The High Price of “Failure”

Give her the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her within the gates. (Proverbs 31:31)

If anyone needs to be convinced of the urgent necessity for re-evaluating our sex roles, let her spend a week at a Jewish family service agency. The following observations stem from the writer’s experience over a 7-year period working as a psychiatric social worker in two such agencies in two medium-sized cities.

Women’s liberation has tended to ignore the particular group of women that form the clientele of such agencies. I have yet to be at a meeting where there is talk about organizing the lower middle class wives of husbands who have not moved fast enough in the intensely upwardly mobile urban Jewish culture. Yet, many of the women from this group have had their lives profoundly stunted by rigid Jewish notions of male and female roles. The Jewish mother has been seen as pure grotesque; it is about time we see her as victim as well as vampire.

First, a word about the husbands who come to Jewish family service agencies. Most of the men whom I have interviewed over the years see themselves as occupational failures. They are working, but not at jobs that give them the necessary status that the Jewish culture demands that they have. They work as taxi drivers, salesmen, small store owners in stores that are not doing very well, harassed high school teachers who must take a night job to make ends meet, mechanics, factory workers, and so on. (The reason social workers see such people is simple. If they were more “successful,” they would have the money to go to a higher status, more expensive kind of mental-health treatment, from analysis, to a week at Esalen.)

These men exhibit a profound sense of failure. They literally sag under the enormous pressures on Jewish males to succeed in this country. Given their culture, they are not mensches, they are schleps and they know it. They have not excelled in some intellectual endeavor, or they are not a success financially. “There goes my son, the doctor,” “that’s no profession for a nice Jewish boy,” are gag lines they have been weaned on, gag lines that give the clear message of the kind of financial and intellectual standards that are expected. The South American machismo is mild compared to the machismo pressure they have received.

This pressure, has, of course, produced some remarkable results. The Jews are the great American success story, and their rise has been phenomenal. 1 was struck by the fact that almost every husband I worked with had a close relative who was described as having made it in some visibly distinguished way. One constantly heard, for example, of “my brother, the surgeon,” or “my nephew who just got into Harvard.”

What this does to a man who has not “made it” in the merciless terms of the Jewish culture is obvious. It does not come as much of a surprise, that a man selling shoes while his brother is a famous doctor should be filled with self-contempt. However, the question rarely asked is, what happens to the women under these circumstances?

The wife is operating under two commandments, considerably more crucial than the first ten she was given. The first is that her “success” identity must come primarily from what her husband does. Second, under no circumstances is she to be allowed to be vocationally more successful than her husband.

It is clear that although wives are applauded for standing behind their husbands, they had better not be seen standing in front of them. Thus a wife needs a successful husband, simply to have room to maneuver in.

If no such person is available, the trap begins to close, and it closes in a very specific way. If the culture tells the wife that the normal way of achieving identity is through what her husband does, then his career, or lack of one, must become an all-consuming concern for the wife. As she exists in a culture where enormous success demands are made, this becomes even more paramount.

However — and this is the terrible catch — the woman cannot achieve this goal for herself. Her culture tells her that she must work through her husband to get her status in the community. Thus, if the husband is “unsuccessful,” the wife must do everything to help him to do better.

And lo, the famous Jewish woman emerges, the shrew, the bitch, the nag, the schemer. Everything is tried by these women, except the one thing that might take some real pressure off, that is, to find one’s own way somewhat apart from the husband. These wives are aware of the kind of angry, nagging people they are turning into. They are frightened, and often filled with self-hate. Anger and disappointment with the husband inevitably follow, for the one avenue sanctioned by society for the wife to walk forward on is being blocked by him. So she nags, suffers and hopes and hopes, more often than not becoming ultimately bitter.

In the last resort, the wife sometimes turns to the only other glory allowed, that is, the reflected glory of the sons. If this turn toward the son and away from the husband is made, the wife’s contempt for the husband is often increased. There are few more painful and debilitating emotions to live with than contempt for one’s husband, and the wife begins to feel like the monster that she is often portrayed as. No caricature of the Jewish mother can match the actual self-mocking, self-hating descriptions that a social worker hears daily at a Jewish family service agency. (The havoc that this wreaks in the son, as he wins the oedipal battle, is a horrifying, but better known story.)

