I wanted to like "The Surrendered Wife," Laura Doyle's best-selling (and, in some quarters, highly controversial) self-help book. In the 285 pages tucked between pastel pink covers--the front one illustrated with the single long-stemmed red rose that is the mass-paperback symbol of chivalric male attention--Doyle promises that wives can obtain "romance, harmony, and the intimacy they crave" from their marriages if they quit nagging and let their husbands run the show.
First of all, I'm a surrendered wife myself, a surrendered wife manqué, you might say, mostly because I'm lazy. For example, Doyle advises: "Let your husband handle the finances." I've been doing that for years, as I can't add or subtract. The last time I even tried to balance my checkbook was in 1989. Let him take the wheel of the car, Doyle admonishes, and "don't correct him by telling him where to turn." Fine by me--I hate to drive, and I'd rather look at the scenery than keep track of a bunch of damn street signs. Doyle says you should say, "I need the help of a big strong man," when you want him to lift something large and heavy that you don't feel like lifting. Got a problem with that, Betty Friedan? I don't. "Make yourself available at least once a week" for marital sex, even if you don't feel like it. What? Only once a week?
Second, you've got to love anything that ticks off so many fellow females of the chattering classes. "The Surrendered Wife" calls to mind Marabel Morgan's 1973 suburban classic, "The Total Woman," which bunched the drawers of an entire generation of libbers by advising wives to put the sizzle back into their marriage by cooking hubby a gourmet meal and serving it naked. Morgan was the anti-Kate Millett. The furor over Doyle's book also calls to mind the outrage when the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution in 1998 that wives should "submit graciously" to their husbands--a pronouncement that again caused feminists around the world to shiver with righteous indignation and former president Jimmy Carter to quit the denomination.
"Haven't we all evolved beyond high-school tricks?" was how one resolutely un-surrendered Manhattan wife vented when New York Times reporter Julie Iovine queried her about her reaction to Doyle's book. "Simple answers," sniffed a frosty Jean Baker Miller, director of training at the Wellesley Center for Women at Wellesley College. In the same article, Iovine described her own relentlessly egalitarian postmodern marriage: "It's so even steven we practically keep score cards. I know that if I go out on the town with my girlfriends, he's clocking the hours for when it's his turn. And if he goes grocery shopping and makes dinner, I'm in for a full week of dish washing. It's only fair."
Maybe so, Julie, but when my husband schleps for a steak and then grills it for me with an ice-cold martini on the side, I'd rather follow Doyle's advice in Chapter Seven of "The Surrendered Wife": "Smile and say, 'Thank you.'" And then sit back and let him wash up the plates and glasses. As Doyle puts it, "You deserve to have sweet, beautiful, luxurious things in your life, and your man deserves the pleasure of giving them to you."
So what's wrong with a book whose basic message is: You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar? And: It never hurts to stroke a man's ego? Isn't it less aggravating than keeping "score cards" listing which spouse owes what by way of household chores? Isn't marriage more pleasant when you're not fighting? Isn't it nice when your guy opens the door for you and slides the Cabernet Sauvignon into your balloon glass? If you can't stand backseat drivers, why would you want to be one? Do you really want to tell your spouse what to wear, the way a lot of wives do, as though he were your five-year-old son? Doyle is on to something profound and true about what women really want from a husband--and it's not an "even steven" marriage.
The problem I had with Doyle's book is that I've been reading Shakespeare too long. Ever since I was a teenager, one of my favorites among his plays has been his now-politically incorrect "The Taming of the Shrew." When I was growing up and fighting with my parents and sassing my teachers, I identified with the heroine, Katharina, the headstrong, tart-tongued "shrew" who doesn't want to be demure and flirty and find herself shackled to that nice dolt in the next palazzo. She even has a passive-aggressive goody-two-shoes of a younger sister, Bianca, whom she can't stand--just like the adolescent me. Katharina needs "taming," all right--she needs to find a man who is her true match, someone good enough for her, someone smart and funny and above all, tough enough to take charge.