Well into the 21st century there should be equal respect for whatever choices women make for their lives, but the reality is different.
Last week I met two amazing ladies, albeit separately. Both were widowed a couple of years ago; both shared amazing partnerships with their spouses who were dynamic men with storied careers. So the demise of their husbands were tragedies not only for them but their wide circles of friends and colleagues too. Neither of the ladies were what would be considered “working women” but their roles in their husbands’ careers were crucial.
It was evident that these two ladies were shining examples of true marital partnerships – spouses with equal, though separate, roles – or at least the way they should be. Their contribution to their husbands’ success was undeniable yet immeasurable; and they had been content to be the invisible wind beneath their wings. But today, too many people are either patronising or dismissive of wives who do not have their own professional lives.
What made the marriages of these two ladies special and distinct for me was that their husbands – who were a decade apart in age and belonged to two different subcontinental nations – respected and acknowledged the role their life partners played. Amid the debate about the ‘unpaid work’ countless women do as wives, mothers, cooks and housekeepers, that recognition by husbands and families is paramount, not the quantification of their ‘labour’.
Thanks to popular cinema and literature, the images of ‘non-working’ wives are stereotyped. We picture them either as brassy trophy wives happy to spend their husbands’ millions or meek middle class sati-savitris resigned to their pati-parameshwars’ primacy. But there are plenty of ‘homemaker’ wives like the two ladies I chatted with last week, who have strong personalities, outgoing natures and definite opinions on the world around them.
In other words, many women are not mere foils for the husbands even though they have not taken up separate careers or left their jobs. The cliche “behind every great man there is a woman” has been become discredited now, with many seeing it as a way to keep women in the background. But looking askance at those women who find self-actualisation as spouses rather than professional careers is a disservice to those who choose a different path.
Women with jobs are praised when they take “time out” to have children. But such is the ‘performance pressure’ now that very few women of my age or younger in my circle have the gumption to be “just” spouses. The tables have turned from the time when taking up a job took courage, especially if there was no economic imperative. And it shows in our conversations. “What do you do?” is a common question, but fraught with judgement.
An old friend who had retired from a successful career of her own answered this very query from me a couple of years ago with “Now I am just supporting my husband in his job,” but added a strangely self-conscious laugh. And a younger married lady I met recently responded to the same question with “Nothing at all, really,” in an undertone as if it was not quite acceptable to admit this, given her extensive education and good social standing.
Well into the 21st century there should be equal respect for whatever choices women make for their lives, but the reality is different. The two ladies I spoke to last week made me aware of how truly nuanced that reality is. It is possible to be an irrelevant doormat even while having the financial independence a job affords. It is equally possible, though, to be independent-minded, content and respected without having that supposed economic ‘freedom’.
The learning from two ladies who happily did not ‘work’ in the conventional sense and the two who seemed almost embarrassed about that, shows how conflicted and confusing modern existence can be. The crux is respect from the relevant quarters – and that includes society at large, not only husbands – about the choices that women make now. Not because they are forced to but because that is genuinely what they want to do and be.