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A History of the Wife

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A History of the Wife [Paperback]

Marilyn Yalom
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)

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Book Description

February 5, 2002

How did marriage, considered a religious duty in medieval Europe, become a venue for personal fulfillment in contemporary America? How did the notion of romantic love, a novelty in the Middle Ages, become a prerequisite for marriage today? And, if the original purpose of marriage was procreation, what exactly is the purpose of marriage for women now?

Combining "a scholar's rigor and a storyteller's craft"(San Jose Mercury News), distinguished cultural historian Marilyn Yalom charts the evolution of marriage in the Judeo Christian world through the centuries and shows how radically our ideas about marriage have changed.

For any woman who is, has been, or ever will be married, this intellectually vigorous and gripping historical analysis of marriage sheds new light on an institution most people take for granted, and that may, in fact, be experiencing its most convulsive upheaval since the Reformation.

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Editorial Reviews Review

The cultural historian who gave us A History of the Breast takes stock of the wife from her conception by the Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans to her 20th-century manifestation as the New Woman. Beginning with the charter myth for the Judeo-Christian wife (Adam and Eve), Marilyn Yalom explains the religious, legal, and social practices of ancient civilizations that provided the template for the idea of wife as property of and subservient to her husband, with a role limited to mother and housekeeper. What she discovers is that the recent transformation of wifehood from sexless stay-at-home dependent to sexy supermom is actually the distillation of changes that have been going on for a long time, say a couple of thousand years. In fact, what makes Yalom's passage through time so fascinating is the steady rise and fall and rise again of the status of the wife and her struggle for greater autonomy. There are plenty of surprises: the first reciprocal marriages were actually had in Roman times; divorce became popular around the same time that monogamy was instituted; and while it's true that Puritans punished adultery harshly, it was they who brought the concepts of mutual love and lovemaking (other than for procreation) to America. The growing tension between women's impulses towards emancipation and the reaction against it was a quickly repeating theme in the 20th century, best exemplified by a WWII ad of a working woman pledging to "guard every bit of Beauty that he cherishes in me."

The wives in this revelatory genealogy resonate with the aid of illuminating stories and the lively voices found in letters and diaries. Through these, Yalom lithely demonstrates that the fantasy of the selfless devoted wife has always had an ineluctable twin, the archetypal powerful woman--and vice versa. While college women in the 1970s may have declared that "the idea that a woman's place is in the home is nonsense," Yalom points out that society still acts like every breadwinner has a stay-at-home wife, and the anxieties that are raised in advice columns today are not that different from those a hundred years ago. Greater independence and equality have not, as feared, led to the abandonment of the marital institution, nor many of the issues that haunt it. --Lesley Reed --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The voices of ordinary women speak volumes in this sweeping history of women and marriage in the Western world. As with her well-received A History of the Breast, Yalom, a scholar at Stanford's Institute for Women and Gender, moves easily among several fieldsAfeminist history, religion and myth, anthropology, personal narratives, literature, pop culture and sociologyAto trace the changing role of wives from ancient times to the present. The general direction of changeAfrom subordinate toward more egalitarian rolesAcomes as no surprise. What may be unexpected, however, is Yalom's evidence that, while generally conforming to cultural norms, individual marriages throughout history have been more complex than law and tradition may have dictated. Barren wives were sometimes favored over fertile ones, arranged marriages sometimes encompassed deep love and wives' personal "power" could vary considerably. Nevertheless, marriages were hardly egalitarian, even after late-18th-century political ideals proclaimed women to be "co-creators of... new republican societies" in America and Europe. Wives had little legal autonomy; they could not control their own money or even have access to their children in the event of separation or divorce, until equal rights began to be won during the 20th century. Yalom discusses the push for birth control rights, the impact of the depression and World War II and today's two-spouse-income economy and 50% divorce rate. She excels in presenting personal perspectives, including those of working-class wives, immigrants, African-Americans and lesbians. Yet she is less successful in examining wider societal effects, including the impact of high divorce rates. "To be a wife today when there are few prescriptions or proscriptions is truly a creative endeavor," she concludes; true enough, but it's an insufficient explanation for how egalitarian marriages might actually work. (Feb.) Forecast: Stunning cover art, a topical subject and the title's echo of Yalom's previous book should attract many readers in addition to this book's obvious audience of women's studies majors. If Oprah did history, this might be her kind of book.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (February 5, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060931566
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060931568
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #155,103 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

