Thursday, September 06, 2018

The Need for a Wife?

The 1971 launch of MS magazine included a now-classic essay titled "I Want a Wife," by Judy Syfers. It's very short; you can read the whole thing here:

I Want a Wife

The author, of course, isn't asking for a life's companion. What she wants is a multi-purpose appliance called a "wife" to run the household, handle persnickety domestic details, and deal with the demands of the outside world. (Note the tour-de-force of never applying a pronoun—and therefore a gender—to this hypothetical perfect wife.) For example:

"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. 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 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."

And how about this zinger? "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."

When ours was a two-income household with school-age children at home, this essay struck a chord with me. As the author concludes, who wouldn't want a wife like that? Has any actual wife ever enjoyed the services of such a convenient paragon? It's an established truism that in two-career marriages, even those in which the husband shares household chores, the wife typically has the ultimate responsibility to ensure that everything gets done, and she performs most of the "emotional work" of maintaining family and social ties. On TV, Mrs. Brady and Mrs. Muir had faithful housekeepers. Still, the mothers in those sitcoms didn't lie around and relax—or devote themselves solely to intellectual enrichment. While Mrs. Muir was a professional writer, she spent plenty of time on household tasks. Both she and Mrs. Brady not only directed the housekeeper but joined in the hands-on work. What about previous eras, when middle- and upper-class women routinely had servants? Nevertheless, they had to oversee the servants, plan the meals, etc., not to mention hiring the housekeeper, nanny, maids, and other staff. Granted, maybe aristocratic ladies managed to shift all the domestic responsibility to the housekeeper and the butler, with nothing to do themselves but approve menus; their "wife" duties probably focused on maintaining the family's social position. Also, if we traveled back to, say, the nineteenth century and enjoyed the services of such workers, from our modern perspective we couldn't help being aware of how we were exploiting them.

If you're familiar with the stories of P. G. Wodehouse, you'll remember feckless bachelor Bertie Wooster's omnicompetent valet, Jeeves. What we all really need isn't a wife, but a Jeeves. Aside from a few references to his relatives, Jeeves doesn't seem to have a life outside his employment. He not only manages Bertie's apartment, meals, clothes, and other mundane necessities with impeccable perfection but often steps in to untangle Bertie's personal crises.

If we could afford a Jeeves in reality, though, we'd have to acknowledge his right to a life of his own, not to mention being nagged by our consciences for underpaying him. What we actually want is a Jeeves-type robot. Alexa and Siri can answer questions, carry out some tasks, and remind us of appointments, but otherwise we have quite a distance to go in terms of artificial servants. Wouldn't it be ideal to have the multi-skilled domestic robot often portrayed in science fiction, as affordable as a car and as efficient as Wodehouse's ideal "gentleman's gentleman"? Only one potential problem: A machine that could perform all those jobs with the nuanced expertise of a Jeeves would have to approach true AI. And then it might demand its rights as a sentient being, and we'd have to worry about exploiting it.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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