Does Everybody Still Want a Wife?

Commentary on Wives of the Organization arguing how we need change institutions

Marta B. Calás and Linda Smircich
Isenberg School of Management
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Amherst, MA 01003 - USA

© Copyright 2007-2010 Marta B. Calás and Linda Smircich. All rights reserved.

May 2007, revised December 2009 & January 2010

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In our global, 24/7, hyper-connected world, a place where everyone may feel they need “a wife”, we can no longer do our hectic organizational and personal lives without wishing for some extra human help, no matter how much more (or perhaps because of how much more) technology manufacturers, advertisers, and our own gullible minds toss into this pile. Is this a better world than the one described by Anne Huff’s paper almost twenty years ago? We cannot be optimistic. We ask in addition, better for whom?

Reflecting on her paper, we argue that historicizing and contextualizing “wifeness” can move us on to another, better path today. We observe, first, that insofar as “wifeness” is a structural position, who occupies that position can be distanced from its gender specificity. Second, thinking about what the word “wives” involves also allows us to ask: Why are women still the ones more likely to occupy this position in the household and outside of it? Further, thinking through “wives” may help us see how many other social inequalities that are naturalized could actually be changed. At the end we ask, how to stop all of us, women and men, from being 1950s, and 60s, and 70s and so on… “wives” of organizations as we are still today? How can we reframe the larger setting where every one still seems to need a (house)wife, even if no one can or wants to be one?

Keywords: wifeness, housewifery, gender & class, social issues & b-schools, work & family


Sometime in 1990 Anne Huff’s paper was passed on to us, we don’t remember by whom, accompanied by a sense of excitement and urgency: “you’ve got to read this…” At that point it sounded not only absolutely right as an academic statement about much that was wrong with gender relations in organizations, it also represented our personal experiences and concerns. As we read it then, we interpreted the paper as Anne’s articulation of what she wanted to see changing in women’s professional careers and, in many ways, what she wanted her own contribution to those changes to be. Today we are pleased to be part of honoring Anne’s work. As a person we admire and respect, we applaud her professional efforts over the years for we are sure that because of her presence the places where she has worked are now much better for women, and probably also for men. We are equally pleased to see this paper finally appear in a public form even if it is these many years later.

We must acknowledge, though, when we first read the paper we were somewhat surprised by the subtitle of the almost concluding section: “Is This a Feminist Statement?” The question, we guessed, was one that Anne was in fact posing to herself. More surprising, perhaps, was her immediate denial that despite having been positively influenced by Carol Gilligan’s research, “in my view feminism does not in itself offer enough guidance for the professional dilemmas I’ve just outlined.” In that denial, we thought then and are even more convinced now, there are many contradictions.

Without the feminist works that inspired her, we doubt the paper would ever have been written. At the same time, such a denial explains her reluctance to see the paper in print as a scholarly contribution during a period of budding feminism in organization studies (e.g., Calás & Smircich, 1989; 1991; Calvert & Ramsey 1992; Martin 1990; Mumby & Putnam, 1992; Smircich, 1985). Would trying to publish it, going even more public towards encouraging women to change their professional worlds, have had negative effects for those she was hoping to help? Could Anne have afforded to be a feminist then? Her comments suggest that her answer to this last question was no, not if she wanted to pursue other research topics as well.

In our judgment, however, “Wives of the Organization” is even more of a feminist statement than it may seem to be at first blush, not for what it says but for what it tries to hide not very successfully. Reading it through very tame lenses of liberal feminism, the paper appears to be almost blaming the victim in that too much rides on women changing their behaviors --- without acknowledging the structural conditions and power relations that pervade male dominated organizations and society. Yet, there is ambivalence in the text betraying a lack of conviction that her seven suggested changes of behavior will actually achieve her expectations. For instance, she suggests that women must leave their organizations if things are not working for them, but at the same time worries if women move on to entrepreneurial ventures of their own, they will simply replicate the situations they were trying to leave behind.

Is it that women cannot change, or is it that women are embedded in a system of power relations larger than any particular organization? Does the system, in fact, limit how we can behave? Anne did not ask these questions but she insinuates that a larger system is in play when she worries that it will take generations for women to be able to protect and facilitate their professional lives while also supporting community and connections; and when she acknowledges that when women try to make significant organizational changes, they will be resisted and punished.

