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What does the word “wife” actually mean?

In the very first issue of Ms. Magazine, Judy Syfer defined the traditional wife as a married woman who will keep the house clean, pick up after the children, and pick up after her husband. One who will keep the clothes in the house clean, ironed, mended, replaced when need be, and who will see to it that personal things are kept in their proper place. A married woman who cooks the meals, who plans the menus, who does necessary grocery shopping, and who pleasantly serves the meals…

My God, who wouldn’t want a wife?”

In addition to the basic things that go into a healthy life partnership, the job of “wife” seems to traditionally include the duties of housekeeper, chef, and personal assistant. These roles are separate from the job of “mother,” not to mention any other type of work the woman juggling these roles might be doing. It’s clearly impossible to do all these things without letting something slide. Observing that the wife part of the equation seems to be losing traction among today’s couples, Lisa Belkin, a senior columnist for the Huffington Post, wonders if it’s time we found a new way of referring to the female half of a married couple.

Belkin refers to a discussion on momversation about marriage and motherhood, which shed some light on why women might be less invested in being “a good wife” than “a good mother.”:

Our mothers spent more of their time working on being better wives as opposed to better mothers, whereas for our generation it seems like it’s kind of the opposite, that we concentrate more on being better mothers than better wives.

Many women were raised in the era of the above Ms. Magazine essay, by mothers who were hopeful that their daughters could do something different than housework. I’d also argue that the diminution of the wife’s role is at least partly about the expansion of the mother’s. We spend way more time actively parenting our children (and worrying about how we’re parenting them). And, as Lisa Belkin points out, today’s families are more likely to have two working parents than ever before.

So does Judy Syfer’s 1971 description of wifely duties still apply today? No … and yes. In the majority of families, men don’t expect women to do all the housework. Male participation in household chores has vastly increased since the 1970s. But by and large, women still do more. And even when they don’t, there’s sometimes a lingering expectation that they should. This traditional role stuff goes both ways, obviously; it’s not like husbands don’t feel the pressure to provide for the family per generations past. So, Belkin asks, should we scrap the gender-specific stuff and just start referring to each other as “spouse” or “partner” to help shed this baggage?

A recent article on the HuffingtonPost website provoked a rash of impassioned comments, mostly cries of political correctness or complaints about the futility, absurdity, or threat of changing the term wife.