Book Review: Household Accounts: Working-Class Economies in the Interwar United States
Wednesday, June 13, 2012 at 02:52PM
Dr. Harriet Fraad

This is a discussion of three books which raise serious questions for psychohistorians. Their emphasis on wives does not include a heavy emphasis on mothering. That in itself is a historically new development. Women’s lives have been historically tied to children.

Wifework. Susan Maushart. New York: Bloomsbury.
Susan Maushart’s brilliantly written book is a description of the very uneven benefits that accrue to men women from marriage. After reading her book one is not at all surprised that most divorces are initiated by women and that most US women are single. Maushart has researched her topic. Her well described chapters on husband wife interaction are carefully footnoted. She describes women’s 3 ring domestic circus of domestic labor, childcare and emotional labor. Her chapter titles capture her  humor and irony. She describes women’s work cleaning and cooking in “Mars and Venus Scrub the Toilet”. She details women’s labor in maintaining all aspects of their children’s lives in “Equality Go Bye Byes”, and investigates women’s role in the emotional labor of sustaining husbands in “The Wifely Art of Caregiving, Giving Receiving…Getting Depressed.”

Maushart’s Wifework presents marriage as exploitation of women’s domestic labor, child care, and emotional labor. The statistics reinforce her view. In spite of vocal support for a partnership of equals, women still do 70% of domestic labor and 82% of childcare. Women’s work week is considerable longer than men’s. For Maushart, marriage is an unequal partnership in which husbands are entitled and wives are exploited. Maushart does not explore the social structure that perpetuates the dismal status quo for women in marriage. She accepts Chodorow’s thesis that men will be emotionally socialized to the point of being responsive partners only if and when they are reared equally by both sexes which at the moment does not seem possible. She explores what exists rather than why it continues to exist or how one might change it. Although marriage is presented as a nonegalitarian exploitation of women, mothering is celebrated. It must be remembered that Wifework was written by Maushart about wives’ work in Australia where unmarried women with children are heavily subsidized. Therefore she does not explore the justified financial fears that US women have when they contemplate leaving exploitative marriages. In terms of the psychogenic pump, Maushart’s work is a positive development. As mothers are given recognition and help, they are more able to support their children in becoming strong, secure citizens who can in turn love their children, thus slowly improving the lives of all people.

Children’s lives are disrupted with divorce. However, Maushart’s regrets about marriage are reversed when she writes about childcare in terms that glow without denying the complex difficulties that are involved. We live in a nation that subsidizes neither single mothers nor childcare. Maushart’s example holds out the possibility that with subsidy especially for single mothers, America’s children could be welcome and cherished.

A History of the Wife. 2001. Marilyn Yalom. New York: Harper Collins
Marion Yalom writes an ambitious history of the wife from the ancient world of the Biblical Greek and Roman models of marriage to the marriages of the year 2000.

She examines the roles of sexuality, financial access for wives, customs, laws and social regard for women as a gender. Yalom shows that the position of wives has steadily improved. In the ancient world wives were semi-chattel without rights, deprived of independent assets, without entitlement to sexual pleasure or vocations outside of marriage. The book ends with US women’s possibilities as wives today when there are prevalent views of wives as equal human partners with financial possibilities, legal equality, sexual entitlement and vocational possibilities. Yalom does not cover the regression of wives’ equality in today’s Christian Right, Orthodox Jewish, Mormon or Muslim communities. She does not explicitly discuss the role of social forces such as fascism, religion, socialism and communism in pressing for changes in the positions of women and wives. She does indicate that the scarcity of quality public childcare creates extras burdens on women. However, Yalom does not discuss the big discrepancies in income for unmarried women and mothers in the US. American married women with children earn 75% of men’s salaries while childless, unmarried women earn 90% of men’s salaries. There is a wage penalty that accompanies motherhood here. Ironically, Yalom suggests that the new romance that has replaced marriage is the romance of having children in spite of the financial handicaps that imposes. That augurs well for the possibility of improving American life in the generations to come.