However, Anne wants to sound optimistic, and in doing so there are moments when an articulation of women’s worthiness for organizational purposes crosses into dangerous essentialist territories (Calás & Smircich, 1993), as when she suggests that if men learn from women their organizational planning would be more responsive to human implications. At the same time, there is a veiled resentfulness: having fun in organizations, she says, has become a persistent theme, but women may need it more than men as there is that pesky second job that most professional women have to do once they get home. Thus, at the end, sounding almost exasperated, she makes a final try, highlighting fully what she really wanted to say: the paper is about the fact that her most successful colleagues by “professional” (sic) standards are almost always male. This observation, however, ends up with a problematic solution: women must learn from the more successful male colleagues how to focus their energies to get the big jobs accomplished – those jobs that merit dramatic promotions.

Unfortunately, for all her caveats and prescriptions, this solution leaves too much unchanged and unchallenged. There is little recognition that in a system suffused by power relations nothing will really change unless structural conditions change, and that under those conditions, hierarchical as they are in a “winner take all” organizational culture, it is unlikely that women can change anything by simply changing their behaviors. Who defines the “big jobs” after all? And, if done by women but rewarded by the system already in place, would these jobs be more responsive to human implications? We think not. Rosabeth Kanter saw all this by 1977 in her book Men and Women of the Corporation and many of us learned very soon thereafter: much rides precisely on the historical nature of “housewifery” that emerged in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and its concomitant patriarchal capitalism.

On "housewifery"

In our global, 24/7, hyper-connected world, a place where everyone may feel they need “a wife”, we can no longer do our hectic organizational and personal lives without wishing for some extra human help, no matter how much more (or perhaps because of how much more) technology manufacturers, advertisers, and our own gullible minds toss into this pile. Is this a better world than the one described by Anne’s paper almost twenty years ago? We cannot be optimistic. We ask in addition, better for whom? In fact, we think that around the time Anne delivered her paper an important opportunity was missed to help make our common world better for many. But perhaps a little history, a little memory, can still move us on to another, better path today.

Historicizing and contextualizing “wifeness” is important for these aims. It helps us to consider, first, that insofar as “wifeness” is a structural position, who occupies that position can be distanced from its gender specificity. And second, thinking about what the word “wives” involves also allows us to ask the next questions: Why are women the ones more likely to occupy this position in the household and outside of it? And whose purpose does this serve? Internalizing “the role” is one thing, but how does it happen? What is there, in society, making us believe the role is “natural;” that it is how the world should be? Thinking through “wives” may also help us see how many other social inequalities that are naturalized could actually be changed.

In 1983 Ruth S. Cowan published an historical analysis of the relationship between women’s household work and technological innovations for housework in the U.S., focusing on the common people, the majority, rather than on the elites. Importantly, she first addressed the existence of a gender division of labor in the household during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, before the Industrial Revolution, when such division of labor was geared toward those specific tasks making it possible for the household to survive with sufficient food, clothing and shelter. Whatever gender specificity there was in those chores was primarily related to particular needs of the household, since the labor itself was called “housewifery” regardless of the sex of those performing it. For instance, men would often but not always both sew clothing and mill grain. Meanwhile, husbandry, meaning administering the household, farming, and tending to animals, was done by both women and men.

The word “housework” was not used until the eighteenth century, when the separation between the household and the workplace became fully marked by the advent of industrialization. Some work for the household done before by men who were now working in factories, was often given to other outsiders to do (e.g., milling grain), but women, who usually remained in the household, also undertook a good part of the burden left behind.

Certain technologies that developed during the nineteenth century (e.g. the cast iron stove) were expected to make housework easier; the work that was increasingly becoming women’s work. It was at this point that the notion of “separate spheres” between the public domain of men and the private domain of women became popularized and normalized. By the early twentieth century, “inventors and entrepreneurs and advertising copywriters and consumers themselves simply assumed [that it] was a normal arrangement and they continued to build, to refine, and to accept the technological systems of housework accordingly” (Cowan, 1983: 69).

These household technologies were not only help for housework but also symbols of improved social status, and a whole society was developing around the values of such technological marvels. Both men and women were contributing work, outside and inside the home, towards making such a society develop, but women were increasingly carrying a greater burden. For instance, the more sophisticated stove was also expected to offer cooking capabilities for increasingly elaborate recipes, which the “lady of the house” would master. The number of “maids” in the household was thus reduced and many became factory workers involved in the production of these technologies.

