Brady writes a completely one-sided essay on the inner thoughts of a man told by a woman. “I want a wife who will take care of my physical needs. I want a wife who will keep my house clean. A wife who will pick up after my children, a wife who will pick up after me” (Brady, 4:1-3). Those things do sound quite tempting; I myself wouldn’t mind someone to take care of my needs. Brady humorously exaggerates the wants and desires that a husband dreams up of his wife. In today’s age these things are done, but not “just” by the wife. Life’s a two-person fight; teamwork gets us through.
As a wife, with 25 years of experience, who was raised in the old school tradition, a traditional, family-oriented type of marriage is what I am living now. The saying. “what is mine, is yours and what is yours, is mine” or “for better or worse, ‘til death do we part” is the golden rule in my marriage. My opinion about marriage is simple: The moment you say “I do” automatically means that what is “mine” now becomes “ours.” Marriage is a mutual understanding between two people, sealed with a vow of monogamy, equality, and love. As there are many who are living in two-income homes, husband and wife must work together to help each other prosper, especially with the house chores.
Brady seeks a wife who is completely invested in all things to support the husband. She states, “I want a wife who will work and send me to school. And while I am going to school, I want a wife to take care of my children” (Brady, 3:3-4). Where the ideal marriage is two-part, Brady’s ideal wife takes the responsibilities of both roles, allowing the spouse to seek other uses of his time. I was angered by this and thought, “This is ridiculous” because this is not the way I understand a marriage to be. What I know is: I cook dinner, you set the table, and then you clean dishes, and I put them away. I wash the clothes you fold, I gave birth to the children and we clean them up after they get messy. I read them a story and you tuck them into bed. And, when it comes to finances, it should be both supporting each other. I buy you things and you buy me things. We work together and support each other every day. That is what I understand.
In paragraph 2 of the essay, Brady speaks of her friend, who ultimately presented the topic. Her friend, recently divorced, essentially suggested that he wanted, not just “another” (Brady, 2:3) wife, but one better than the last. I think he did not want a wife; he wanted a personal slave .The author tells a ridiculous tale of a man’s outlook. In the description of the role of a wife, in his dream, she includes, “a wife who makes love passionately and eagerly when I feel like it, a wife who makes sure that I am satisfied” (Brady, 7:2-3). Being a housewife herself, she exaggerates the position of an extremely self-centered personality, of what a stereotypical male ego thinks a perfect wife should be. Personally, this sickens me. Although it is in good humor that she makes these remarks, I find them offensive and demeaning, and just plain rude. In your dreams, guys.
Judy Brady tries to express her personal understanding about a hidden feeling of anger and betrayal. It is based on how she sees the role of a man in her life. The essay is geared to encourage women, wives, exes, and girlfriends to question where they stand. The one-sided topics of this essay are blown out of proportion, but some days they seem realistic. I can picture it in someone’s life, as she’s going through a low point in a relationship. Brady includes this idea with, “I want a wife who will not bother me with rambling complaints about a wife's duties” (Brady, 5:1-2). At a low point in a woman’s life, bad isn’t bad, even when it becomes worse. By this I mean, even when our life is low, if someone were to take advantage of our submissive nature, at that moment, the ideal wife (according to Brady) wouldn’t complain.
Brady exhausts the ideas of the “perfect” wife in this essay. “My God, who wouldn't want a wife?” (Brady, 10:1). Honestly, I can agree with that. Who wouldn’t I want someone to take up all the difficult responsibilities that we have in life? To be able to go about my own business knowing that, no matter what, anything I didn’t want to do, I wouldn’t have to because a wife would handle it. Yes, that’s a great idea—a sick, dated, chauvinistic idea. That’s something I can only accept as satire, a joke. Judy Brady makes us think how, even though it sounds like it would be great to have a wife like that, being that wife could never be an option. Her entire essay holds perfectly the tone and reaction that this chauvinistic idea deserves, and that is one of satire.
Three years ago Annabel Crabb argued on ABC’s The Drum that a lack of wives is what really holds back women in the Australian workforce. She jokingly suggested that what was needed was a “wife quota”.
When my partner sent me a link to her column, I was more than pleased. Was he volunteering to be one of those men who would help fill the shortage? As a historian of 1970s feminism, I was also somewhat bemused.
Crabb’s article reminded me of a classic work of the American women’s movement written more than 40 years ago.
Judy Syfers’ short essay, I Want a Wife, was based on a speech Syfers (now Brady) delivered on August 26 1970 at a rally in San Francisco to mark the 50th anniversary of American women’s suffrage.
Syfers was a housewife, mother of two and recent recruit to the Californian women’s movement. Her essay began with a moment of revelation:
Not too long ago a male friend of mine appeared on the scene fresh from a recent divorce.
