Old and New Wives’ Tales

In 2004, I wrote an article in Newsday, where I covered the book industry at the time, about the rise of female-centered books that came to be known dismissively as chick-lit. “Did the women’s movement ever happen?” I asked.

It didn’t happen for the Brooklyn Hasidic sect portrayed in the 2020 Netflix miniseries “Unorthodox.” The main character, 19-year-old Esty, is trapped in an arranged marriage before escaping to Berlin to pursue her dream of living an independent life and perhaps pursue a career in music. In Williamsburg, her occupation was to be a wife and a mother to as many children as possible. Within her community, women were not even allowed to sing in public. The series is loosely based on Deborah Feldman‘s 2012 autobiography, “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.” I liked the show, which follows Esty’s flowering transformation with great sensitivity. It avoids making her husband a villain, and even views his thuggish cousin Moishe, sent along to bring her back, with understanding. But I can’t say that I identified with her situation, though I guess it could be seen as an extreme version of our society’s restrictive view of the role of the wife.     

In some ways, my sensibility is closest (among the four core examples here) to that of Michelle Obama, without the First Lady part or many of the particulars. A high-powered corporate lawyer when she started her professional life, Michelle Obama was always ambitious. But she adjusted her ambitions after meeting Barack Obama, shifting to jobs with a community orientation rather than a money-making goal. She was always thoughtful about the changes she made. Becoming First Lady, of course, led to the biggest shift of all, and one she made not entirely gladly. Look where it has gotten her, though. She’s no longer a practicing lawyer but she is an influential leader with her own career—and high-earning to boot.

It will be interesting to see if Jill Biden continues her job as an adjunct professor, should her husband win the presidency. She has said she would, and that would make her the first First Lady (what an antiquated designation) to hold a paying job outside her White House duties. Even more interesting: What if we finally get a female president? Would her husband be the First Gentleman? First Husband? Or just the president’s husband?