The Perfect Wife in the 21st century: “La perfecta casada” en el siglo XXI

Now that February is suddenly here, the Spring 2014 semester is officially underway and I am finally organized (well, for the most part!). For me, the most exciting part about this new semester is that I’m teaching a course I designed, based largely on my main areas of expertise and research: representations of marriage and motherhood in 20th century Spanish literature (Refashioning the Self: Hispanic Women’s Literature in the 20th Century). As this course is Transatlantic in nature, I am using it as an opportunity to expand my research and establish more explicit connections between Spanish, Latin American, and Latino narratives and films. Since we’re now in the third week of the semester and my students have been completing their readings, actively participating in class discussions, and coming to class with excellent questions and observations that make me reconsider some of my own previous interpretations, I thought It would be fun to share some of my lesson plans and student reactions on my blog. I hope this will be the first of a series of posts in which I will briefly outline the class readings, include a few brilliant (anonymous) student comments, and provide links to materials I used or created at the end of the post.

The first two weeks of my seminar are dedicated to understanding popular cultural representations and paradigms of womanhood in the Hispanic world. The first readings were selections of Fray Luis de León’s conduct manual, La perfecta casada (The perfect wife). Written in Spain in 1583 for his recently engaged cousin, León penned this “instructional” manual for newly-wed or recently-engaged women based on the Biblical depiction of the perfect wife in Proverbs 31 (Proverbios 31). By starting with this text, my goals were for students to recognize the ways in which this seemingly antiquated rhetoric did in fact contain a positive evaluation, and even a celebration, of women’s domestic roles as wives and mothers – especially in 1583 Spain.  León praised married women for their abilities to balance diverse responsibilities to their husbands, their children, their home, and to God. In this context, he also emphasized a woman’s position as “la compañera del hombre” and criticized men who behaved as “leones” (lions), treating their wives as if they were slaves. For the time period, this was a clear defense of women’s supposedly subordinate roles. Moreover, León’s hyperbolic celebration of the “perfect wife” (and the corresponding condemnation of “la mala”(!)) strengthened the appeal of this domestic model of womanhood for centuries, and his text even enjoyed a resurgence in late 19th- and early 20th-century Spain and Latin America. Below, for example, is an advertisement from 1930s Spain promoting La perfecta casada as an exquisite gift for the 20th century newlywed, or recently engaged young woman (“novia”):

La perfecta casada in the twentieth century

La perfecta casada in the twentieth century

But the prevalence of the manual’s guiding tenets throughout the twentieth-century, and even into the present-day, begins to create problems for women in the context of equal rights, economic freedom, and individual agency in modern societies.  Rather than read the entire, rather verbose text, my class read the prologue and a few select chapters that I took some time to edit (you can view the PDF I created at the end of this post). We concentrated on three main points that León repeatedly emphasized:

(1) a “perfect wife” should remain silent and refrain from discussing business matters,
(2) a “perfect wife”should stay in the home and avoid going out in public, and
(3) a “perfect wife” will not only give birth to, breastfeed, raise, and educate her children (she will never employ a wet-nurse or otherwise “outsource” this labor).

The images and comparisons he uses to illustrate these points are… descriptive, to say the least. He compares a woman out of the home to a fish out of water; Women who speak up about business matters are tigers, lions, or scorpions; A woman who employs a wet-nurse commits an “ugly” sort of adultery against her husband. The section on the use of wet-nurses is especially revealing, particularly for the way in which class divisions and prejudices become apparent (Wet-nurses were often servants, employed by upper-class women; León categorizes them as untrustworthy, conniving, and even drunkards who pose potential threats to the children they help raise). One of my students observed that this chapter on childcare portrays a woman’s body as belonging to everyone else – her husband, her children, and by extension, God. Her body is used to fulfill her “duties,” not as a means of self-realization; there is no indication that these “maternal duties” might be voluntary – she is destined to give birth to children and likewise destined to feed, raise, and educate them. Anything less renders her “imperfect” and even a threat to her family.

