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The Business of Marriage

May 24, 1946

I don’t know how this could have got by me. It must have come to report on a Saturday when I traditionally keep my eyes tightly closed and don’t read anything. I latched onto it only when I saw it discussed in Robert Ruark’s column. Mr. Ruark was kicking it around some and I may not have all the facts straight, but I gather that there is a movement moving in England to put marriage on a business-like basis with salary paid to the wife for doing housework. It may be something a little less direct than that. Something like, the husband being obliged to turn over his income tax exemption to his wife because she is after all, the exemption. But then again . . . it might be more along the lines Mr. Ruark suggests in a shaky voice, because there are well-known women over there shoving from all sides and cutting long faces about distasteful dish washing and how about a straight salary for same. This is not exactly a new thesis. I can remember at least a half dozen times in the last fifteen years or so when the proposition tax came up. Usually about two thirds in jest. But there may be something in it. And who knows. What with a special subcommittee functioning under the United Nations adjusting the weights and balances of woman’ s. status in the world society . . . Something may come of it. It would take a good deal of readjusting though, wouldn’t it? To get used to the idea. I mean to say it would start right off at the marriage ceremony. Do you John, take this woman to your wedded wife to have and to hold, to cherish and guard in sickness and health and pay a living wage with two Sundays off a month, a forty hour week and time and a half for overtime? Do you, Mary promise to stick to the provisions of your union contract . . . participate in no wild cat strikes, to cook with a minimum of ground glass and dust the parlor every Wednesday? There are weaknesses here which I think will afflict in both directions. The housewife may enjoy the independence which comes with the prevailing wage scale for doing the dishes and mending socks. But what about the employer-employee relationship? Does the union contract give the employee the privilege of questioning the boss sharply about his reasons for getting in after midnight?

This thing must be pretty serious in England because Mr. Ruark mentions among the leading lights are people like Lady Williams who is oddly enough a daughter of the late Elinor Glyn. I say oddly enough because it seems strangely incongruous for a daughter of Elinor Glyn to be stumping for salary for wives and special overtime considerations. Did you ever read any of those flaming Elinor Glyn novels? Then you know what I mean. Another protagonist in the movement to whom Mr. R. somewhat irreverently refers to as a tomato is Dr. Edith Summerskill, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Food. Sounds like they mean business, doesn’t it? And yet, reflect on the possibilities. In this day of tight organization there will be no sliding wage scale . . . no hit or miss price list of activities. Are all wives worth the same hourly wage? Can all husbands afford to pay the prevailing scale? Is Olivia DeHavilland to perform wifely duties for the same salary as that rated by Vera Vague? Who is to determine the value of shopping, cooking, dusting, washing, making the bed and any other little thing that may come up? Maybe each individual romance is to take time out to negotiate its own contract. Sounds unromantic, doesn’t it? Young couple sitting on a park bench. Boy presses girl’s hand fervently and whispers of his love. She nods demurely and they kiss. She has agreed to marry up with him. Fine. They get up and walk jauntily into the brass lights of the city and straight to the union headquarters of the housewife’s Local 222. Then follows hours of diligent work over a contract. A government conciliator stands by ready to arbitrate any little differences. Boy says . . . he’s willing to iron his own shirts if that will knock a little off the tariff. Union representative says . . . impossible, quite impossible. Husbands are in the foreman’s guild and without a union card . . . no ironing. That sort of thing. Here I would like to quote a few paragraphs from Mr. Ruark’s column . . . because I think they swing in neatly.

“Pardon my wistful old worldliness, but is there no romance left in this beat up planet? Is the way of a man with a maid to be subjected to fact finding committees, and the question of father’s breakfast eggs to be paraded before an arbitration board? Is motherhood to be held in abeyance while Dr. Summerskill determines the prevailing wage for rigors of childbirth? It seems to me . . .” he says, “that true love is in for a beating if the ardent swain, spreading his handkerchief on the floor, must intersperse a tribute to his lady’s eyes with a statement of his ability to pay the standard rate for bed making and dishwashing with overtime for ashtray emptying.” And then, still quoting, “Until somebody can figure out a way for the husband to have the babies, this marriage business is about as fair as it’s apt to get. Even with its disadvantages it’s something I wouldn’t like to see tied to a cash register or subjected to the whims of a Joan L. Lewis.”

There is much to be said no doubt in favor of a wife drafting down a reasonable salary for her work around the house . . . but with labor as articulate as it is these days . . . there is always the specter of a strike and picketing. History doubles back on itself. Thousands of years ago a play was written called “Lysistrata” . . . maybe you’ve seen it. It’s about a group of women in ancient Greece who go on a strike against their husbands. I forget now what it was they were sore about . . . the fact that the boys were spending too much time at the pool hall or gaming dens or tea houses . . . or maybe with fine patriotic vigor on the battlefield. Any way the women organize and go on strike. And here we are thousands of years later approaching the same end. Unsatisfactory working conditions or failure of the wage scale to keep up with inflated prices might find all the wives flocking to the YWCA’s with a heavy padlock on the door and the spooning parlors ruled out. It could lead to all sorts of complications.

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