A wife is a female partner in a marriage. Most cultures recognize this common social status with a specific affinal kinship term. In most times and places, women have been expected to become wives at some point following the commencement of their childbearing years. The stage at which this happens varies greatly, however, as does the social role a wife plays within a family and her legal rights and obligations. Much depends on the typical form of marriage itself, gender role conventions, economic conditions, and religious and political edicts concerning marital roles. Despite such diversity, people often hold very strong opinions on the proper role of wives in marriages. This is notably so at the present time when marital roles have become the subject of often acrimonious debate between cultural and religious conservatives, feminists, social liberals, and sexual minorities pushing for legal recognition of alternative marriage styles (Coontz 1992).
Most women personally experience becoming a wife as a stage in their life cycle. They become familiar with the role and are groomed for it during their childhood by interacting with and observing their own mothers and other female caregivers. Most women living in contemporary Western countries enjoy considerable freedom in choosing when to get married or whether to marry at all. In societies where marriages are arranged between families, women have far less choice. In cultures practicing infant betrothals, a girl may become identified as a wife at a very young age and begin a long period of preparation for the full adult role. The common requirement of exchanges of wealth to confirm marital alliances, in the form of bride-wealth or dowry, likewise restricts choices and often dictates when marriage takes place (Fox 1967).
The social role a wife plays is largely determined by the nature of the larger family system. In most cultures, wives assume the greatest responsibility for childcare and food preparation. In precapitalist societies, where extended families tend to predominate, wives generally perform separate but complementary work to their husbands and contribute to the economic pursuits of the household as a whole. In polygynous families, two or more co-wives share these tasks. The advent of the Industrial Revolution in Europe brought with it a great expansion of individualized wage labor and a gendered distinction between paid labor, associated with men, and the now-privatized domestic sphere of the household, associated with women. These same economic changes encouraged a reduction in the typical family size. The ideal of the Victorian family, with the husband as the breadwinner and the wife in charge of the home, was never a possibility for poorer families. It was eroded further during the twentieth century as ever increasing numbers of women entered the work force and feminist activists successfully broke into male-dominated professions and reduced the wage disparities between males and females. Such developments have encouraged yet another view of the family as an equal partnership between wife and husband (Ruether 2000).
When they become wives, women move into a new status defined and constrained by ruling social conventions, religious teachings, and formal legal systems. Marriage provides a key means for conferring legitimacy upon children and thus allowing the orderly inheritance of property and the reproduction of the social order. Wives have tended to hold a higher status in societies where they have ownership over valuable property such as land. Among the matrilineal Dobu of Papua New Guinea, for instance, wives along with their brothers are the owners of clan lands while husbands are somewhat marginal "strangers" in the family system (Fortune 1932). In more patriarchal societies, such as have existed in much of Western as well as Islamic history, wives were seen at best as the junior partners but often as the property of their husbands, expected to obey commands and be punished if they did not. For many scholars, the legal status of wives has provided a key index for gauging the degree of equality women enjoy in a particular time and place (Yalom 2001).
Coontz, S. (1992). The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. New York: Basic Books.
Fortune, R. F. (1932). Sorcerers of Dobu. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Ruether, R. R. (2000). Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family. Boston: Beacon Press.
Yalom, M. (2001). A History of the Wife. New York: HarperCollins.
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