Summary and book reviews of The History of The Wife by Marilyn Yalom

The History of The Wife

By Marilyn Yalom

The History of The Wife
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  • Hardcover: Feb 2001,
    464 pages.
    Paperback: Feb 2002,
    464 pages.

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Book Summary

A woman coming of age today has good reason to wonder what marriage will mean to her. Certainly, it will no longer imply that her husband will provide for her, as an ability to earn a living is commonly expected of both men and women. Also, marriage will no longer offer a woman a unique gateway into sexual and domestic pleasures, since premarital cohabitation has long ago ceased to be a taboo. Marriage will not be a woman's indispensable passage to motherhood -- up to 40 percent of American first babies are being born out of wedlock. And, since one in two marriages will end in divorce, it will no longer guarantee a woman permanent protection in a world that has traditionally been unkind to unmarried women.

In this atmosphere of high ambiguity, it is instructive to look to the past, to see what it meant to be a wife from the earliest days of civilization to the present, and to explore how the contemporary wife came into being.

From the perspective of modern marriage, the distinguished cultural historian Marilyn Yalom charts the evolution of marriage in the judeo christian world through the centuries and shows how radical that collective change has been. For example, 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?

A History of the Wife is a study of laws, religious practices, social customs, economic patterns, and political consciousness that have affected generations of wives: in ancient Greece, where daughters were given by fathers to husbands to create legitimate offspring; in medieval Europe, where marriage was infused with religious meaning; during the Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment, when ideals of companionate marriage came to the fore; and in twentieth century America, where a new model of spousal relationships emerged.

This rich, lucid chronicle of the turning points in a History of the Wife includes unforgettable stories about married women who have rebelled against the conventions of their times, from Marjorie Kempe to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from Heloise to Margaret Sanger. Drawing extensively from diaries, memoirs, and letters, A History of the Wife also pays tribute to the ordinary wives who over the centuries changed with and against the currents they encountered, quietly affecting the legal, personal, and social meaning of marriage.

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.

Chapter One
Wives in the Ancient World

Biblical, Greek, and Roman Models

Why should we begin with biblical, Greek, and Roman wives? Because the religious, legal, and social practices of those ancient civilizations provided the template for the future treatment of married women in the West. The wife as a man's chattel, as his dependent, as his means for acquiring legal offspring, as the caretaker of his children, as his cook and housekeeper are roles that many women now find abhorrent; yet certain aspects of those antiquated obligations still linger on in the collective unconscious. Many men still expect their wives to provide some or all of these services, and many wives still intend to perform them. Those women today who rebel against such expectations are, after all, rebelling against patterns that have been around for more than two millennia. It's important to understand what they are rebelling against, and what some of their antagonists-for example, certain conservative ...

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Media Reviews
San Jose Mercury News

Yalom diligently pinpoints the historic shifts in marriage...brings to this material a scholar's rigor and a storyteller's craft.

People Magazine

Scholarly yet delectably readable volume.

USA Today

A valentine to wives...after reading Yalom's history, one thing is clear: Marriage is not for the faint-hearted.

Los Angeles Times

Yalom's sweeping history not only offers a clear overview of the role of the wife over the centuries, but also recounts the experiences of specific individuals.


A useful overview of women's changing roles in marriage and society.

Publishers Weekly

Voices of ordinary women speak volumes in this sweeping history of women and marriage in the Western world.

Library Journal

The first truly comprehensive history of the female spousal experience...there are precious few views of marriage or the family to which this book can be compared.

Author Blurb Diane Middlebrook, author of Anne Sexton: A Biography
A deft and savvy companion on this fast-forward spin through the centuries...the book has a voice--slightly marveling, often amused, always engaged.

Author Blurb Diane Johnson, author of Le Divorce and Le Mariage
Marilyn Yalom's brilliant deconstruction of the married state for women is at once reassuring and is perfectly fascinating and explains a lot.

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