Writer Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–Total Woman is back. Who’d have thought it, some 30 years after the second wave of feminism crested?

"TW" was the 1970s best seller by Marabel Morgan. She advised women that instead of getting college degrees and launching careers, they should instead study the desires of their husbands. They should be submissive and pleasing and thereby they could get everything they wanted. Morgan advised wives not to nag if they craved that new washer-dryer, but to greet their husbands at the door wearing only Saran Wrap.

A lot of women (and undoubtedly men) thought the Saran Wrap was a fun idea, but jettisoned the submission business. However, submission is back, in a briskly selling new book called "The Surrendered Wife." It gives women the following advice:

  • Relinquish control of the household finances and rely on your husband to give you what you need.
  • Apologize for being disrespectful whenever you contradict, criticize or dismiss your husband’s thoughts and ideas.
  • Make yourself sexually available to your husband (at least once a week). Defer to your husband’s thinking when you have conflicting opinions.
  • Most of all, practice saying the following line: "Whatever you think, Dear." Say it with a smile. Try it now. Feels good, doesn’t it?

Alas, Parody This Is Not–It Spawns "Self-Help" Groups

No, this isn’t a parody. It’s a book by a California housewife, Laura Doyle, that threatens to become a best-seller. Her "self-help" groups have spread across America, she has a Web site and lecture dates, and her theories are reportedly being discussed in university classes. The book even has a jacket blurb from John Gray, the author of "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus." He says "The Surrendered Wife" is a practical and valuable tool for women wanting to regain intimacy in their relationships.

Just when you think there couldn’t be a new wrinkle in the backlash biz, something always comes along. "The Surrendered Wife" is eerily reminiscent of the advice women’s magazine gave to their readers in the 1950s. Here, for example, is the Ladies Home Journal in the mid-fifties:

"The happy wife adjusts her mood to her husband’s, when she feels like talking and he is uncommunicative. She conceals her disappointments. He is too tired for the movie she looks forward to, so she puts the big chair by the fire even though it spoils the effect she’d planned for the room. She follows sports and tries her luck at a new game (one her husband likes.) She watches his weight, supervises his diet, provides time for him to rest." Never did LHJ suggest that he take her to the movie even if he’s tired or move the damn chair himself. That’s her job.

Did all this self-abnegation lead to happy marriages 30 years ago? No. The mental health data that began to roll in during the 1970s on these traditional marriages over the preceding decades revealed massive problems of self-esteem, depression and psychiatric symptoms for American wives. The data were so alarming that one expert, sociologist Jessie Barnard, called marriage a health hazard for women.

The advice to turn all financial dealings over to a husband is especially alarming. (Even Total Woman didn’t do that. She just used Saran Wrap to get the dough.) In case of divorce or death of a spouse, ignorance of financial matters has led to terrible economic consequences for women. And there is solid evidence that having to ask a husband for money is one of the things that eats away at a woman’s self-esteem. It’s infantalizing.

Are Men So Dumb That They Fall For the Surrendered Wife Act?

Laura Doyle argues that men need to be in charge and that they are miserable when they aren’t. But how many men are so stupid that they would fall for the Surrendered Wife act?

Moreover, constant obedience may get a wife something other than respect. Christine Gailey, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Riverside, says compliance does not improve marriages. "Indeed, in most cases of long-term and intense wife-battering, extreme compliance by the wife is commonplace," Gailey notes. "That is only one nasty little problem with the author’s thesis."

In fact, are men happier with compliant homebodies than with women who have their own lives? The evidence says "no." Research on two-earner couples shows both partners tend to be satisfied with their marriages. And women who have no income are more likely to divorce than women who do have earnings. In fact, men today are apt to feel happy rather than to feel "unmanly" when they have a wife who has her own life–and her own income.

And for a good reason. Last year saw more layoffs than ever before, despite a good economy. Men are more likely than ever to face periods of unemployment or underemployment. Since the suicide rate shadows the unemployment rate, being out of a job is a real hazard for a man’s emotional health. Having a wife who can help keep the family afloat in tough economic times is a lot more helpful to a man’s marriage than a woman who "stifles herself" like Edith Bunker and pushes his easy chair by the fire.

Why on earth would such a message gain any credence today? Because it’s simple and it peddles one of the oldest fairy tales–Snow White, Cinderella, et al–the rescue fantasy. In her study of right-wing women, critic Andrea Dworkin notes that to many women, especially those with meager skills and poor marketability, the world is a scary place. Male power appears omnipotent, compared to the power of women and children, and so it seems that the only way to dilute that power is to seduce it. Helplessness and compliance may entice a rescue. Unfortunately, it may also invite abuse, abandonment and loss of self esteem.

Don’t Confuse Healthy Assertiveness With Poor Social Skills

Doyle claims she is (or was) a feminist, yet seems to confuse normal, healthy assertiveness and poor social skills. She says, "I looked around at my friends and saw how one allowed her husband to control their finances, and another never criticized his dress sense, and I stopped nagging him (Doyle’s husband), challenging him over money and his career."

Nagging a man over his dress sense, his career or money-making skills is simply insensitive, impolite and dumb. You don’t have to "surrender" to avoid doing that, you just have to have some consideration for your mate. Just as you’d expect him to be considerate of you.

In the world of backlash, however, there seems to be no happy medium. Either you are a scornful harpy who tries to dominate your husband, or you are an adoring doormat who tries to get her husband to believe he is perfect and you are a cretin. Neither tactic works, and most of us know that. Even the Southern Baptist Convention withdrew its dictum that women should be submissive to their husbands.

If women only take away from the book the message that they should try to be nicer and not nag, it may be a harmless read. But for those who take it seriously, who substitute "surrender" for a life and opinions of their own, who mistake the rescue fantasy for fact, there is likely to be a rude awakening.

And not from a prince’s kiss, but from turning yourself into a toad(y).

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.