Saturday, December 28, 2013

Dear Women and Men, Readers and Publishers (i.e. everyone)

Dear Women and Men, Readers and Publishers (i.e. everyone),
     I regularly talk with my best friend (who happens to be unmarried) about how to keep (and develop) my identity in the midst of my roles as wife and mother. I have always prized reading as one of the sharpest tools in my do-not-lose-myself bucket. So, imagine my, ahem, surprise, when it dawned on me that some of the titles we are reading may actually be reinforcing the stereotypical identity-loss that comes with wifedom and motherhood.  As I was editing my Goodreads list and browsing my friends' lists, I noticed something interesting, er, disturbing. There are a shocking number of novels out there with titles like "The fill-in-the-blank's Wife." There's The Tiger's Wife, The Pilot's Wife, The Time Traveler's Wife, The Traitor's Wife, The Doctor's Wife, The Diplomat's Wife, The Sea Captain's Wife, The Shoemaker's Wife (seriously? Do shoemaker's still exist? If so, where? I have a pair of busted Nine West sandals that have been begging for repair. I wore them to my sweet 16. I will never throw them out. Nine West is high fashion for someone with as much student loan debt as I've got.) The Saddlemaker's Wife (now this could get good...) and the list goes on and on. In fact, after a cursory amazon search for literary fiction with the word "wife" in the title, nearly 1,200 titles appear, more than twice that if you expand the search to include all contemporary fiction and literary fiction categories. I joked with my own husband that I should write a book titled "The Headmaster's Wife" as it seems denying my own identity or at least simplifying it to be merely based on my marital status is a surefire way to get published. Another quick search delivered the hard news that someone had already beaten me to the punch. Doh! Maybe I'll read The Headmaster's Wife over spring break. The title is generic enough to be based on my life, after all.

 Image Borrowed from A Girl's Guide to Taking Over the World
      Now, I am not, in anyway, suggesting that these books aren't great reads or well-written. I actually haven't read most of them. But it is noteworthy that while there are somewhere between 1,200 and 3,000 books on the shelves whose titles define women according to their relationship to a man (I did filter out for lesbian literature, though a few may have gotten past) the very same search on amazon for fiction with "husband" in the title yielded only around 250 results. After a few minutes of glancing, many of these books didn't even refer to the role of husband but rather, were books about women in want of a husband such as The Husband Thief, The Husband Hunt and A Husband for Margaret. It's also noteworthy that most of these "husband" books were not popular or successful titles while many of the "wife" titles were (more than a couple of New York Times best sellers).

     So why is that? I am assuming that many of these titles were chosen by publishers and not by the authors. They must believe that titling a book "So and So's wife" is going to sell more copies. Why? It's subtle, I know, but it seems indicative of a general cultural tendency to have women's identities be cast in the shadows (or if she insists on taking center stage, be relegated to the so-called "Chick Lit" corner- don't even get me started on the degrading way the publishing industry treats books that fall into this category!)
      I love my husband, love who he is, what he does, yes, but I don't want to be simply defined by who he is. But guess what, he doesn't want that either (read: this is why we are married). He doesn't have a blog so you'll just have to take my word for it. Besides, I've asked him. Repeatedly. You know why?  Because reminding each other, and the world, that as awesome as we are together, we are also individuals, is something that takes work both inside the home and out. Because I'm better when I'm more than his wife and he's better when I'm better. Of course, it goes both ways, but somehow everyone gets how great it is when I put something aside to see him further his career (which I have done) but not when he forfeits a goal for a time while I pursue my own (which he has done). It starts with what we say and what we believe and what we choose. It starts with the books we read our children and the books we read ourselves. So, while I'm not suggesting that any of these books be banned from the reading list of feminists, or women-conscious readers (in fact book-banning is the surest way to get a book added to my reading list) I am suggesting that we point out, talk about and debunk myths like this one: the identity of a man (husband) is more important than the identity of a woman (wife), even in her own story.

     In my story, which is both my story and his story, (and our story) who I am is just as essential as who he is. I want my children to see that and know that, and one day, I want my daughter to read that- on the cover of a New York Times best seller.


A woman, a writer, reader, a friend, a business-owner, a mother, a lover, a thinker and yes a wife of a husband (who doesn't feel the need to insert himself here.)


  1. If you're looking for stereotypes that negate who men are by book titles alone, you erred when searching for husband. Instead, try millionaire, billionaire and so on. The way the women are lumped into role of "wife" the men are lumped into roles of "wealthy". I'm sure that makes men as uncomfortable as you are made by titles with "wife" in them. These are all fantasies, fiction, books to take people away from their daily lives. They aren't written to be feminist, just for fun. We writers assume you readers know who you are and don't need us to bolster your image of strong, independent women, even if we write strong and independent female characters. Loved your post!

    1. Thanks for your comment Jean! I couldn't agree more that there are plenty of opportunities to find images and examples of men being marginalized. The thing is, as you say, these forms of marginalization are often directly linked to a man's achievement/power status (after all what says power and achievement more than wealth in our society?) Yes, 50 shades of Grey is bogus because it deems a man more attractive if he is wealthy and dangerous (the broken man that a woman can fix being another topic for discussion some day) but it is rare to see a man's identity negated by the women in his life. and that is the difference. These titles don't reveal anything about the woman other than who she is married to. I agree that writers are not responsible are not responsible for helping readers define themselves. What our culture publishes is a reflection of what we want to buy. And that, is the most telling part of all.

  2. Seriously. I'm so tired of going to the bookstore and seeing thousands of titles that are "The So and So's Daughter" or "Mr. Man's Wife." This trend has been going on a good ten or twelve years, probably the reason for it's longevity is because it sells. I guess this form of marketing falls into the "behind every man is great woman" philosophy and female readers (which account for the overwhelming majority of book readers) will relate to the no-so-subtle technique. I actually find it rather sad and disturbing. Like we're a nation of women who still consciously or unconsciously feel unheard, and disenfranchised, and I think the popularity of these titles support that theory.

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    1. Not sure where my comment went! But here goes again! Thanks so much for your feedback- it's good to know that I'm not alone in this observation and that I'm not crazy. I know it's not a huge deal but it gets tiring. Seriously, why do titles like this sell, and more importantly, why are we buying??