75 Arguments, Canon, English 1301, Essay, Family Guy, Feminism, Freshman Year Composition Course, Gender Expectations, housewives, I Want a Wife, Judy Brady, marital rape, Mila Kunis, Partner Vs Wife, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric
In one of my favorite episodes of Family Guy Lois tells a matriarch posing as a feminist that feminism should be about choice, and defends her decision to be a wife and mother right before the two women get into a wrestling match that involves banana cream pies and ripping each other’s clothes off. The scene is every dull ring of male fantasy, and eventually ends with Peter grabbing his wife and running out so they can go home and have sex, which they do. The initial appeal of this episode’s end was my libido, I could offer the argument that it was the feminist sentiment and the constant irony throughout the episode, but I was a thirteen year old for fucks sake. I’ll lie to myself but not my steady reader. As the years have gone by however, and the urge to procreate has, not dimmed just softened to manageable levels, I’m able to watch the episode and realize that there is a great feminist argument to be made in this piece.
Lois does defend her choice, effectively, to be a housewife by the very fact that it is a choice. Feminism is first and foremost is about allowing men and women equal agency and distance from the fear of societal persecution of influence. But I did not want to defend an episode of Family Guy here, instead, I would prefer to talk about Judy Brady and an essay of hers that has been printed and discussed for at least 30 years.
I Want a Wife is an essay many who have taken English 1301 in college have probably read. The textbook industry for teaching freshman composition is booming because Composition, the teaching of writing to students, is a blossoming arena of academia. Many new theories and ideas are developing on how to improve it, how to craft pedagogies and ideologies in the classrooms, and, of course, which text books need to be employed. Now there was a time where Engl. 1301 was simply reading anthologies of standard essays by men and women like Thomas Jefferson, Gloria Steinem, Martin Luther King Jr, and usually George Orwell. Canonical essays, or at least essays that have been studied again and again for their historical and rhetorical significance, have been given to freshman students as examples for them to emulate, copy, and hopefully develop their own craft. There’s a conflict with this style of teaching, but there are literally dozens of Composition journals, textbooks, and academic conferences that could explore that issue and you’re only here until you realize that that bit about faux-lesbianism in the first sentence was only a lead-in. Sorry. Here’s a photo of Mila Kunis to make you feel better.
I Want a Wife is almost always found in such collections, as it is in the copy I own. My edition is entitled 75 Arguments, and the Brady essay is listed under the section titled Satire. It becomes obvious just by this classification that the Academy has type-casted Brady’s essay as a way of teaching students about being clever. The second classification, because for whatever reason there are two table of contents, places her under:
MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE: HOW SHOULD YOU TAKE THIS PERSON TO BE YOUR SPOUSE?
She is included here alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sabaa Saleem, Andrew Sullivan, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, and Audrey Edwards. This second classification allows some breathing room, because this seems to open up far more possibilities for discussion in the classroom, at least from my own experience. Ideas like satire can be difficult for students who, suffering the force-fed-crap that is public education today, may be having trouble with figuring out the placement of commas in sentences let alone what Satire means. Talking about marriage, and what young or old students expect out of a marriage, and more importantly their partner could open numerous avenues for discussion and writing activities.
I Want a Wife will, first and foremost, strike the reader as an odd essay right from the start. She does not begin with an academic introduction, and in fact the essay is more anecdotal than it is academic. If you look at just the start you’ll see establish her rhetoric in the first sentence:
I belong to that classification of people known as wives. I am A Wife. And, not altogether incidentally, I am a mother.
Not too long ago a male friend of mine appeared on the scene fresh from a recent divorce. He had one child, who is, of course, with his ex-wife. He is looking for another wife. 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. Why do I want a wife? (318).