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46 of 48 people found the following review helpful
I had actually pre-ordered this book since several early reviews had me drooling over the topic. Women's history is a passionate topic of mine and I was interested to see how the author would tackle such a complicated issue as marriage throughout the ages. Yalom was clearly up to the task! Her prose is witty and smooth while her research bears up under close scrutiny. Clearly such a mammoth undertaking as studying "the wife" in every society could not have been attempted in a mere 400 pages, so she does concentrate on Western society. Nevertheless, her scope is enormous, beginning with pre-history and leading up to the late 1990s. She does a marvelous job combining scholarly work with personal diaries and anecdotes, as well as the analysis of art and other cultural references.
Two things struck me while reading it: 1) I never thought "Well, this is getting a little dry" and 2) Everything old is new again, since many of the struggles women have today are continual themes that have existed for hundreds of years. I definitely appreciated her broadening the scope of "wife" to include other types of romantic partners in the last chapter during her analysis of the latter half of the twentieth century. Yalom's "History of the Breast" is waiting in the wings for me to read. I just wonder what's next - "History of the Child"? "History of the Daughter"? Whatever topic she chooses, I'll purchase it!
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37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars History of the Wife reviewed by a Husband March 20, 2001
Marilyn Yalom is a compassionate author filled with passion. History of the Wife grabs the reader and moves them from a discussion of wives of Greece to the modern, liberated, opinionated, and hard working version today. Along the way the reader is rewarded with diary accounts that supports the general premise that women have been historically treated as second, third and fourth class citizens. She points out, perhaps accidently, that each age has seen the advancement of wives from persons of no rights to individuals fully functional in todays world. The book deals with European wives as well as wives on the North American continent. Also included in this latter group are slave wives and native american wives.
All together this is the kind of history book that Barbara Tuckman or Fernand Braudel would have enjoyed writing and reading. Filled with insights galore. I loved it.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a balanced perspective May 16, 2001
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
"A History of the Wife," by noted Stanford scholar Marilyn Yalom, is a delightful trip across many centuries. As the mother of three twenty-something unmarried daughters, I'm thankful for the perspective it offers. Yalom writes with balance and humor, and her work will enable the reader to learn in-depth about the varied attitudes toward courtship, marriage, and the role of the wife, in other times and places. As a Lay Carmelite, I was especially intrigued by the Puritans, who placed a high value on mutual love, but emphasized that love should not be confused with romantic passion, and was never meant to rival the love of God. Yalom calls their approach "affection in harmony with duty and reason." As a veteran of a marriage of more than thirty years' duration, I would heartily concur with that description, and would hope that my daughters enter into such satisfying and enduring unions.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting read for all women March 21, 2003
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I really enjoyed this book. I have to give it four stars at it really only includes anglo western women. This gives little detail for women of the East, Africian nations, or even indiginous people of the Americas. With that being said the book is highly informative and goes through marriage through times. Attention is given to the Greek, Roman, Western European wives, then off to America and how American women's lives have changed.
This book explores what typically was an arranged marriage for family prestige and gain, until it became a love match. Wives roles were more than simply taking care of the house and children through out time. Wives often ran a husbands business, and was even a requirement for some careers.
While this book may have been written from a feminist point of view, I believe this book can be read by all who want to know about the role of a wife from a historical standpoint. Its a wonderful thought provoking read that will leave you thankful you live in the modern age.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good book for history lovers August 4, 2006
The title of the book is a little bit misleading; I was under the impression, when I bought the book, that it is going to tackle the history of the wife from a world historical perspective or at least from an overall western perspective. However, the book focuses mainly on the US and Britain and it touches a little bit on the Roman and Greek civilizations. Even the Church does not get as much coverage as it should have had since the Church played a big role in defining marriage the way we know it today in the Christian world.

Having said all that, I still enjoyed reading this book for the amount of historical events that it contains from Europe and the US. It is easy to read and follow and Marilyn Yalom focuses more on showing what women thought and experienced throughout history in their own words than on her own thoughts and hypothesis, which is good because she allows the reader to participate in the analysis of the events.

A good book and I recommend it if you are interested in learning about the evolution of the woman's place in society in Europe and the US.

(Some people might find all the text about history a little hard to read (in other words a bit boring) but if you're a history lover then you'll enjoy it and if you are interested in the woman's movement then this is the book for you)
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Item was as described and delivered in a timely fashion.
Published 2 months ago by Amazon Customer
3.0 out of 5 stars Some interesting information, but not much in depth.
The book contains some interesting information, but not much in depth. Also it concentrates mainly on Western societies (Britain and US) so the scope of the book is rather limited.
Published 4 months ago by Nataša MV
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Interesting sociological study
Published 17 months ago by A User
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and informative reading
I haven't finished it, but find it fascinating to read about how wives were treated and what were expected of them through the centuries. Definitely easy and interesting to read.
Published 17 months ago by GAD
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book
Great book, lots of info but easy to follow. Recommend for history lovers or just for a really good read
Published 17 months ago by Vanessa
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating! Ought to be required reading for every women...
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's very well written, entertaining and informative without being the least bit dry. Read more
Published 18 months ago by Ginnie Siena Bivona
3.0 out of 5 stars Mildly Interesting
A bit on the enthusiastic amateur side. Some interesting information, but not much in depth. This book would have benefitted greatly from extensive footnoting, as well as more... Read more
Published 19 months ago by Lynda in Oregon
5.0 out of 5 stars The New Woman
A very good read, A History Of The Wife shoud be in the top ten pieces of literature that every feminist should go through.
Published on June 28, 2014 by miri
5.0 out of 5 stars GREAT BOOK
I bought this book and I found it interesting from the start. The book starts with the wifes role in biblical times and covers the wife's role during the varies time periods.
Published on June 20, 2014 by cardinal 101
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book
I found this book every bit as engaging as a novel. I've stayed up too late many nights because I can't put it down.
Published on December 2, 2013 by jkskillo
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