The Lives of Wives:' January Term Course Looks at Their Changing Roles

January 9, 2008 — Today's college students have grown up in a time when the roles and duties of the ideal wife are in flux more than they were for centuries in European and American societies. A January term course at the University of Virginia is looking at "The Lives of Wives" and the history of marriage and childbirth from the early modern era to the contemporary period.

It is the first joint class that the history department and Studies in Women and Gender program have offered during the "J-term," a 10-day semester that provides students the opportunity to take an intensive, seminar-style course.

History instructors Anne Throckmorton and Melissa Blair are covering how marriage has changed over time, how the family or community was involved in the decision of whom and when to marry, and how expectations of spouses differed according to class.

The wide-ranging reading list includes some New Testament letters from Paul and historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese's "Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South." There also are several 17th-century sources, such as "The Countess of Lincoln's Nurserie," a manual that urges elite women to breastfeed, and "A happy husband, or directions for a maide [sic] to choose her mate. As also, a wives behavior towards her husband after marriage," written by a man. The class will jump to the 20th century in studying the longest-running marriage column, ongoing today, "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" in the Ladies Home Journal.

The class also is viewing eight films, including the 1982 film, "The Return of Martin Guerre," based on a true story about a 16th-century French peasant woman's decisions after her missing husband returns and his identity is questioned, and the 2002 movie, "Far From Heaven," about a "perfect" 1950s American housewife who finds out her husband is a homosexual and then befriends a well-educated African-American gardener working for the family.

"Ideas about what a wife should be and do change over time, in response to various changes in society — economic changes, demographic changes, etcetera," says Blair. "For example, urbanization and the creation of a middle class led to radically different expectations for wives of that middle class than had existed before."

"Societies are constantly grappling with basic questions of who can get married and what makes a marriage," says Throckmorton, who also teaches at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. "In early modern Europe, marriage was the most important decision anyone could make." She uses the wives of Henry VIII to show what marriage meant to noble women, but the instructors discuss the lives of peasant women and slave women in America, as well.

Students may be surprised, for example, to learn that upper-class women in the 16th and 17th centuries on average bore 10 to 15 children and did not usually breastfeed, so they could become pregnant again sooner and produce more children, whereas working-class women usually had six to eight births and usually nursed for about a year.

"I think we are at a peak of concern over marriage and, especially, motherhood issues," Blair says. "The whole 'mommy wars' thing, the debate over 'helicopter parents,' show that we, as a nation, are particularly concerned about the appropriate roles for parents, and especially mothers and wives. It's up to future historians to figure out why this is, although I will say that, historically, periods of strong concern about national security tend to line up with periods of increased emphasis on motherhood and parenting. The 1950s, with its Cold War fears and strong emphasis on family, is a good example of this."

"As a woman, knowing our history is important," said Catrina Garland, a fifth-year Master’s of Education student who majored in Spanish, "I wanted to learn the history and evolution of marriage, what's traditional and what's modern."

Ben Allen, a history major who has three older sisters, said he realized most history is presented from a male point of view and he wanted to get a different perspective. He said he also likes the films they are watching, ones he probably wouldn't have chosen on his own.

"Marriage and our ideas about it affect all of us, even people who aren't married," Throckmorton points out.

The purpose of U.Va.'s January Term, held Jan. 2-11 this year, is to provide students with unique opportunities: new courses that address topics of current interest, study abroad programs, undergraduate research seminars and interdisciplinary courses. The intensive format of January Term classes encourages student-faculty contact and allows students and faculty to immerse themselves in a subject.