Brady spends the rest of the essay working from the premise that her audience objects to her having a wife, after all this essay, which was originally a speech, appeared in Ms. Magazine. Brady is clearly a woman, so how could a woman in 1970 have a wife? The answer of course is simple, “a wife” becomes neither a functional personality, nor even human being for that matter. Anyone who could read through the list of qualifications and agree to become what Brady calls “a Wife” would either have to be declared insane or possesses so little sense of self-worth it would make the sternest masochist weep for another human being. The reader may object and say I’m overselling her argument, but take one of the latter portions of the essay in which she describes what is expected out of “a Wife” sexually:
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. I want a wife who assumes the complete responsibility for birth control, because I do not want more children. I want a wife who will remain sexually faithful to me so that I do not have to clutter up my intellectual life with jealousies. And I want a wife who understands that my sexual needs may entail more than strict adherence to monogamy. I must, after all, be able to relate to people as fully as possible.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. Naturally, I will expect a fresh, new life; my wife will take the children and be solely responsible for them so that I am left free. (320).
The solipsism of this statement is enough to make you want to hatchet your computer screen into tiny chunks of microchips before you realize your term paper is due tomorrow and now you’re screwed. Sherlock was right after all.
It would be enough to cite just this passage and say men are assholes now let’s move on, but a careful look at each sentence reveals how successful Brady’s argument truly is. The success of I Want a Wife is the way the speaker keeps pushing his/her own agenda and desires before someone, possibly the wife, can interject and ask what shall be afforded to the wife. The constant “I” and “my” builds to the point that the reader has to confront at some point whether or not this “I” is another speaker or a representation of their own thoughts. Whether you’re a man or a woman, there has probably been some moment where you have felt a pronounced desire to outsource your responsibility to another, and while this desire is perfectly normal in our impersonal modern society of comfort, expecting it out of your partner comes across as a supreme level of dickishness. The passage cited seems always the most odious, not just because of the demand that the “wife” not bother the speaker with her own sexual desires, but that she refrain from the audacity to be jealous of the speaker’s own conquests. It’s one thing to admit that monogamy isn’t your thing, but it’s another to demand it out of your spouse when you yourself can’t hack it buddy.
I Want a Wife does not limit its critique to sexual manipulation. The speaker begins the essay, and the reader is given a slim hope, a view that perhaps this individual is someone they can admire, before the trapdoor is opened and we plummet into base selfishness:
I would like to go back to school so that I can become economically independent, support myself, and, if need be, support those dependent upon me. 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. I want a wife to keep track of the children’s doctor and dentist appointments. And to keep track of mine, too. I want a wife to make sure my children eat properly and are kept clean. I want a wife who will wash the children’s clothes and keep them mended. I want a wife who is a good nurturant attendant to my children, who arranges for their schooling, makes sure that they have an adequate social life with their peers, takes them to the park, the zoo, etc. I want a wife who takes care of the children when they are sick, a wife who arranges to be around when the children need special care, because, of course, I cannot miss classes at school. My wife must arrange to lose time at work and not lose the job. It may mean a small cut in my wife’s income from time to time, but I guess I can tolerate that. Needless to say, my wife will arrange and pay for the care of the children while my wife is working. (318-9).
This seems unfairly cruel to the women who actually want to be housewives and homemakers, my contester argues. Why can’t a woman want to be a wife and mother, and why do feminists have to condemn the women that do?
My reply, if I may be uncharacteristically blunt, is that you haven’t been paying attention to the essay. Those that would wish to contest the idea that Brady is being unfair to housewives have entirely missed the point of the text. I won’t try to deny that in the 1960s and through the 70s, the Second Wave Feminist movement did not have many pleasant comments to make concerning housewives or being a wife, but given the time period that’s not a character failing on their part. Marital rape did not exist, in terms of legal penalization, until the 1970s. Before this time if a wife did not want to have sex but her husband forced himself upon her, no judge would consider it rape, it was just “the wifely chore.” That’s the most extreme example, but if one looks at the public rhetoric of what a wife should be it’s not a great image to aspire to. Women were to be subject to their husbands, rather than an actual partner, a woman might have been allowed to read books, but what was encouraged reading was not necessarily enlightening material. Women were expected to always be positive, and should she disagree with her husband in matters of politics, child-rearing, or even culture then it was a poor reflection on her as a woman. The “wife” that existed at this time period was in no way a “partner” as we would think of it today.