Conveniently, his child was now living with his ex-wife and, free of parental obligations, he was on the lookout for a new wife. And so came Syfers’ moment of recognition:
As I thought about him while I was ironing one evening, it suddenly occurred to me that I, too, would like to have a wife.
Syfers’ essay became an instant feminist classic. It was reproduced in Notes from the Third Year (1971), an important anthology of feminist works edited by New York activists Anne Koedt and Shulamith Firestone.
It also featured in the preview issue of the popular feminist magazine, Ms., which sold out in eight days after it was released on 20 December 1971.
And 40 years later, here was Crabb making much the same point. Since then, Crabb has gone on to write The Wife Drought, released in late September. Filled with personal anecdotes of juggling three kids and a career many would envy, the book is witty, heartfelt and informed by the latest research.
With her common touch and broad appeal, Crabb has made a timely contribution to the work-life debate.
But when I finally sat down to read The Wife Drought last week I was not so much bemused as bewildered to discover that it too contained not a single reference to I Want a Wife. Most reviewers of the book likewise seemed oblivious to the connection.
Only feminist stalwart Wendy McCarthy, one of the founding members of the New South Wales branch of the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) in 1972, seemed to know about Syfers’ article. Reviewing The Wife Drought for Anne Summers Reports, she reminisced over reading I Want a Wife for the first time.
Of all the articles in the original edition of Ms., it was “the piece that spoke to me”, McCarthy explained.
I was pregnant with my third child and working out the logistics of being wife, mother, teacher and community activist. Dear God, I needed a wife.
Writing in October this year, McCarthy found Crabb’s book “as loveable” as Syfers’ article, if “eerily scary that so little and yet so much has changed”.
If, like me, she was slightly perturbed that Syfers’ article seems to have been forgotten, she didn’t say so. To set the record straight, this is what Syfers had to say in 1971.
Like Crabb, Syfers set out to expose the taken for granted status of women’s work in the home. She set her sights not only on the invisibility of housework and childcare, but on the emotional and sexual labour of wives. Written in the early years of women’s liberation, the article was more scathing in its tone than The Wife Drought.
Husbands, it implied, were selfish, lazy and ungrateful. They were self-absorbed and altogether uninterested in their own children. To take just a few examples:
I want a wife who will take care of my physical needs. I want a wife who will keep my house clean. A wife who will pick up after my children, a wife who will pick up after me …
I want a wife who will take care of the details of my social life … When I meet people at school that I like and want to entertain, I want a wife who will have the house clean, will prepare a special meal, serve it to me and my friends, and not interrupt when I talk about things that interest me and my friends …
I want a wife who is sensitive to my sexual needs, a wife who makes love passionately and eagerly when I feel like it, a wife who makes sure that I am satisfied. And, of course, I want a wife who will not demand sexual attention when I am not in the mood for it …
The list of demands was relentless.
And the final punch line?
Wives, Syfers warned, were replaceable.
If, by chance, I find another person more suitable as a wife than the wife I already have, I want the liberty to replace my present wife with another one.
I Want a Wife was a cutting piece of satire and the depiction of men was far from flattering.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that Syfers’ piece has been since overlooked. The failure to make a connection between Syfers’ article and Crabb’s The Wife Drought is symptomatic of a wider pattern in popular debate about feminism.
It reflects a tendency to forget past feminisms or, worse, misrepresent them – what historian Natasha Campo describes as the process of “re-remembering” feminism.
Tracing Australian media views of feminism from 1980 onwards, Campo has shown how key tenets of 1970s feminism have been misconstrued.
Feminists were blamed for telling women that they could “have it all” – a claim, as Campo points out, that was more a product of British journalist Shirley Conran’s bestseller Superwoman (1975) than of the organised women’s movement.
Ideas such as equal parenting, which had long been espoused by feminists, came to be presented as “new” solutions.
To her credit, Crabb is much more fair-minded in her treatment of past feminisms. For the most part, she refrains from blaming previous generations for the challenges now faced by women who seek to combine work and family. She also brings a historical sensibility to her work, examining past obstacles to gender equality such as the marriage bar in the public service, which remained in place federally until 1966.
Nonetheless, there is a missed opportunity here to link current dilemmas with those illuminated by feminists like Syfers in the 1970s. The parallel between Crabb’s The Wife Drought and Syfers’ I Want a Wife is a poignant reminder that the insights of 1970s feminism still have much to offer those concerned about gender inequality.
Some ideas may now be outdated and some may be outlandish. But many, like Syfers’ I Want a Wife, continue to ring true today.
Who knows what other feminist ideas might be overdue for a comeback?