Unfortunately, improvements in living conditions, including those afforded by the production and consumption of household technologies through the early years of the twentieth century, almost came to a halt between the Depression and the end of World War II. During this period more women also had to take jobs outside the home, at first to make life possible for the whole family and later on to contribute to war needs. By the end of the war, however, things changed dramatically. As Cowan describes it, the Post War household was also a great homogenizer among women of all classes. The rising middle class moving towards suburbia, with increasing mobility afforded by the automobile, also gained more technology for “helping” with housework. This situation also included less availability of servants, more spatial solitude, and, as the title of her book suggests, “more work for mother.”

These technologies were no longer simply substitutes for housework but often substitutes for housework that husbands would have done otherwise. At the same time, they increased the number of tasks women could incorporate into housework, including driving children to various activities and washing and drying clothes rather than sending them out to be done. Sometimes, just to afford their technological signs of “middle-classness,” women would take jobs outside the home in order to be able to afford household technologies. Concurrently, men would rather have wives stay at home, since a “working wife” was a likely sign of her husband’s inability to provide for the affluent lifestyle which separated families in the 1950s from an impoverished past prior to WWII.

Organizations and Wives

Most of the women represented in Kanter’s (1977) chapter 5, “Wives,” were part of the post WWII social system, albeit with a keen recognition on Kanter’s part that a new class system eventually ensued for all corporate wives whose husbands rose on the corporate ladder. That is, what Kanter shows so vividly is how the relationship between the household and the workplace was articulated precisely through the “stay at home wife”, who one way or another was in fact the conduit between the never separated “separate spheres”. However, not all wives were created equal. In fact, the higher the husband’s position in the corporate system, the more implicated the wife was in maintaining the relationship between the private and public “spheres”, with her roles becoming quasi-institutionalized as part of corporate expectations.

The structural position of wives in Kanter’s 1970s study was the successor structure to “the wives problem” for the rising corporate society of the early 1950s. In the 1950s, countless magazine advice columns were written to guide a wife’s behavior in the direction of staying at home and properly sustaining her husband’s position as breadwinner. Yet, there was another side to this story, well represented in two pieces in Fortune magazine by William H. Whyte (1951a; 1951b). These articles focused on trying to understand the roles that “wives of management” would have in the Post War society as part of the broader social context where managerial personnel would thrive. A particular problem, succinctly stated, was how to create a favorable attitude on the part of wives such that they would liberate their husbands’ total energies for the job. In the first article Whyte wrote,

[management] knows exactly what kind of wife it wants… she is a wife who is: (1) highly adaptable, (2) highly gregarious, (3) realizes her husband belongs to the corporation… the significant fact is not that corporations are trying to get this kind of wife. The significant fact is that her kind is precisely what our school and colleges –and U.S. society in general- seem to be giving the corporation (1951a: 86).

While the representation of wives that comes to the fore in Anne’s paper is closer to that criticized by Betty Friedan during the 1960s Women’s movement, it is important to realize that these wives occupied a very specific structural relation in the society of the 1950s. By being contested in the 1960s, however, the debates in the following years for and against these structural relations probably extended them, as an option, well into the 1980s.

Thus, though written in 1990, the “wives of the organization” in Anne’s paper represent a particular (U.S.) and historical (post WWII) structural relationship. Should we thus be surprised by Anne’s finding in her classroom that, “[m]ost of the people trying to write down every word are female; most of the people who sit back and try to get the big picture are male. When there’s a team project, too often they meet at her apartment and eat the brownies she made or bought… library research is done by the females on the team while the young men make the presentation”?

These behaviors are not only historically sedimented, albeit with a shorter history than we might often acknowledge, they are as well embedded in a context of relationships complexly intertwined within and between social institutions, and unlikely to be changed by wished-for individual behaviors. Consider Kanter’s description of professional women in her study, worth quoting at length:

Because corporate wives were generally seen to be content to operate behind the scenes and to be ambitious for their husbands rather than themselves, and because they made use of social rather than intellectual skills in their hostess role, the image of women that emerged for some management men from knowing their own and other wives reinforced the view that career women were an anomaly, that they were unusual or could not really be ambitious, or that their talents must be primarily social and emotional rather than cognitive or managerial (1977: 106).

