Strange but true: two days before I interview Susan Shapiro Barash about her book The New Wife, I get an email from a twenty-four-year-old friend. She tells me she's engaged, and she's going to turn down her dream job. The hours would be too long, she wrote; it would be too emotionally draining, especially if she wants to start a family. By the end of her note, the theme from Alien was ringing in my ears.

Barash, a professor of gender studies, argues that my friend isn't an anomaly. According to her research, more and more young women are turning to a new kind of marriage, seeking something they're not finding elsewhere. During our interview, sometimes she made perfect sense to me. Sometimes I felt like I was on a different planet. ? Carrie Hill Wilner


Nerve: You talk of a dramatic shift from "the '90s wife" to the wife of today. Can you walk me through that evolution?
Barash: In the '50s and early '60s, "wife" was a very prescribed role. With the feminist revolution came the idea that women are entitled to more. This led to the na?ve '70s wife, who marched to work thinking that she could have it all. By the middle of the '80s, wives realized "this isn't all I had hoped it would be," and the '90s wife really crashed.

The twenty-first-century wife is someone who finally has taken a look at the examples. There's her grandmother, who's probably still married to her grandfather. There's her mother, the baby boomer, who's disillusioned. There's her aunt who's forty and has a great job as a lawyer, but is dealing with fertility clinics. The new wife wants the self-confidence that her mother had in the workplace, the education that the '80s and '90s made a necessity, and the glamour and nourishment her grandmother had. She wants to get married younger, she wants to be available to her husband. She'll be well-educated, but doesn't feel this pull of right or wrong over missing one beat in the workplace. Her attitude is "I'll have children young, I'll go back to work and use my degree as I see fit." Women have never said that before.

Presumably, if there's a new wife, there's a husband.
In the '80s and '90s, you had the husbands who couldn't keep up with their wives. The idea of a peer marriage was important to the '90s wife, and the husband fell short because there was no model. The new wife feels that this man can keep up with her, that he won't make false promises. The equality is in the emotional commitment.

So you interviewed a hundred women?
For each section of the book.

Do your observations cross racial and economic lines?
The attitude goes across all socioeconomic lines. You have women of lower-middle-class families who are highly educated now, so she understands the freedom of making money and education but wants a husband too. She'll either marry up or marry someone ambitious. And this is consistent.

What you're saying is difficult to accept. It seems to deprioritize many things that women older than me — my mother's age, I guess — struggled very hard with.
Your mother's how old?

For a lot of those women, with opportunities came a lot of the negatives. No one anticipated the glass ceiling. How could we? We'd never been there. Now there's this sense that you can do what your mother did, but do it better. You're not so afraid of rules.

Let me bring up the arguments of two recent books. Helen Fisher discusses how the euphoria of romantic love eventually shifts into what she calls "companionate love." Laura Kipnis' Against Love argues that romance and sexual passion are desirable and that spending a lifetime together might be inappropriate.
We're going to be hard-pressed to give up the idea of romantic love. It's an idea many of our social conventions are predicated upon. Marriage is one of the last outposts of this idea, but it's also the highest and most widely recognized expression of it.

The desire for romance is understandable, but do you think it's reasonable? Aren't these women going to have to make some serious adjustments eventually?
Lust and romance may not be indefinitely sustainable, but there's a depth to companionate love which these women are prepared to work with. They realize it will take a lot of hard work, and their optimism comes from their sense that they are making active decisions.

Would these women have affairs? Even in the '50s, there were fairly high rates of female infidelity — something like thirty percent, according to Kinsey.
Well, a lot of disappointment and disillusionment precipitates an affair. The new wives are intent on not having any part of that. They want a great marriage on their own terms. In the '50s, you didn't have both of these things, even in the most attractive marriages.

What about open marriages?
They're going to be less popular than they were in, say, the '70s. What this new young wife has taken from her grandmother's model is the very committed, very available wife who doesn't stray.

But now infidelity's become understandable, often forgivable.
Well, if a wife is unfaithful now, she can take that information and share it with her husband. It's not always going to be grounds for divorce. They can renegotiate the marriage.

How important is sex in marriage to these women?
In the '50s, a lot of women married just to have sex. Today, that's really not necessary. Sex becomes something you're doing for your relationship, not just to procreate. The new wife wants sex, romance, a best friend, and she knows she can have them. In the '70s and '80s there was this societal message that you could have it all, that you had to buy into without testing. The new wife doesn't buy into anything. She figures it out for herself.

