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Book Review

An Uxorial View of Marriage in Western Culture

A HISTORY OF THE WIFE by Marilyn Yalom HarperCollins $30, 442 pages

February 12, 2001|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"A History of the Wife" is also a history of women, men, marriage, divorce and the elusive yet powerful concept of love. A scholar at the Institute for Women and Gender at Stanford University, and the author of "A History of the Breast" and "Blood Sisters: The French Revolution in Women's Memory," Marilyn Yalom focuses on wives in the Western world, beginning with the ancient Hebrews and Greeks and ending with a look at the dramatic changes of the last half-century.

In biblical and ancient Greek times, marriages were arranged by patriarchal families for economic, social and practical reasons. There were no laws requiring the consent of the bride-to-be. Wives were legally the property of their husbands. Still, this did not stop some couples--Sarah and Abraham, Odysseus and Penelope--from enjoying a relationship based on love and mutual respect. As Yalom often reminds us over the course of her lively tour of 28 centuries of history, the behavior and feelings of wives and husbands in any era did not always conform to the prescribed norms.

Roman law required the consent of the bride's father (though not her mother) as well as--and this was an important innovation--the consent of the bride and groom. Jews, Greeks and Romans made it easy for a man to divorce his wife but almost impossible for a woman to divorce her husband.

The Christian era proved a mixed blessing. Righting a gross injustice to women, Jesus strongly emphasized the indissolubility of the marriage bond, thus imposing the same standard of commitment on both sexes. As for love, Yalom informs us that by the 12th century, canon law "downplayed the need for parental consent, and foregrounded the mutual will of the intended spouses as the major criterion in the making of a valid marriage." Yet Christianity, particularly in its first 14 centuries, elevated celibacy above the married state and generally viewed sex, even when engaged in for the allowable purpose of procreation, as partaking of the tendency toward sin. Women, rather than men, were seen as the primary agents of sexual sinfulness.

Yalom sees the dawning of the modern ideal of love and marriage going together like a horse and carriage in 16th century England, where women had a great deal more freedom than their counterparts on the continent. Protestantism played a key role in this, although Yalom does not explain why German or Flemish Protestant women were less free than Englishwomen. (Perhaps one might blame Continental Salic law, which barred women from succeeding to the throne, as Mary and Elizabeth Tudor did in England?) The ideal of companionate marriage was transplanted to the New World by none other than the much-maligned Puritans. As Yalom explains: "English Protestants took very seriously God's statement, 'It is not good for man to be alone.' . . . Puritans in particular, contrary to the now popular view of them as inhibited hypocrites, saw regular sexual intercourse as a necessity for a lasting marriage . . . [and] wives had the same rights to sexual satisfaction as their husbands."

In an ironic reversal of the doctrines of the early church fathers, by Victorian times it was men who were generally regarded as innately lustful and women as innately pure. Despite their presumed spiritual superiority, however, married women were still denied many legal rights, including custody rights and the right to enter into contracts without a husband's permission. But by this time, they had begun to demand these rights.

Yalom's sweeping history not only offers a clear overview of the role of the wife over the centuries, but also recounts the experiences of specific individuals. Some are famous, like Abelard and Heloise, Martin and Katherina Luther, poet Anne Bradstreet and her husband Simon, and John and Abigail Adams. Other wives, known to us only through letters, journals or court records, provide equally fascinating material: medieval women who were doctors, brewers, textile makers; American frontier wives; Mormon wives; wives of Southern plantation owners; slave women forced to mate with men they disliked; wives who took jobs in factories during World War II.

Yalom concludes with a level-headed attempt to put the dramatic changes of the last 50 years in perspective. For all the problems that have come with sexual freedom, easy divorce, single-parent households and two-career families, she considers it rash to suppose marriage is on the way out. As wives and husbands continue transforming themselves into freer and more equal partners, Yalom believes, marriages may well become more realistic, more satisfying and more genuinely companionable.

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