"I Want a Wife"

Legendary Feminist Satire

1970s housewife
1970s housewife. H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

One of the best remembered pieces from the premiere issue of Ms. magazine is “I Want a Wife.” Judy Brady’s (then Judy Syfers) tongue-in-cheek essay explained in one page what all too many men had taken for granted about “housewives.”

edited and with additional content by Jone Johnson Lewis

What Does a Wife Do?

“I Want a Wife” was a humorous piece that also made a serious point: women who played the role of “wife” did many helpful things for husbands and, usually, children without anyone realizing.

Still less did anyone acknowledge that these “wife’s tasks” could have been done by someone who wasn’t a wife, such as a man.

 “I want a wife who will take care of my physical needs. I want a wife who will keep my house clean. A wife who will pick up after my children, a wife who will pick up after me."

The desired wife tasks included:

  • Work to support us so I can go back to school
  • Take care of the children, including feeding them and nurturing them, keeping them clean, taking care of their clothes, taking care of their schooling and social life
  • Keep track of doctor and dentist appointments
  • Keep my house clean and pick up after me
  • See to it that my personal things are where I can find them when I need them
  • Take care of the babysitting arrangements
  • Be sensitive to my sexual needs
  • But do not demand attention when I am not in the mood
  • Do not bother me with complaints about a wife’s duties

The essay fleshed out these duties and listed others.

The point, of course, was that housewives were expected to do all these things, but no one ever expected a man to be capable of these tasks. The underlying question of the essay was “Why?”

Striking Satire

At the time, “I Want a Wife” had the humorous effect of surprising the reader, because a woman was the one asking for a wife.

Decades before gay marriage became a commonly discussed subject, there was only one person who had a wife: a privileged male husband. But, as the essay famously concluded, “who wouldn’t want a wife?”

Origins

Judy Brady was inspired to write her famous piece at a feminist consciousness-raising session. She was complaining about the issue when someone said, “Why don’t you write about it?” She went home and did so, completing the essay within a few hours.

Before it was printed in Ms., “I Want a Wife” was first delivered aloud in San Francisco on Aug 26, 1970. Judy (Syfers) Brady read the piece at a rally celebrating the 50th anniversary of women’s right to vote in the U.S., obtained in 1920. The rally packed a huge crowd into Union Square; hecklers stood near the stage as "I Want a Wife" was read.

Lasting Fame

Since “I Want a Wife” appeared in Ms., the essay has become legendary in feminist circles. In 1990, Ms. reprinted the piece. It is still read and discussed in Women’s Studies classes and mentioned in blogs and news media.  It is often used as an example of satire and humor in the feminist movement.

Judy Brady later became involved in other social justice causes, crediting her time in the feminist movement with being foundational for her later work.

Echoes of the Past: The Supportive Role of Wives

Judy Brady does not mention knowing an essay by Anna Garlin Spencer from much earlier in the 20th century, and may not have known it, but this echo from the so-called first wave of feminism shows that the ideas in "I Want a Wife" were in the minds of other women, too,  

In "The Drama of the Woman Genius" (collected in Woman's Share in Social Culture), Spencer addresses women's chances for achievement the supportive role that wives had played for many famous men, and how many famous women, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, had the responsibility for child care and housekeeping as well as writing or other work.  Spencer writes, “A successful woman preacher was once asked what special obstacles have you met as a woman in the ministry? Not one, she answered, except the lack of a minister's wife.”