Now as for the idea a woman should be ashamed if she actually wants to be a housewife, I cannot agree with this and I return once again to Lois. See. You thought I wouldn’t go back to Family Guy but I did after all, don’t you feel foolish. Feminism is about choice, as a long as a woman is making the decision to be a housewife then no one should fault or shame her for making such a decision. There will be some feminists that will condemn women for being “just a housewife,” but those people are assholes. That’s what’s missing from the public’s awareness, and why an essay like I Want a Wife is important to discuss in the classroom. If the society is truly interested in making men and women equal, that choice must be the only concern. The problem with the “Wife” in Brady’s essay, the figure she is critiquing is an image of woman with no free will or say in terms of her own life.
The issue is not limited to a critique of housewives however, for there is also the larger question of, what do we think of people who are homemakers? Looking at my own situation as it stands, I could very well have to become one. My lovely lady wife makes far more money than I do, and she has made it clear that we’re having children. There exists now a very real possibility that I might have to be the partner that stays home and takes care of the kids. What will society say of me for this decision? The most likely response will be to suggest that I am less than half a man, that there must be something wrong with me, or else that I am henpecked. If a man wants to be a homemaker and take care of his kids, and, let’s go ahead and address the larger issue, if he wants to work with young kids in general he is perceived as suspect immediately. On that same coin is the issue of whether or not a woman wishes to become part of the workforce if she has children. A woman is expected to drop her life when she has kids and let her husband become the bread maker. No consideration is taken into account whether she makes more money and is therefore in a better position to work. Worse of all is the idea that she is unloving, or physically incapable of loving her children because she works full time. This argument continues time and time again despite protest and no hard evidence to suggest children are stunted in their development.
Several years ago while I was taking a biology lab class for my core credit, and one of my steady lab partners who was pursuing a medical degree confessed to me why he wanted to go to medical school. He said that he wanted to be the bread-maker and have his partner stay at home with the kids, but he emphasized that he wanted to make sure that she would have enough to really tend to them. I find it hard to hold this against him, either because I am a man and have some chauvinist tendencies myself, or else because he was honest about what he wanted out of his partner. At the same time however his testimony bothered me, and it reminds me of a later portion of the essay:
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 keep my clothes clean, ironed, mended, replaced when need be, and who will see to it that my personal things are kept in their proper place so that I can find what I need the minute I need it. I want a wife who cooks the meals, a wife who is a good cook. I want a wife who will plan the menus, do the necessary grocery shopping, prepare the meals, serve them pleasantly, and then do the cleaning up while I do my studying. I want a wife who will care for me when I am sick and sympathize with my pain and loss of time from school. I want a wife to go along when our family takes a vacation so that someone can continue to care for me and my children when I need a rest and change of scene. (319).
Still, I’m hesitant to completely condemn the man, because he was clear about what he wanted and any woman entering into a relationship with him would have been informed of that before any ink was dry or any rings were bought.
Looking at all of this, the second classification of Brady’s essay in my anthology makes a lot more sense than the general idea of satire. Yes Brady does a damn good job of satirizing the attitude’s men have about what they want out of their wives, but the larger concern is not just to show students this essay so they can identify satire, it’s to make them question the satire and see if they themselves don’t ask for this same expectation. Discussions about marriage, and what people want out of it can be crucial since many students find their partners for life in their first few years of college. I did, and my idea of what a wife should be was nowhere near what it is today. Marriage is not going anywhere, despite the high divorce rate in this country, and a teacher’s job should be then to help students come to their own understanding of what they believe marriage to be, and then help them decide if that’s what they really want.
Do they want a wife, or a partner? I’ll let Brady have the final word on this matter:
When I am through with school and have a job, I want my wife to quit working and remain at home so that my wife can more fully and completely take care of a wife’s duties.
My God, who wouldn’t want a wife? (320).
I’ve found the full essay online and have included a link to it, in case you’re interested in reading the entire essay, it’s not long, three pages at the most. Enjoy.