About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

#35 - More of the same

Yep, I'm on another of my thematic kicks; this time, I'm reading about gender and family issues. Earlier this week, I finished Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women, by Susan Maushart. In a word -- eh. The title itself is a tall order; there are a lot of married women out there, and it's hard to imagine that one book can deconstruct every last one of their marriages in 247 pages. Frankly, this one doesn't even come close. Maushart's thesis is that today's high divorce rate is due to the inequalities behind married partners, the differences between (borrowing a page from American sociologist Jessie Bernard) His marriage and Her marriage:
"We can't make up our minds about marriage because we have not acknowledged that these two versions of the one relationship are fundamentally and perhaps irreconcilably divergent. And, more to the point, we have not yet acknowledged -- perhaps not even to ourselves -- that His marriage still works. And Hers doesn't."
She defines "wifework" in some detail in the first chapter to include performing a disproportionate share of household and child care tasks, emotional caretaking, maintaining His diet and physical well-being, deferring to His intimacy and conversational needs, et al. You get the idea. She then suggests that wifework evolved as a little extra something women did to help keep their men monogamous -- "a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine of monogamy go down." Subsequent chapters explore the prevalence and persistence of wifework, and how it plays out in the arenas of housework, parenting, and emptional caregiving.

The book was a reasonably interesting read, and much of it did resonate with, um, things I've heard from married woman friends. It also offers some amusing observations, e.g., "In my opinion, love isn't blind. It just provides exceptional camouflage." I particularly enjoyed the "Rising Expectations and Diminishing Returns" chapter, about the growing gap between what we expect of marriage on one hand and what we actually get on the other -- though Marriage: A History tackled this same subject more clearly and comprehensively. I'm not, however, convinced that Wifework is solid scholarship. For one thing, Maushart has a habit of citing a study or statistic related to whatever point she's trying to make, but then extrapolating (sometimes with a witty but misleading quote thrown in for good measure) to draw conclusions far beyond what the evidence supports; witness her statements in Chapter 5 that "It is a sociological truism that unmarried males represent the dregs of society, and unmarried females the cream," and "what keeps marriages together are wives who have no choice but to keep them together. What puts marriage asunder are wives with access to other options."

For another, in offering anecdotes to illustrate her points, Maushart relies far too heavily on her own experience. The first time, when she regales us in Chapter 2 with her sudden compulsion to cook dinners and scrub toilets after her first marriage in 1985, it's amusing; by Chapter 14, the umpteenth reference (this time, to a tiff with her second husband over earning vs. decision-making power), it's gotten old. Moreover, it makes her sound bitter and lacking in objectivity -- both of which detract from the arguments she's trying to make. Coupled with her breezy, flippant tone and cutesy chapter titles (e.g., "Equality Go Bye-Byes" and "Whose Wife Is It, Anyway?"), this makes the book feel somewhere like a cross between a series of popular essays and a mudslide-fueled gripefest with a girlfriend, rather than like a legitimate contribution to social science.

Overall, if you're new to the subject, Wifework is a readable introduction, and offers some interesting food for thought. It's definitely a light appetizer, though, and not a full meal; long-time addicts of the genre won't find much new here, and will probably find the tone off-putting.

Next up: My review for the equally disappointing The Shelter of Each Other, by Mary Pipher. I really need to stock up on some good, juicy fiction, stat.


  1. I had to comment as I am taking a class called, Marriage and the Family. We have been reading various case-studies about gendered, class, and cultural roles in marriages, divorces, and families. It can be quite interesting, although alot of the statistical findings can be repetitive in these types of books and becomes slightly boring. The case-studies, though, were interesting because the reader was able to hear opinions about all-things marriage/family/relationships/class directly from the people in the study. I can recommend tons of stuff if you're interested. I do, though, prefer fiction :) Keep up the great reviews.

  2. Thx -- I'd be curious to hear what you've read ... we can compare! (Though I think I'm probably on to other subjects for a while ... )