I was struck by many wives’ attempts to make their families intellectual. Since Judaism emphasizes the importance of the mind the book, the “love of reading” in the modern Jewish family is something that is generally felt to give high status. I often heard a wife complain bitterly that her husband never read. She would then follow with an elaborate strategy of how she was trying to make him read more. This involved buying books, joining book clubs, nagging, screaming at him, and so on. The same kinds of strategies were used with the children.

However, when I asked if she liked to read, or was making any effort to read more, more often than not, the answer was no. The crucial fact was that the wife did not feel that my question was relevant. Her activity could not define her family as an intellectual family, only her husband or perhaps her children could do that. Therefore, she felt powerless to define herself and act on her own behalf. Once this sense is taken away, one’s real ability for true growth, change and health is severely crippled.

A look at the greatest play written by a 20th-century American Jew is enlightening in this regard. Willie Loman, in Death of a Salesman, is a recognizable person to any social worker in a Jewish family agency, although Arthur Miller chooses not to label him as Jewish. Willie is absolutely obsessed by his own failure. He is eager for his sons to make the success that he didn’t. He even has the typically successful older brother who haunts him. One has the feeling that Miller conjured Willie out of the guts of his own experience.

Not so with Mrs. Loman. She is all Loving Concern. She is never angry, never ambivalent, never contemptuous, always understanding. She always sides with the husband against the sons. She is maternal strength, the female rock. She sits there, sewing her torn stockings, offering comfort. And as she does so, she is driving Willie closer and closer to suicide. I do not think that Miller meant to make that point. I think he was much more interested in a more general statement about false American standards, than with female and male roles. But Miller was perceptive enough to have Willie tortured by his wife’s life-long suffering.

Linda Loman is portrayed as a totally sympathetic romanticized figure. One has the feeling of a Jewish boy writing his fantasy of what a good gentile wife should be. One could not find two more different wives, for example, than Mrs. Loman, and Mrs. Portnoy. These two women came from the pens of two of our finest Jewish writers, and it comes as no surprise that the bad wife is Jewish, the good wife, gentile.

Miller never suggests that Linda play an alternative role, as he suggests for Willie. The play is rightly entitled Death of a Salesman, not The Life of a Salesman’s Wife. Miller has Linda suggest that if Willie had done something else — grow things in the earth, for example — he might have been a happier man. But Miller never suggests that if Linda had not been such a giving, long-suffering wife, had not lived entirely for and through her husband, she might have been happier and Willie might not have had to commit suicide.

The second commandment our Jewish wife lives by, “Thou shalt not be more successful than thy husband,” is obeyed by many women by doing volunteer work. In a culture in which “you get what you pay for,” the unpaid wife can feel that she is not a real threat to her husband.

However, many of the women I have interviewed feel excluded from this kind of activity because even the volunteer position is dependent on the status of the husband. The facts of Jewish life arc that if one’s husband has little status or power to give, the wife often feels unwanted on the Board, the Sisterhood, etc., and tends to stay home. Her resentment is aimed at her husband who is unable to give her the entree, rather than at the system that tells her that her ticket of admission to the voluntary activity can only come from him.

A possible second route the wife can take is to go and get a paying job. Often wives have little education that prepares them to do anything but boring and low-paid work. Despite or perhaps because of the frequent real financial need of the family, even this kind of job is sometimes seen by the wife as a threat to the husband’s masculinity. The wife’s concerns about hurting her husband’s already much beleaguered sense of self, are invariably mixed with anger and contempt for the man she now regards as her feeble partner.

An even more difficult problem comes when the wife wants to plan a more ambitious career for herself, one that will enable her to develop and grow in a world of outside work. Here, the second commandment, “thou shalt not surpass thy husband in money, prestige, or job satisfaction,” has devastating results. For if one’s husband has a job in which he feels successful, this enables the woman to develop without fear of surpassing him. If, on the other hand, as in these families, the husband has little job satisfaction of either a financial, intellectual or status nature, the woman feels her space for growth painfully limited. I have observed an amazing variety of cop-out strategies that wives use to prevent any really constructive vocational development for themselves. After the cop-out often comes resentment against the husband, physical symptoms, profound depression and a feeling of being dead inside.

All in all, it is not a pretty picture. But sex oppression it is, and it’s about time we begin to look at it.

Mary C. Schwartz is an Associate Professor at the School of Social Work, State University of New York at Buffalo. She has taught Social Work there for six years, and has published numerous articles on the subject of casework issues concerning women. Before teaching, she practiced for seven years at Jewish Family Service agencies in two different cities. She is married and has two children.