Who rules the roost? The on-going Battle of the Sexes

My blog post is inspired by the hilarious spoof ‘research’ published in the BMJ in December 2013 ‘Being right or being happy: pilot study’.[i] Authored by three ‘general practitioners who see many patients and couples who lead unnecessarily stressful lives by wanting to be right rather than happy’, the ‘research’ tested a couple to see whether a spouse was happiest being right or being happy. The test was apparently abandoned after 12 days, however, as the male participant was getting depressed by having to agree with the female participant all the time. Using ‘quality of life’ scores, the authors found that the male got increasingly unhappy, while the female got happier. They concluded that ‘being right … is a cause of happiness’ and ‘that the availability of unbridled power adversely affects the quality of life of those on the receiving end’.

Although that final conclusion sounds fairly neutral, the ‘pilot’ study’s experiment was

‘for the male to agree with his wife’s every opinion and request without complaint. Even if he believed the female participant was wrong, the male was to bow and scrape.’

As a historian of marriage and the distribution of power in marriage in the past, this phrasing amuses me because the premise underlying this joke is so similar to jokes about marriage in the early modern period, which often had a wife who knew she was right and an acquiescent husband.

Popular literature such as crime pamphlets and ballads included spouses fighting to gain the upper-hand in their marriages. Melodramatic accounts of domestic crime had threatening, insubordinate wives attacking their husbands and predatory husbands tyrannising their timid wives. Ballads show a humorous topsy-turvy world of emasculated cuckolds and domineering scolds. Newspaper cartoons reveal a continued fascination with large domineering wives asserting their power over husbands into the twentieth century. Doesn’t that sound similar to the mock study of 2013 where the joke is that:

‘It was decided without consultation that the female participant would prefer to be right and the male, being somewhat passive, would prefer to be happy.’ ?

In the past these depictions of marriage presented it as a ‘Battle of the Sexes’ in which spouses struggled to establish control over each other, the household, and their resources. This was not just a way of thinking about marriage that was ‘popular’; it can also be seen in elite discourses. The famous plaster frieze at Montacute House, for instance, probably amused Sir Edward Phelips’ male guests and reminded them of the consequences of not maintaining their power over their wives: social humiliation.

Montacute skimington

Periodicals discussed it in the eighteenth century, seriously and humorously:

Man claims Superiority over the Fairer Sex: And the Woman that will contest that Point, lays a Foundation for future Misery in the married state. ‘The Prompter’, The Gentleman’s Magazine, January, 1735, p. 15.

I have observed repeated bickering in families from the husband interfering with the province of the wife, and the wife with that of the husband. It becomes, therefore, a very desirable thing to know what these respective provinces are, what privileges belong to the husband which are in common to the wife, and what rights, immunities, and privileges belong to each, independent of the other. It is from want of knowing this, I am persuaded, that civil war breaks out so often in families. Mr Matrix, The Lady’s Magazine, February, 1790, p. 59

The wife may not have got a violent come-uppance in 2013 as she often did four centuries ago, but the issues at the heart of this joke in the British Medical Journal and the urge to use humour as a way to think them through is remarkably consistent. And this actually makes me a bit uneasy. In the past portrayals of the battle of the sexes tend to show the marital relationship simplistically in terms of male reactions to female obedience or disobedience. While perhaps presenting wives as forceful was entertaining, the message of such characterisations of marriage was clear: wives should be deferential to husbands. In marriage, men were right. How similar is that to the joke study’s suggestion that:

‘more research is needed to see whether our results hold if it is the male who is always right’. ?

Actually, historians show that this is a depiction of household authority that is difficult to reconcile with historical evidence. Married women exerted power in domestic and public spheres and often their husbands were reliant upon their advice, labour and economic contribution. Recent research also shows that many early modern men could not attain ‘patriarchal’ manhood and adopted alternative forms. Even those who achieved some of its markers could find their position undermined by their wives. In short, these busy, active married women and anxious married men suggested a far more fractured, complex picture of gender relationships that undermine the orthodoxies of power within wedlock.

Marital relationships are just as complex in the twenty-first century, though entered into in a society which sees spouses as equals; so it is interesting that this same society is still interested in these gendered clichés and power. What purpose does this humour serve now, I wonder?


[i] Somewhat ironically this was reported as a real research finding in the Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/10524035/Happy-marriage-study-abandoned-as-husband-becomes-depressed.html

 

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