After discussing these points, I provided the class with the illustrated “Guide of the Good Wife / Guía de la buena esposa,” a Spanish text produced in 1953 during the Franco dictatorship.  The subtitle reads, “11 reglas para mantener a tu marido feliz,” or “11 rules to keep your husband happy.” What is most fascinating about these illustrations and captions, at least from a modern-day perspective, is the fact that these 11 rules were created by a woman – Pilar Primo de Rivera – for the Sección Femenina.  As the Falange’s women’s organization, the Sección Femenina’s goals revolved around instructing women in Francoist patriotic, religious (Catholic), and social values. Women were to remain subordinate to men, concerning themselves only with marriage, children and housework. While I’m not certain that this particular illustrated text came directly from Rivera (who, it’s worth noting, never married!), it certainly demonstrates the Sección Femenina’s propaganda. While the instructions in the guide are not explicitly based on León’s text, many of the same key elements appear – this time in the form of short commands accompanied by pictures of contented wives happily performing their domestic chores (well, orders):

Guia de la buena esposa, Spain, 20th century

Guia de la buena esposa, Spain, 20th century

One of my students intelligently pointed out that the command forms make the text appear to be a “Woman’s Ten Commandments” (well, eleven!). She was right to note the appeal of this “narrative” structure, as much for communicating orders to the subordinate subject as for affirming the authority of the “higher” power (God/husband). This leads to one of the differences my students noted between the 1583 celebration of the “perfect wife” and the 1953 guide. In the sixteenth century, Fray Luis encouraged women to perform their domestic duties in order to obtain and ensure the love and respect of GOD, their husbands, and their children. There were rewards awaiting women who performed their duties well. In the modern version, however, the goals not only revolve almost exclusively around pleasing the husband, but there is absolutely no implication that the wife will be rewarded or appreciated for her labors. Is this husband lavishing praise on his wife while he reads the paper? When he stays out all night? Are the children adoring their mother while she mends their clothing? It doesn’t appear so…. In fact, this version appears even more oppressive to women than the sixteenth century text – here, they defer to their husbands; ignore their own needs; and acknowledge the triviality of their own lives.

… but I REALLY REALLY want to know more about “La guia de la buena esposa!”

Ok, ok… For my readers who don’t speak Spanish, below is an English summary of the 11 rules from La guia de la buena esposa.  This was quite the exercise, and it reminded me why I didn’t choose a career in translation! It’s also worth noting that the first image in the last row explains, “A good wife always knows her place.”

(1) Have dinner ready – Take time to prepare a delicious dinner for his return. This is a way of letting him know you have been thinking of him and that you worry about his needs. The majority of men are hungry when they return home.
(2) Appear beautiful (make yourself beautiful) – Rest for five minutes before his arrival so that he finds you fresh and gleaming. Re-touch your make-up, put a ribbon in your hair and look your best for him. Remember that he has had a difficult day and has only dealt with men at work.
(3) Be sweet and interesting – His boring day of work might need to improve. You should do everything possible to improve it – one of your obligations is to distract him.
(4) Tidy your home – It should appear impeccable. Make a final round around the main areas of the home just before your husband arrives home. Pick up school books, toys, etc. And dust the tables.
(5) Make him feel he’s in paradise – During the coldest months of the year you should prepare the fire before he arrives. Your husband will feel like he’s arrived in a paradise of rest and order; this will raise your spirits as well. Overall, ensuring his comfort will give you enormous personal satisfaction. [notice the martini glass she’s carrying!]
(6) Prepare the children – Brush their hair, wash their hands, and change their clothes. They are your little treasures and he will want to see them “shining.”
(7) Minimize noise – When he arrives home, turn off the washer, dryer, and vacuum and try to keep the kids quiet. Think about all the noise he has had to deal with during his long day at the office.
(8) Make sure he sees you happy – Give him a great smile and show sincerity in your desire to please him. Your happiness is the best reward for his daily efforts.
(9) Listen to him – You might have a dozen important things to tell him, but when he arrives home it is not the best moment to say them. Let him speak first; remember that his issues are more important than yours.
(10) Put yourself in his shoes – Don’t complain if he arrives late, if he goes out to have fun without you, or even if he doesn’t return home all night. Try to understand his world of obligations. Try to understand his world of stress and responsibilities and his true need to be relaxed at home.
(11) Don’t complain – Don’t overwhelm him with insignificant problems. Whatever your problem, it is a small detail compared to what he must deal with.
(Extra!) Make him feel at ease – Let him get comfortable in a chair or take refuge in the bedroom. Have a hot drink ready for him. Fluff his pillow and offer to take off his shoes.

