On July 2nd 2016, the Guardian online newspaper published an anonymous open letter, written by a husband to the “wife who won’t get a job while I work myself to death.” Subtitled “the letter you always wanted to write”, it documented the sense of betrayal felt by a successful lawyer who had come to realise that the woman he once thought of as loyal and kind was “OK with my working myself to death at a high-stress career that I increasingly hate, as long as [she doesn’t] have to return to the workforce.” His wife, he explained, occupied her time with volunteering and leisure while his health deteriorated, he aged rapidly and prematurely, and he felt increasingly “used and alone.” Setting out his position in egalitarian terms, he emphasised his need for real partnership in marriage, and cited the example she was setting to their daughter, who he wanted to be “never as dependent on a man as you are on me.”
The appropriated language of equality barely masked a deep misogyny, a profound anger at the high-octane demands of modern employment misdirected away from workplace culture and the cult of productivity and folded into, in Elaine Showalter’s words, the “fiction that women push the buttons and call the shots.” The wife and her friends were caricatured as self-centred, happy to gripe but not to help: “You all complain about various financial pressures, but never once consider, at least audibly, that you could alleviate the stress on both your budgets and your burnt-out husbands by earning some money yourselves.”
Post-war concerns about the role of women in activating or exacerbating men’s executive stress, here, were re-imagined for a cultural setting in which housewives rather than working mothers were anachronistic, subversive, and dangerous. The anonymous letter bore a striking resemblance to the popular medical writing of a 1960s author and practitioner, Kenneth C. Hutchin, in all but the precise nature of the advice. Each addressed women directly, whether through the device of the disgruntled husband or that of the fatherly doctor. An expert on the illnesses of businessmen, hypertension, and heart disease, Hutchin published a book in 1962 entitled How Not to Kill Your Husband, an expanded version of a 1960 article in Family Doctor, ‘How to keep your husband alive.’
Underneath an illustration of a woman crouched behind her husband’s armchair with a revolver and a bottle of poison, “How to keep your husband alive” explained that, while “the number of women who set out to kill their husbands is surprisingly small, a great many wives could not polish them off better if they tried.” Women, Hutchin argued, rarely realised how delicate their husbands were. Making use of an infant language of risk, he depicted men in their forties and fifties with non-manual, highly responsible jobs as a fragile population, vulnerable to heart attack or stroke. In this instance, wives were not letting their husbands die by omission, but could actively provoke a fatal rupture in the soft, overwrought, morbid bodies fed by high-starch diets and enervated by sedentary labour.
For Hutchin, male health was compromised by two of the central features of post-war companionate marriage; a growing tendency for men to engage in household tasks, and a softened system of patriarchal authority in marital relationships. He illustrated his first concern with two short vignettes, each demonstrating the hidden threat of domestic contribution. In both instances, women pestered their husbands into working when they should be relaxing, with one man becoming “unable to move because of a vice-like pain in his chest” and the other undergoing coronary thrombosis later in the evening. “Dear ladies”, Hutchin concluded, “do stop finding little jobs for your husbands to do.” Work around the home should be “decently accomplished during the day”, whether by tradesmen or by the wife herself, “not waiting there, a reproach and a menace to the tired master of the house.”
Erosion of male leisure went hand in hand with erosion of male authority. Victorian wives who submitted to the “law and wisdom” of their husband’s orders were “probably happier than the modern wife” who distrusted him and disputed his word. Anger and frustration, Hutchin argued, “are dangerous emotions for tired middle-aged men with a poor coronary circulation. The wife who constantly annoys her husband does so at her own risk and his.”
As Margaret Mead observed in 1954, the implication of women’s behaviour in the illnesses of others frequently contained a “subtle form of antifeminism.” Hutchin’s demand for more support and deference in the home and the anonymous husband’s plea for financial contribution and independence indicate a troubling continuity in the identification and criticism of “pathological” female behaviour, a shared willingness to point the finger at women which destabilises the progress implied by the differences between the two critiques.
Feminists from the second half of the twentieth century onwards have made convincing cases for the transformation of identity and experience through work, but these arguments have been at their best when they put women’s needs in centre stage. The importance of feminism as a cultural and political force is sadly overlooked in present debates about preventive medicine, particularly psychiatry; we are far more likely to connect distress and disorder to biological processes than to interrogate the entrenched, systematic, structural ways in which women are driven or drawn into illness. At the same time, we are falling into ways of speaking about men’s distress which demonise and denigrate women, reducing the complexity of their feelings and actions to an imagined impact on male health and male self. There are nuanced and sensitive explorations of, for example, men’s depression, alcoholism, and suicide – look no further than Ali Haggett’s recent research – which demonstrate that these arguments can be had, persuasively and intelligently, without negating the all-too-fragile gains made in public discourses surrounding women. Anonymous husband, I hope you’ll try.
Kenneth C. Hutchin, ‘How to keep your husband alive’, Family Doctor, Vol. 10, No.3 (March, 1960), pp. 154-155
Kenneth C. Hutchin, How Not to Kill Your Husband (London, 1962)
Margaret Mead, ‘Some theoretical considerations on the problem of mother-child separation, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol. XXIV, No. 3, (July 1954), pp. 471-483
Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (New York, 1987)