I recently read an academic article on domestic violence, which stated:
‘even for working women, self-respect, identity, and sense of value are still rooted in most cases, is [sic] their role of as wife and mother’.And I wondered is this still true. Now I am not a mother, but I am a wife and a working woman. It made me wonder what part of my identity comes from being a wife. As a historian, when I think of what qualities mark out a wife, I think obedience to one’s spouse, service to one’s spouse and family, and good housewifery, none of which excluded the working wife. Yet, I am very uncomfortable with using any of those qualities to define my identity.
I try to keep our house clean and tidy, but, like many working women, I find this is not always the reality. But, I don’t think this is solely my responsibility. If our house is dirty, I don’t blame myself. I see this as a joint failure by me and my husband, and a failure that is relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I sometimes worry that people will judge me if our house is untidy, but, to be honest, I just find this irritating and sexist, rather than motivating. I certainly don’t see it as a failure on my part, but rather a failure by society. Similarly, I don’t believe in being obedient to my husband and I don’t think it is my role to serve him. He is my equal and our marriage is something we negotiate together.
Yet, I like being married and, in that sense, I like being a wife. So, it occurred to me to ask, what does it mean to be a wife today? When I tell people I am married, what am I trying to say? For me, telling people I am married is saying that the decisions that I make are not just about what is good for me. It is saying that my life involves negotiation and that I need to make choices that are good for both me and my husband; that my decisions are not entirely selfish, but not uninterested either. Telling people that I am a wife is about saying that sometimes I have other commitments and responsibilities that are important to me. It is also about saying that I will put my relationship first, but that does not mean that I am not committed to the other things in my life. It is not about sacrifice. I expect my husband to make the same compromises that I do and to be part of the negotiation. I expect him to be flexible towards my other commitments as I am to his. I also expect him to put our relationship first.
So is being a wife central to my identity? It is certainly central to understanding the decisions that I make, so, in that sense, yes. But do I see being a wife as making me different or special from non-married women, or having particular social characteristics? Not so much. Would my life be different if I wasn’t married? Certainly.
Is being a 'wife' at the root of my self-esteem or sense of value? I really don’t know. I am sure that much of my self-esteem comes from having someone to support and encourage me. I am sure that being loved makes me feel valued. Would my self-esteem be lower if I wasn’t married? I don’t think so. I have other people in my life who also love and support me. I have achievements which I am proud of. Is being a wife something that I am proud of? Not particularly, but only because I don’t really see it as an achievement, but rather a state of being. I am not ’proud’ that I am a woman, but I wouldn’t want to be a man.
So is my identity and value still rooted in my role as a wife? I guess it depends on how you define ‘wife’, how you define ‘identity’ and ‘value’, and how you define ‘rooted’. Am I married? Yes.
ETA: Another important part of a wife's identity that just occurred to me would be her provisioning role, whether that is through bringing home a wage or otherwise through her labour. This is something that I do take pride in, although I am not sure that this is unique to being a wife or a woman.