seemed pretty confident in her assertion that monogamy was the one to watch for.

  5. sabine wrote:

    Well thanks for summing it, because now I know I don’t want to read it. “Bullyshitty” is something I tend to avoid in my reading subject matter. Although I’m sure that it creeps into my writing sometimes. :)

  6. J Power wrote:

    Thank you, I only read this http://books.guardian.co.uk/extracts/story/0,6761,625680,00.html and was worried it sounded intolerably bullshitty. Since you’ve read it, I’ll take your word for it.

  7. Dano wrote:

    I could have listened to you, but I went ahead and read the book anyway. It struck me as one of those pieces where the writer arrives at a conclusion first and then starts to do research, finding many tidbits, large and small, that reinforce what they already think.

    When I try to articulate a thought concerning gender issues, I often get awkwardly tied in knots about what is a “feminine” or “masculine” trait or behavior. It’s a kind of chicken and egg problem. Is one behavior feminine because it is typical of women or do we only label it that because it is typical of women? As a man, if I display a trait that has been deemed “feminine,” am I somehow an exception to some rule? I end up talking in circles.

    I was taken by a comment she made about love, “we have chosen to define love with reference to women’s emotional strengths and capacities, not men’s”(p.149). I wonder what a definition of love would be if it were in reference to men’s emotional strengths and capacities? Maushart might imagine a very short definition. Perhaps, while “women” are nurturing and self-sacrificing, “men” are quietly supportive?

    Hi ho. Thanks for providing a space.

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