I think #10 is my “favorite”. Of maybe the “extra-special-bonus” round in which the wife will fluff his pillow….

Sure, you may say, of course we can observe these rather antiquated ideas in the notoriously anti-feminist goals of Francoist Spain, or in the 1930s magazine ads that likely served as a subtle counter-discourse to the rhetoric of First-Wave Feminism that was finally beginning to catch on in Spain. Certainly we have moved beyond such essentialist representations of femininity…..

21st century “Perfecta casada”??

Behold! A present-day, 2013 iteration: “El manual catolico para sumisas” (The Catholic Manual for Submissive Women) – Cásate y sé sumisa (Get Married and Be Submissive). This book was written by an Italian journalist, Costanza Miriano, and published in Spain by a publishing house created by the controversial, ultra-conservative archbishop of Granada, Francisco Javier Martinez. The book is structured in the form of letters that Miriano writes to her friends in which she reflects on her experiences as a wife and mother. She bases much of her advice on Saint Paul: “You must learn to be submissive… submission is a gift” she repeats.  Just as Fray Luis de Leon cited Proverbs as his authority in 1583, so Miriano cites another book of the Bible in 2013. While the text is clearly directed at a very particular, narrow audience – Catholic housewives – I nevertheless find such modern adaptations of Early Modern texts and philosophies to be fascinating

Finally, as I pointed out to my students, attempts to entice women into lives of domesticity are not unique to Spain or Latin America. American women receive similar messages through media consumption on a daily basis. While not directly related to the texts we read, of my favorite ways to demonstrate the similarities of the underlying messages is to find examples that relate to students’ own lives and experiences. For this class, I went to some of my favorite short videos created by comedian and writer Sarah Haskins. Over the past few years, Haskins created a series of satirical videos illustrating the absurd marketing tactics aimed at women: “Target Women. A few that consistently make me laugh (cry?) include “Yogurt,” “Jewelry,” and “Birth Control” – especially Birth Control!  During the last 5 minutes of class, we watched the video that skewers cleaning commercials for portraying housework not as a chore or duty, but as a rewarding, escapist romance for working moms and housewives alike. I selected this particular video given that both La perfecta casada (1583) and La guia de la buena esposa (1953) emphasize that it is a woman’s/wife’s responsibility (not the man’s/husband’s) to clean and care for the home.

While the tone of these videos is clearly humorous, the constructs they highlight should be considered with critical thought. I encourage my students to think of present-day media – television programs, movies, advertisements, opinion pieces, news articles, and of course blog posts – as LITERATURE. They should apply the same skills of textual and critical analysis to these “texts” as they do in class with novels, poems, or short stories. As these videos point out, modern media encourages women to protect their families and take pride in a clean house – not exactly a terrible message, but does it really need to be gendered?!?!? Men are certainly as capable of cleaning a home and protecting their families, yet we rarely, if ever, see such products marketed to men – or even to both men and women. In fact, Sociological Images creates and maintains Pinterest boards dedicated to precisely these topics, and among them is a board on “Gendered Housework and Parenting“. The images posted to this board focus on the ways that “Pop Culture portrays housework and childcare as almost exclusively women’s responsibility.” Just as one of my students commented in our class that “we don’t generally see Guides for perfect husbands,” neither do we see married men performing domestic responsibilities. While this may be changing, non-gendered representations are a long way from normalization – and Target Women addressed this phenomenon in the video “Doofy Husbands.”

Overall, I think my students understood the way in which Spanish women have been historically defined by domesticity and how literature works as a powerful manifestation of cultural values. They also considered the historical and cultural contexts of these manuals in order to better evaluate and examine the implications of such long-lasting gendered ideologies. The roots of the separate spheres dichotomy so often observed in modern literature,for example, are clearly illustrated in La perfecta casada. But unlike 16th-century Spain, modern societies afford women many opportunities in the public sphere (work; wages; education; political involvement), and thus the private sphere can become restrictive. In my opinion, adequately understanding and analyzing the long history of such ideas will go a long way towards building more constructive interpretations and critiques of modern literature – and media!

Have you taught early modern texts in low-level literature courses? How do you connect those themes to students’ own lives and experiences?