If this was the situation in the 1970s, additional images of wives in the context of corporations during the 1980s did not exactly help the case of women’s careers as business professionals. In 1989, Fortune once again paid attention to wives, and coined the term “trophy wife” to describe the CEO’s second wife, a social development that was, it seems, associated with the 1980s. Tracing a connection between Whyte’s 1951 articles and the magazine’s interest in wives in 1989, Marshall Loeb, Fortune’s editor, seemed eager to explain that the writer, Julie Connelly, an expert in high finance and fascinated by high society, “had the idea for the story in this issue when she noticed that a lot has changed since Whyte's day. For one, divorce used to finish a career. No longer. More CEOs are remarrying today than ever before” (1989: 4). Connelly explains, “In the corporate world, as in much of the rest of society, it took the roaring Eighties to make divorce fully respectable…. Powerful men are beginning to demand trophy wives” (1989: 52).

What was a “trophy wife”? As explained in the article, a culture of self-indulgence emerging in the 1980s had become an issue for people who had worked very hard and felt they'd earned and were entitled to many more social rewards; such a culture had crept up to the CEO level, which seemingly made them entitled to a second wife. However, according to Connelly, these second wives were not just any women. They were a decade or two younger than their husbands, sometimes several inches taller, beautiful, thin, and very often accomplished; all of which certified the husband's high status. Their most important duty was, however, to help their husbands build a new life. Meanwhile, the first wife had been keeping house and raising the kids but that seemed to earn them fewer points in the wider world. By the time they realized it, they may have sacrificed their own potential careers; they may have wanted to change, but it was too late for them. As Connelly put it, “as his wife is waking up, the CEO is wanting out.”

Wives of the Business Schools:
Maintaining Class through Gender (and Race) Relations

Now, in light of all this, who were the wives of the organization in Anne’s 1990 descriptions? The multitasking, self-sacrificing, other-pleasing wife that seemingly emerged in the 1950s is certainly more a product of historical development (at least since the Industrial Revolution) than an essential woman of any kind. The historical traces of this wife were certainly seen in Anne’s paper; yet, there were also traces of newer gender relations emerging after WWII in the context of a transformed corporate America, where men wanted to be seen as sole providers for the family, while women should have been enjoying all the benefits that household technologies would provide.

There were also traces in the paper of a contested place that the Women’s Movement tried to carve out but was so disputed that progress was often unavailable (i.e., do you really want to be “a feminist”? in a “business school”?). And through all this, there were also questions of class relations, where gender as well as race played a part. Who was the “working woman”? Whose wife needed to go out to work? And who would want to be a “trophy wife” with its often “gold-digging” connotation?

In fact, aspiring professional women in the business schools of the late 1980s, right before Anne’s paper was delivered, had a mighty arsenal of wifely images at their disposal, but very little that was attractive or easy to emulate as a unique professional identity. Was there much more than being “the other,” or the manager’s wife, and being treated accordingly? At best, the landscape was confusing; at worst, it was despicable. Their safest bet may have been to behave like their mothers, a likely gamble for middle class young women in the business schools of the 1980s.

Unfortunately, there were other things about which Anne’s paper is silent but we all should have noticed: not only were women in the paper potentially behaving like their mothers but the men she describes were probably behaving like their fathers. We should have noticed as well that almost everything we all were doing, saying, and teaching in the business schools at that point in time (and still today) sustained such relationships as a main support of corporate America – relationships that date back to the Industrial Revolution. Probably more than any other academic space in American universities at that point in time, business schools were big contributors to problematic gender, class, and race relations –i.e., contemporary patriarchal capitalism- that kept women and others “in their place”.

Perhaps Anne’s focus on change should have thus been directed to changing the structural conditions maintaining these relationships between men and women in organizations, instead of focusing on changing women’s behavior. That is, from our perspective, the world that Anne was addressing in 1990 couldn’t be changed for the better one woman (or two or three) at a time. It would have required a social movement, and perhaps a feminist movement more critical than the one in the 1960s, to change the structural conditions producing wifely behavior. That kind of social movement might have had a lot of power had it originated in US business schools. When Anne delivered her talk, the time may have been ripe for this movement to happen. There was a (very small, it seems today) window of opportunity to get it going, but we all made other choices then and, so, here we are.

If observed historically, the relationships between people which business school curriculum intended, and still intends to maintain is not so much about the bodies occupying organizational positions, even though the symbolic significance of those bodies often serves important instrumental purposes (e.g., in affirmative action or in diversity programs). Rather, relationships must be maintained which constantly produce a classist system of beliefs, enhancing necessary images of superiority and subordination. Such a system naturalizes how much we should all give to working life if we want to have “a good life” (i.e., the illusion of meritocracy). Yet, to keep this system running, “the good life” must progressively elude the real life of more and more people. It is the unattainable object of desire that keeps the system going.

