Writer or Wifey?

A recent piece in the Atlantic argues that women writers’ lack of all-supporting, all-sacrificing spouses—in the vein of Vera Nabokov—may be a missing link to help explain the lack of gender parity in the literary world today. Vera was the kind of wife who not only took care of all of the details of her family’s life (including doing all the driving—Vladimir never learned to drive) but also acted as an editor and almost a co-collaborator for her husband. I recently read Stacy Schiff’s biography of Vera and kept thinking about how really smart women in the past had to funnel their ambitions into their husbands—and also how nice it would be (but also kind of creepy), how much more one could accomplish, with such a spouse.

Vera and Vladimir

I wrote a while back about how Every Writer Needs a Wife (or a Mom). I was talking about getting some help and making it easier to do my work. I can’t imagine having a self-sacrificing Vera. And I wouldn’t want one. But it is important to remember that many great male writers in the past had one.

Then again, some didn’t. Henry James comes to mind. He specifically chose not to marry. He didn’t want the responsibility of providing for and caring for a wife. He essentially married his art. (His closeted homosexuality certainly also played a role, although many gay men married for the cover and for the convenience of having a “wife”—someone who did just about everything for you.)

But it was more common for women writers to decide not to marry in order to simplify their lives enough to be able to write. (I wrote about this at length in my book Writing for Immortality.) For to marry meant being essentially a Vera. Although Vladimir seems to have been particularly dependent on his wife, what Vera did wasn’t all that unusual. Wives simply were supposed to do everything at home and support their husband’s careers. They were supposed to see their husband’s achievements as their own. In the case of a writer’s wife, their responsibilities could entail breadwinning as well. Vera often worked to supplement their income. She was a rather modern woman in that way.

With all of those expectations, it is no wonder that many women writers not only did not have their own Veras—they chose not to marry at all. A husband and children were the death knell of any ambitions. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s novel The Story of Avis (1877) documented this sad fact most brilliantly.

In the novel, a woman, Avis, has committed herself to becoming a great artist but gets sidelined by a man who falls in love with her and promises to help her fulfill her dreams if she will only marry him. The rest of the novel documents her sad decline as two children are born and the household cares take over her life. One of the most pathetic scenes occurs when Avis is trying to return to her dust-covered studio and has locked the door, but sad little cries from the other side distract her until she opens the door and lets her children in. When The Story of Avis was published, the reviews were scathing, attacking it for arguing, in the words of the Atlantic critic, that “marriage is not a woman’s best and highest destiny”—that she might be made for something else, something better than washing the clothes and darning the shirts. (The review was written by a woman.)

As women’s ambitions grew, the number of women writers who married declined. Constance Fenimore Woolson, as well as Phelps, Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Sarah Orne Jewett, and a host of other women from the 19th century chose not to marry or postponed marriage, in part because of their literary ambitions. (A case could be made for Emily Dickinson as well. Jewett had a “Boston Marriage” with a woman.) They knew they could not serve two masters. And for some of them it seemed rather unfair that they had to choose between love and work. Alcott didn’t mind so much. But Woolson did. She always wondered if she would have been happier married. A writing career seemed to be a consolation prize for spinsters. It seemed to her that “only the unhappy women took to writing.” Marriage or family for women was—and I would argue still is—assumed to be the thing that would make them happiest. All else paled in comparison. Today children may have replaced “a man” as the key to fulfillment for women, but the pressure to have a family remains as strong as ever—and that has historically meant more responsibility than can easily mesh with a writing career, or any career for that matter.

Many of the responses to the recent Atlantic article were very much in the vein of “I’m sure it’s the same for men and women”—that gender isn’t really the issue any more, that any writer could use a Vera, in the form of spouse but more likely in the form of a hired assistant. But historically gender has played a very large role. And to think that suddenly, in 2014, all of that history no longer matters is dangerous. The historical obstacles to women’s success won’t go away overnight.

The fact that women submit and query much less frequently than men—as reported by many of the defensive editors whose magazines aren’t publishing women’s writings more than 25% of the time—has everything to do with this history. It’s not just about biology or hormones—“oh women are more likely to accept the first rejection and won’t try again, whereas men keep coming back until they get published.” Studies have shown that women are still doing the overwhelming majority of the housework and childrearing. That more than anything can make a person give up trying. Many women are probably just too tired and distracted to take courage and try, try again.

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