About Dr. Rebecca Bender

Spanish professor
This entry was posted in Feminism, History, Literature, Pedagogy, Spain, Women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Perfect Wife in the 21st century: “La perfecta casada” en el siglo XXI

  1. Bonnie says:

    Fantastic piece! I really appreciate you sharing the materials, and your students’ insights. I try to utilize literature whenever possible in my language classes (and more specifically, as you precisely stated, use literature to demonstrate the cultural values that are manifested within), and I look forward to implementing some of this in the future! In addition to agreeing with the insightful observations that you and your students made, I was struck by how alienating/isolating the language in the “Guía de la buena esposa” is. The hypotheses about how your husband’s day “might have been”, or maybe, if you try really, really hard, you might be able to kinda sorta understand his workplace/feelings/what he’s thinking. I certainly get that one’s “world” was very much determined by their gender in mid-century Spain, but reading this I’m reminded more of the conversational style my vet uses when positing what could be causing my pug to itch so much (you know, since he doesn’t talk very often), rather than relationship advice directed to adult, consenting humans. It is very “othering”.

    This comment is getting long already and I don’t want to go off on a tangent, but I’ve started already so here goes. The “guía” isn’t much different than what I heard in evangelical churches about women’s roles, before I became a heathen about 10 years ago. It was couched in only slightly different terms – women, per scripture, are the “helpers” (I’m guessing you wouldn’t have to dig to deep to find the same sentiment behind the writing of the “Guía”) … and by taking care of the home, taking care of your body, etc., you “bless” your husband. At least in the evangelical church there was a vague reward – the husband is to love his wife as “Christ loved the Church”, whatever that means. It certainly never included the dudes hitting the gym, however. I shit you not that I heard a pastor say “If the barn needs paintin’, PAINT IT!” when referring to women’s responsibilities to their husbands.

    At any rate, great post and I’m off to watch a few of those videos!

    • rebeccambs says:

      Absolutely – and I shy away from making that type of comparison in class (esp since some students might come from a conservative background – whether evangelical or catholic.. esp heritage speakers). But by encouraging them to ANALYZE the texts and the language without any kind of emotional/personal investment…. I think it’s revealing when they realize the bible is being used to justify gender roles in both the late-middle-ages and a fascist dictatorship – ha! take from that what you will…. And yes, Leon talks about women as the “helpers” of men; his complement; even a part of his own person. So in that sense, AT THAT TIME, the message was not necessarily detrimental. Carry it over to the 19-20-21st centuries, when the world has modernized significantly and things aren’t the same as 1583… well, then we need to re-evaluate! 🙂

  2. F says:

    This is great – thanks for sharing!

    • rebeccambs says:

      Thanks for commenting; I’m glad you enjoyed it. I had fun writing it… hoping to get my next ‘teaching’ related post up next week 🙂

  3. Pingback: Exploring Female Identities in Carmen de Burgos’ “La rampa” | Rebecca M. Bender, PhD

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  5. Natalie says:

    JUSTAMENTE…taking a class on the “pícara” genre of Spanish literature and we read León. I decided to write an essay on the echo of his writings in the Franco era and find this great post 😉 Do you know of any academic articles linking/comparing León to the 1953 manual/rhetoric?

    • rebeccambs says:

      Hi Natalie,
      Thanks for reading – I actually don’t know of any specific article at this time; that’s actually something I’d like to look into further when I have the time. I’d especially like to track down the origins of the 1953 manual/images. I do a lot of work with early 20th century. Depending on your project, you might also want to look into Maria del Pilar Sinues de Marco’s 1880s conduct manual/narrative, “El angel del hogar”. It’s a great example of women engaging in the same prescriptive language employed by men like Luis centuries ago, but within a unique time period and for different purposes. The contradictions in this text are fascinating… it’s available via Cervantes Virtual:–0/.

  6. Angeline Southern says:

    Pilar Primo de Rivera was actually married. My parents met her in Borneo in the early 60s while my father worked for Shell. She was married to Louis Hawkin (E. L. B. Hawkin) who belonged to Rayner & Co., a firm of solicitors based in Jesselton.

  7. Pingback: “La perfecta casada” de Fray Luis de León | Oro de Indias

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