For instance, notice what Fortune 1989 highlights by contrasting Whyte’s 1951 “wives of management” with the CEO’s “trophy wife.” By portraying what a CEO could get away with once he has arrived, the class separation between being “a manager” and “a CEO” is conveyed. The “wives” story (and “wives” as instruments) produces class effects (patriarchal capitalism) that get further enhanced when a few years later Connelly (1995) endows the “trophy wife” with “brains”!

It is too bad that we did not read anywhere in Anne’s paper that we should all have been questioning the values of a business system that creates and encourages dreadful instrumental relationships among all people in society in order for some to attain dramatic benefits at the expense of others. Nor did we read anywhere that the courses we were then teaching should have been changed to question exactly those values that cause women to be resisted and punished when protecting their professional lives while also supporting community and connections.

Anne did not write about the larger system, nor did most of us do anything about it in our institutions; rather, we simply continued being wives of our business schools, and thus encouraged others, both women and men, to do the same in their professional lives. Since 1990, we all may have further contributed to creating a more unequal world, where the distance between rich and poor continues to increase, courtesy of the values our institutions foster for the rest of our society and around the world.

And now, What?

What to say at this point? As feminist scholars, looking at the broader landscape of work and society as it stands today, we notice that even though a few of us have been tolerated and allowed to write and publish “as feminists,” so what? The general landscape has changed little, and it is perhaps worse than when Anne originally delivered her paper in 1990. At the most immediate, the gender pay gap between US men and women workers has diminished a little, but partially this can be attributed to men’s wages having declined and therefore women’s wages now appear proportionally better even though still about 20% less than men’s. More significantly, overall wage inequality between high and low paid workers over the past 25 years has widened and many low paid jobs are still “women’s jobs” (e.g., Blau & Kahn, 2007).

Overall, we all work many more hours, and often all the time, while being bombarded with inane (reality?) entertainment so that we can continue to marvel about our technological possibilities while being distracted from noticing the increasing inequality that we produce. Thus, in our present world a few women may have accomplished a lot, whatever that translates into, but in the larger scheme of things, the majority, both women and men, are not faring much better than they were 25 years ago; more are faring worse, and the world we inhabit, ideologically and materially, is in a really sad state.

In this context then, do we as feminists need to worry so much about professional women today? Not really, as so many have become just like their male privileged counterparts. Instead, we might worry more about, for instance, how ‘opting out’ (Belkin, 2003) from the workplace to have and care for their children though only available to a very few well to do professional women, is portrayed as a choice for all women. In reality, the vast majority of US women today go to work outside the home -- there is over 70% labor participation rate by women ages 25-55 -- because they have no other economic option. Their partners, if any, may also have low paying jobs or no jobs at all in a mostly de-industrialized US society, where many children suffer for lack of proper childcare. That is, the “opt out revolution” depicts a world that very few women can access while hiding its impact on furthering classism and racialization –e.g. a world full of “nannies”- in our society (Calás & Smircich, 2009).

Meanwhile, the gender division of labor worldwide has increased with more and more women furnishing labor power in miserably paid jobs courtesy of neoliberal globalization policies, which go unquestioned in “mainstream” business schools around the world. Thus, we have no sympathy either for the advent of the “trophy husband,” those stay-at-home dads who mind the kids while their fast-track wives go to work (Morris, 2002), or for the “power couples” described by Carlin, Blackaby and Murphy (2007) whose double earning power contributes to the widening income distribution gap in a society.

And, we are also very suspicious of recent glowing reports about “the rise of wives” as workers in the US, focusing on the economic benefits of marriage from gender role reversals – i.e., more working wives earning more than their husbands, and more husbands staying home and doing housework (Fry & Cohn, 2010; Parker-Pope, 2010). These arguments become particularly suspicious when Fry & Cohn report, as well, that the US economic downturn “is reinforcing these gender reversal trends, because it has hurt employment of men more than that of women. Males accounted for about 75% of the 2008 decline in employment among prime-working-age individuals”.

What must we change? What should we teach in our institutions, so that all this creation of social inequality becomes more visible rather than tacitly condoned by our profession and by the professional schools where we work, by professional women, and by everyone else? How to stop all of us, women and men, from being 1950s, and 60s, and 70s and so on… “wives” of organizations as we are still today? How can we reframe the larger setting where every one still seems to need a (house)wife, even if no one can or wants to be one?


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