What is a Wife?

Week of: 
April 4, 2010
What is it: 

The concept of a wife has been embedded in cultures, religious practices, social customs and economic patterns of wildly different sorts.  Is there a core concept of what it is to be a wife?  Is it a good concept, or one that deserves to be thrown on the trash heap of intellectual history because it perpetrates corrosive stereotypes of women?  What conceptions of being a wife do Americans have today?  Join John and Ken as they discuss the topic with Marilyn Yalom, author of A History of the Wife.  This program was recorded in front of a live audience at the Marsh Theatre in San Francisco.

Listening Notes: 

John and Ken start off by asking why they are asking the question they are - why not ask ‘What is a spouse’? or ‘What is a husband’? They discuss the relevance of the change in meaning and significance that ‘wife’ has had in culture in the last decades and centuries.

After a report from Philosophy Talk’s philosophical reporter, Ken and John welcome Marilyn Yalom to the show. She discusses her motivations for writing a book about the history of the concept of a wife, and the place of the concept of ‘wife’ in our culture today. After John expresses his wonder about the possibility that positive reasons for a woman to get hitched could ever outweigh the negative reasons against it, Marilyn talks about the different kinds of reasons that woman have had (and lacked) through history to choose to get married.

Ken and John then open up the floor for questions, and Marilyn helps them answer questions about the role men play in cultural shifts of women’s roles, intercultural differences in expectations and rewards for marriage, and the role that biological drive for motherhood affects women’s lives and marriage patterns.

In the last section of the show, Ken, John, and Marilyn discuss the future of marriage and its influence on women. They discuss trends in the relative education and earning power of women and men, trends in marriage and parenthood in Europe, and the health and promise of arranged marriages. They wrap up the show with a discussion about what a successful marriage looks like. John weighs in about the need for both breadwinning and nurturing parental roles and Ken points out tensions with balancing personal projects with the health of partnership in marriage. Marilyn ends with a comment about the benefits in marriage - for both men and women - of prioritizing partnership.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 6:00): Andi McDaniel interviews Elizabeth Weil, a contributing writer for the New York Times. Elizabeth talks about how she, a happily married wife, decided to proactively form and reform the gender roles in her marriage.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 49:30): Ian Shoales reports on the Quiverful movement, a movement among some evangelicals that promotes procreation and disallows all forms of birth control and family planning.
Bonus Content: 


VIDEO: Watch the complete program

EXTENDED INTERVIEW with New York Times Magazine writer Elizabeth Weil

Related Resources: 



Web Resources

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