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I Want a Wife, The Wife Drought – 1970s feminism still rings true

Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought brings to mind another – forgotten – feminist text. AAP Image/ABC Television

Three years ago Annabel Crabb argued on ABC’s The Drum that a lack of wives is what really holds back women in the Australian workforce. She jokingly suggested that what was needed was a “wife quota”.

When my partner sent me a link to her column, I was more than pleased. Was he volunteering to be one of those men who would help fill the shortage? As a historian of 1970s feminism, I was also somewhat bemused.

Crabb’s article reminded me of a classic work of the American women’s movement written more than 40 years ago.

Judy Syfers’ short essay, I Want a Wife, was based on a speech Syfers (now Brady) delivered on August 26 1970 at a rally in San Francisco to mark the 50th anniversary of American women’s suffrage.

Syfers was a housewife, mother of two and recent recruit to the Californian women’s movement. Her essay began with a moment of revelation:

Not too long ago a male friend of mine appeared on the scene fresh from a recent divorce.

Conveniently, his child was now living with his ex-wife and, free of parental obligations, he was on the lookout for a new wife. And so came Syfers’ moment of recognition:

As I thought about him while I was ironing one evening, it suddenly occurred to me that I, too, would like to have a wife.

Syfers’ essay became an instant feminist classic. It was reproduced in Notes from the Third Year (1971), an important anthology of feminist works edited by New York activists Anne Koedt and Shulamith Firestone.

It also featured in the preview issue of the popular feminist magazine, Ms., which sold out in eight days after it was released on 20 December 1971.

And 40 years later, here was Crabb making much the same point. Since then, Crabb has gone on to write The Wife Drought, released in late September. Filled with personal anecdotes of juggling three kids and a career many would envy, the book is witty, heartfelt and informed by the latest research.

With her common touch and broad appeal, Crabb has made a timely contribution to the work-life debate.

But when I finally sat down to read The Wife Drought last week I was not so much bemused as bewildered to discover that it too contained not a single reference to I Want a Wife. Most reviewers of the book likewise seemed oblivious to the connection.

Only feminist stalwart Wendy McCarthy, one of the founding members of the New South Wales branch of the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) in 1972, seemed to know about Syfers’ article. Reviewing The Wife Drought for Anne Summers Reports, she reminisced over reading I Want a Wife for the first time.

Of all the articles in the original edition of Ms., it was “the piece that spoke to me”, McCarthy explained.

I was pregnant with my third child and working out the logistics of being wife, mother, teacher and community activist. Dear God, I needed a wife.

Writing in October this year, McCarthy found Crabb’s book “as loveable” as Syfers’ article, if “eerily scary that so little and yet so much has changed”.

If, like me, she was slightly perturbed that Syfers’ article seems to have been forgotten, she didn’t say so. To set the record straight, this is what Syfers had to say in 1971.

Like Crabb, Syfers set out to expose the taken for granted status of women’s work in the home. She set her sights not only on the invisibility of housework and childcare, but on the emotional and sexual labour of wives. Written in the early years of women’s liberation, the article was more scathing in its tone than The Wife Drought.

Husbands, it implied, were selfish, lazy and ungrateful. They were self-absorbed and altogether uninterested in their own children. To take just a few examples:

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 my children, a wife who will pick up after me …

I want a wife who will take care of the details of my social life … When I meet people at school that I like and want to entertain, I want a wife who will have the house clean, will prepare a special meal, serve it to me and my friends, and not interrupt when I talk about things that interest me and my friends …

I want a wife who is sensitive to my sexual needs, a wife who makes love passionately and eagerly when I feel like it, a wife who makes sure that I am satisfied. And, of course, I want a wife who will not demand sexual attention when I am not in the mood for it …

The list of demands was relentless.

And the final punch line?

Wives, Syfers warned, were replaceable.

If, by chance, I find another person more suitable as a wife than the wife I already have, I want the liberty to replace my present wife with another one.

I Want a Wife was a cutting piece of satire and the depiction of men was far from flattering.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that Syfers’ piece has been since overlooked. The failure to make a connection between Syfers’ article and Crabb’s The Wife Drought is symptomatic of a wider pattern in popular debate about feminism.

It reflects a tendency to forget past feminisms or, worse, misrepresent them – what historian Natasha Campo describes as the process of “re-remembering” feminism.

Tracing Australian media views of feminism from 1980 onwards, Campo has shown how key tenets of 1970s feminism have been misconstrued.

Feminists were blamed for telling women that they could “have it all” – a claim, as Campo points out, that was more a product of British journalist Shirley Conran’s bestseller Superwoman (1975) than of the organised women’s movement.

Ideas such as equal parenting, which had long been espoused by feminists, came to be presented as “new” solutions.

To her credit, Crabb is much more fair-minded in her treatment of past feminisms. For the most part, she refrains from blaming previous generations for the challenges now faced by women who seek to combine work and family. She also brings a historical sensibility to her work, examining past obstacles to gender equality such as the marriage bar in the public service, which remained in place federally until 1966.

Nonetheless, there is a missed opportunity here to link current dilemmas with those illuminated by feminists like Syfers in the 1970s. The parallel between Crabb’s The Wife Drought and Syfers’ I Want a Wife is a poignant reminder that the insights of 1970s feminism still have much to offer those concerned about gender inequality.

Some ideas may now be outdated and some may be outlandish. But many, like Syfers’ I Want a Wife, continue to ring true today.

Who knows what other feminist ideas might be overdue for a comeback?

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