Will gay relationships follow the same patterns?
Some of the same problems, practicalities and roles will be the same — especially regarding children — but these will set their own standards. There's not the same kind of history or precedent.

Prestige aside, are domestic partnership and marriage equally viable?
In our culture at this point, marriage is the be-all and end-all. Living together isn't going to get the same respect or be as rewarding personally. I don't think that's going to change for a long time. There are exceptions, of course. Like Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell.

What do you think about the segment of the gay population that believes the symbolic union isn't worth the struggle, that marriage is an archaic institution, not something that should be lusted after?
In America, marriage is considered the highest expression of commitment, and although this may come from a history of heterosexual couples, no one's exempt from the message. It's understandable if there are couples who feel that the term "marriage" isn't what they want, but if a gay couple wants their union recognized in those standard terms, they deserve it, and any children they may have deserve it too.

To buy The New Wife,
click here.

Carrie Hill Wilner is a Manhattanite by birth and breeding. Still, she has lived in a lot of places and done a lot of things, and will probably live in others and do more. She is pretty sure she graduated from Columbia, but they never sent her a diploma.

Commentarium (13 Comments)

Mar 15 04 - 10:14am

I'm with you Carrie on this one. I came away with the notion that the data was bent to conform to her perception. True, women are better educated. The age at which people are marrying keeps creeping higher, not lower as she would suggest. She states women of the 50's married for sex. Men married for sex, women gave up sex for marriage. Procreation has been avoided for eons, just not as easily as today. Homo sapiens has been fucking since he/she learned to stand. It's not a new millenium phenomenom. Looking at some of the other books from the same author leaves me questioning her own life choices. This book may just have been written in lieu of therapy for her own life's choices.

Mar 16 04 - 1:13am

I am with you too Carrie. After readingthe interview, I coul dnot think back on anyone I know that is "The New Wife". Most of my friends did wait longer than I to get married; some are having problems having children. Based upon your interview can you tell me where I fit - I have been married to my husband for 8 years,we have two children, I am turning 30 next month, I have two degrees, work full time (and travel) and my husband and I have a great relationship.

Mar 15 04 - 2:21pm

Wow, I'm amazed someone has actually written a book about my seemingly tiny demographic. I will most certainly have to invest in a copy. And yes, we do exist, though we face a lot of scorn for our 'impetuous' acts of counterculture marrying/breeding early. I can't count the number of soccer moms in their forties I have to deal with in a day and their sideways looks when they find out I am only in my mid twenties. It is a blessed surprise when I run into another level-headed twenty something mother of a toddler who is happily married, adores her kid, and yet still hasn't given up the rest of her dreams/ kinked up sex life.

Mar 15 04 - 3:08pm

Well, well...Susan Shapiro Barash has discovered what we in Chicago call 'Lincoln Park Trixie'... a 'chick' in her twenties with 'ambition' to get married.

Yes they do exist.. and are a subject of many laughs already: save the money for the book... check out the web site


Mar 16 04 - 12:33pm

Don't you wonder if the "New Wife's" assurance that she will not face disillusionment and disappointment because she's making an active choice about marriage and fertility is because she's, well, young? Not getting married is also an active choice and becomes more of one the older you get. A change in attitudes toward early marriage doesn't make everyone mature and ready for commitment. Also, what is this about cohabitation not being as personally satisfying? Whatever.

Mar 17 04 - 12:42am

I hate to be a cynic, but just wait for the train wreck of resentment to pile up after X number of years (you fill in the blank) when the "new husband" comes home (each day)relativley satisfied, fulfilled and she has nothing comparable in her life. (they called housework and sometimes child-rearign drudgery in the old days)

I know, I married her.

also see the new Tom Patton? book on this topic

Mar 17 04 - 2:15am

Susan Shapiro Barash is a twit, and your interviewer didn't call her on it. Marriage is the end-all-be-all (because of tradition!), open relationships are so "70s"--except for Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. Give me a fucking break. She's just trying to lay down her own version of "The Rules". Admittedly not as offensive as the original, but can't we do better?

Mar 19 04 - 1:30am

Please, someone explain what is so offensive about this.