Marriage, A History. 2005 Stephanie Coontz. Viking: New York.
Marriage, A History describes the slow transition of marriage from a required arrangement designed for the benefit of kin, and family to a voluntary love relationship between two people. Coontz describes the change of status for women in marriage from imprisoned subordinates to equals, friends, and lovers. She very articulately explains that the very equality women have won has led to marriage as an option rather than marriage as necessary for a woman’s survival. Love is now demanded in marriage which is a victory. Divorce is an option if men and women’s needs are not met. Therefore, for the first time in history marriage has its best chance to be chosen and to be loving as well as its best likelihood to end in divorce. Coontz does not discuss the impact of unpredictable marriages on children. That is a crucial topic for psychohistorians looking at the impact of childhood on our nation’s future.

Each of these books concentrates on a different aspect of marriage and wives’ roles within marriage. In Wifework, Maushart explores the problems of current marriage in the Western World, where the rhetoric of love masks the exploitation of women’s labor in domestic work, emotional caretaking and childcare.  In A History of the Wife, Yalom explores the role of the wife as it has evolved through history. In Marriage, a History, Coontz explores the institution of marriage in its changing social and political context throughout history. Each of these books makes an important contribution to our understanding of marriage. However, none of these books asked some further critical questions about marriage which need to be interrogated.
What are the social supports, and the social subversions of marriage as an institution now? Is marriage a suitable vehicle for child rearing in the Western industrialized nations now? If not, what can replace its apparent failures?

These are crucial questions because we live in a time of maximum celebration and hyperbole about marriage and family while the social structure that would support families is eroding. What are these social supports? Most consist of relief from the overwhelming emotional and financial responsibility for children. American marriages are burdened by full responsibility for health care, infant and child day care, after school and vacation programs higher educational costs and a relentless commercial, advertisement driven, imperative to consume on ever dwindling salaries.

Politicians invoke the family as the cornerstone of society. However, families falter and disintegrate. The latest census revealed that forty percent of Americans are born outside of marriage. Fewer and fewer families can provide quality infant child care, after school care, higher education costs, health care or other basic family supports. The United States has fewer family supports than any other Western industrialized nation. America also has the most divorces, the greatest number of children living in poverty, and the second to least overall well being for its children. These conditions force us to question whether marriage with children, in a basically unstable family unit is an ideal way to raise children?

In response to that question, I would say “No”. Since 40% of births are of children without 2 present parents, the responsibility and financial burdens of children are borne by a single woman who cannot alone support those burdens or the emotional labor that accompanies them. In the US now, 50% of first marriages and 60% of second marriages end in legal separation or divorce and many marriages end without legalities. Children of divorce often suffer the upheaval of losing their homes, schools friends and sense of security. They are frequently plunged into the midst of bitter parental battles and the emotional pain of being a party to hatred between the adults who once made their world safe.

A disproportionate share of American children with single parents live in poverty. However single parent’s children do not necessarily have to live in poverty. Sweden has more single mothers than the US but has some of the least child poverty in the world. The Swedish government generously subsidizes both single parents and their children.

The capacity to biologically conceive a child with planning or by accident has absolutely nothing to do with the ability to nurture a child. Most of America’s children will not even have the stability achieved in a family however inept the parenting in that family may be. Therefore, the family has to be supported for the mass of American children to thrive. No OECD nation spending 10% or more of GDP on social programs has a child poverty rate above 10%. Likewise, no OECD nation spending less than 5% or less of GDP on social programs has a child poverty rate below 15%. Here poverty is but one factor in the complexity that determines children’s well being. Child poverty is emblematic of our nation’s priorities as the richest nation in the world.
 None of the books above discuss either the urgent need for massive intervention to support American families or the need to create alternatives to America’s disappearing and failed nuclear families.

Yalom’s and Maushart’s books include women’s wish to be mothers. They attest to the fact that although many women do not want to marry or remarry, most want to have children. Maushart and her children in Australia received government support as she divorced and thereafter. Maushart’s devotion to her children did not have to be subordinate to her children’s financial survival which certainly detracts from the care US children receive. Yalom points out (399) that motherhood may have replaced marriage as a fantasy of America’s young women. However, she does not explain what will happen to that fantasy when it meets the realities of marital instability, lower wages and so little government help.

Marriage has indeed changed in America. It is far more voluntary and unstable than ever before in history. Wives have come to be recognized as full human beings. However, children are left behind in a way that none of the above books address. It is time to focus on our children. To do so, we need to envision an alternative to the American family.

Article originally appeared on harrietfraad (
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