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Joseph Kaminski

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November 21, 2019

Book Review: A History of the Wife

A History of the Wife is one of the best sociological works containing immense historical attributes and impactful perspectives that stuck with me from beginning to end. From the biblical tales of Adam and Eve to the late 1990’s representation of Hillary Clinton, author Marilyn Yalom drew records of historical significance and combined them with written analysis. A senior scholar at the Institute for Women and Gender at Stanford University (as of 2002), Marilyn Yalom obviously is an expert in the sociological constructs of gender and the passion for understanding the “roles” of husband and wife are blatantly obvious through every page.

A History of the Wife by Marilyn Yalom.

A History of the Wife by Marilyn Yalom.

Let me start off by saying this book works wonders for anyone taking a humanities course. From literal gender studies all the way to contemporary history, understanding the “roles” of man and women within society benefits the scholarships of any student interested.

Understanding how marriage, a religious medieval duty, evolved from biblical sense of ownership and procreation and evolved into our modern sense of love and romance is not only an amazing journey of ups and (mostly) downs, but also beneficial towards understanding the current social constructs that we live in.

One would be interested to learn that homosexuality hasn’t always been frowned upon, and that the modern institutions of America and Ireland of sorts are not the first in history to approve of such relationships.

Others would be interested to learn that polygamy isn’t necessarily a staple in the Mormon belief system, and that only 15 to 20 percent of Mormon families could be classified as polygamous.

Common misconceptions about the foundations of marriage and the proper connections to the gender-specified “roles” we’ve created over centuries are clearly placed with remarkable phrasing and diction.

I fell in love with this book, pun intended. Four hundred pages in length, not including the forty pages in notes and the index, A History of the Wife really created an incredible historical story from start to finish. Her prediction in the year 2001 that homosexuality would be legalized in America by federal law within “fifteen years” was spot on, with “gay marriage” being federally legalized on June 26th, 2015. The amount of knowledge present in this book is enormously informative, with little interjection or personal bias written at all. It is amazing to have a distinct and literal history of the wife written by someone not clearly biased through New Right agenda or radical feminist tinted glasses.

A History of the Wife starts off with a simple question: Is the wife an endangered species? Implementing an article from one of those “ask the editor” romance columns from 1998, the book starts off with a seemingly lucky girl in an engagement to a man who “does everything right”. He loves her and her 9-year old daughter (from a separate relationship that did not work out prior to him), he does all the laundry, he cleans the dishes and the floors, and he even accepts her daughter as his own. He works two jobs, bringing more than enough money for a pseudo-lavish lifestyle on the upper middle class spectrum of working. The anonymous writer says it herself, he sounds perfect. But, she admits, she doesn’t love him. She doesn’t feel sparks!

The answer to the article, written by the San Francisco Chronicle, was “leave him”. The rational of the paper was “if you marry this man, knowing in your heart that you do not love him, you will be doing yourself and him a great disservice. Marriage is supposed to last forever. And forever is a long time to live with yourself, feeling that you sold out because you were afraid you wouldn’t find a man you can love. Let him go.” Sounds strange, right? A society that tells a woman to leave a “perfect relationship”, let alone ANY relationship, is modern. Really modern. Like, evolving into around the year of 1980 modern. That’s less than thirty years kind of modern!

Imagine someone feeling like this in the year 1998 BCE, let alone someone feeling like this in the year 1950 CE.  It’s kind of…strange. Knowing that people in our current society wouldn’t have ever dreamed of leaving a relationship – or even being able to choose their own relationship. Throughout most of history, women had little say in the choice of their husbands. Now, with divorce being an option and cohabitation considered the norm, we’ve completely evolved the sense of what a “wife” used to be.

Wives of Biblical, Greek, and Roman models clash with those of Medieval Europe. The Protestant wives in Anglo-Saxon territories clashed with the radical Puritans belief in what a relationship was made to be. Patriotic wives of America and France in terms of revolution were silenced much more severely than those wives of World War II. The overall questioning of sex, contraception, and abortion within major religious nations comes to the social chopping block in 1840 – 1940. All of these topics are covered within the ten chapters, the four hundred pages that make up A History of the Wife.

Just so you get an idea of what this book is really about, here’s a story from A History of the Wife which stuck with me. You can find it on page 240:

In 1851 Mother was pretty hard run to earn enough money for us to live on, so when a man named Julius Thomas, a cook in a restaurant, offered to marry me, Mother thought I had better take him, so I did. He was 44 and I was 14.

Back in 1851 – that is 70 years ago – we had slavery of Negroes in the South, and we had a slavery of wives all over the United States… What could a girl of 14 do to protect herself from a man of 44, particularly if he drank most of the time, as my husband did? I still shudder when I think of the years of my girlhood, when I had to live with that husband. When he was drunk he often wanted to kill me, and he used to beat me until I thought I couldn’t stand it.

One time he came to my mother’s house, where I had taken refuge. I locked the door. He tried to climb in at the window, but I held it down. This enraged him so, he took out his pistol and shot at me. The bullet passed just above my head. The glass fell on me and scared me so I dropped to the floor. He looked in, saw me lying on the floor, and, thinking he had killed me, put the end of the pistol barrel into his mouth and pulled the trigger and I was a widow.

I completely recommend this book, which you can find on Amazon here. A fantastic read, beautifully written and informatively entertaining from the introduction to the appendix.

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