Mar 19 04 - 1:36pm

I don't get this thing about putting people into little boxes. I thought we were working towards choices for everyone, regardless of sex, age, race etc. If a woman wants to get married young and have kids young, good for her. If she doesn't, that's fine too. It's whatever works for you. And don't forget that the man might have something to say about this. It should be about men and women working together. And it should be about getting organisations to recognise that men and women have families.

There are a few other things I find strange about Barash's interview. One is I didn't know my grandmothers had a glamorous and nourished life. I thought they worked damn hard to raise their kids in times of poverty and hardship. Another is that I didn't think it was just the 80s and 90s that made education a necessity. I thought education was a good thing, regardless.

My maternal adoptive grandmother was divorced (in the 1920s) and remarried, and then widowed for nearly 30 years. My adoptive mother was married for 62 years to my adoptive father, and she worked some of that time in the office with her husband, until I was adopted when she was 48. My birthmother had to give me up because it was 1965 and single women didn't keep their babies then, and my grandmother couldn't cope with it.

I am 39, been living with my partner since I was 24, have no children, have three degrees, write and am supported by my partner because I've had a long-term illness. I hope to change this in the next couple of years so that I contribute to the household income. I don't fit into any little boxes, and don't want to.

Mar 19 04 - 10:55pm

Since this is anonymous I feel free to post. I've had many conversations with my girlfriends (all well educated with college degrees and some with masters degrees) about how we do not feel motivated professionally. We were raised to "do anything we wanted." This meant becoming professional women, yet I for one never felt professionally motivated. I was a full time teacher who came home every day, graded papers and planned for hours, fought over the housework that was not done and then went to bed and cried. And sex...what sex? Who had time for a life and my partner? And I had no kids. This was all work. My friends experienced similar circumstances. It's actually scary how many women I'm friends with who lost their sex drives in their mid twenties because they were generally miserable with their jobs and lack of personal lives. Yet, we've been taught that this was what we should do...not that we had to have jobs to put food on the table, but that we should have careers because they would "fulfill" us. Or because as one magazine I read recently said that "keeping up with the Joneses has become keeping up with the Trumps."

I am lucky and my husband makes enough money to support us both in a nice lifestyle. He has a job that he enjoys with a lot of freedom. I quit my job and got a part time job that allows me to take care of the house and have a personal life. Yet, I always get the question..."what do you do" right after meeting someone. It's like it's been drilled into our heads as Americans that work defines us.

I'm not sure if this is directly relevant to the article or not, but it brought out these thoughts in me.

Mar 22 04 - 1:20pm

I think Barash is on to something. The problem is, we (young women in our mid-twenties) get just as pissed off if someone tells us we can't have a husband or family as we do if someone tells us we can't have a rewarding career. Right now I feel like picking the career, mainly because I don't want to regret not going for it when I'm 80. But I have friends - several, actually - who have picked being a wife and mother and who have temporarily deprioritized (but not abandoned) their professional lives. As far as I know, they have no regrets. In fact, one woman described her marriage of 4 years as waking up everyday next to your best friend. And she's enjoying her kid, despite being tired. It seems to me that they're happy, and they're secure knowing that it was their decisions and self-knowledge that brought them this happiness. Kudos to them. When the time is right, I'd like to have that for myself.

Mar 22 04 - 2:01am

i work at a university that i also attended some years back in my early twenties. then, there was never a pregnant young woman to be seen. if they were pregnant, i don't know where they hid. now the students are all having babies, carting them around, comfortably. it just seems to be a shift that indicates that they feel it's right for them (and not just one of them but many) and i doubt it's the same for each of them. i guess that's what's annoying about the book and others like it that attempt these characterizations. i mean i wouldn't want to say that i, like all other women who were 24 at the time, were choosing not to be married and not to have babies for the same reasons. it's just not true. what i can say about women my age (late thirties) and similarly educated (postgraduate degrees) is that every one of them that has children -for whatever reasons - had them after 35. that's just how it is. what they postponed or why isn't clear. i wouldn't want to say that they have postponed anything. but that's probably the difference between me and the new wife. and as for the comment about waking up to one's best friend, good for her i guess.... but that sounds like the last thing i'd want in a marriage. it's no advertisement for marriage.

May 11 06 - 5:20pm

can you give me information about how to contact susan shapiro barash? thank you.
Pat Alea