Reading “Playboy” with Barbara Ehrenreich

An image of toast with an ornamental border
Let’s give her chronicle of middle-class marriage, Hearts of Men, its due.

by Katie Kadue

Women, old stories tell us, are the root of all work. Eve’s impulsive snack led to Adam’s curse to till the soil; in Greek myth, the creation of woman was a divine punishment for Prometheus’ theft of fire, and men ever since have been burdened with wives who, in the poet Hesiod’s telling, “stay at home … and reap the toil of others.” In the 17th century, the English pamphleteer Joseph Swetnam, the first man to be called a “misogynist,” tweaked Genesis to reflect his understanding of contemporary bourgeois shopping habits. “A woman,” he wrote, “was made to be a helper unto man, and so they are indeed: for she helpeth to spend and consume that which man painfully getteth.” The harried husband and the spendthrift wife have stayed together for centuries as a durable cultural unit, playing a starring role in novels, sitcoms, and reality TV shows. A 1963 Playboy article titled “Love, Death and the Hubby Image” could only dream of a world where wives no longer enjoy a “cushy” lifestyle financed by their husbands’ heroic self-sacrifice and marriage is no longer an institution where man and woman “live half-slave and half-free,” respectively. Without the burden of women, these stories suggest, men might be free from work — or, at least, work itself might feel freer.

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