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‘Why I Want a Wife’: The overwhelmed working mom who pined for a wife 50 years ago

Judy Brady Syfers in 1971. (Photo courtesy of Maia Syfers) (Courtesy Maia Syfers)

A half-century ago, thousands of women’s liberation movement supporters packed into San Francisco’s Union Square. They joined about 100,000 more in cities across the country on Aug. 26, 1970, celebrating the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage in a protest called the Women’s Strike for Equality. It was in that public space, during the first major demonstration of the modern women’s movement, that the world first heard activist Judy Brady Syfers publicly long for a wife.

“I want a wife who takes care of the children when they are sick, a wife who arranges to be around when the children need special care,” the housewife from San Francisco read into the microphone, her hands shaking during her first time ever speaking in front of a crowd.

“I want a wife who will take care of my physical needs. I want a wife who will keep my house clean. A wife who will pick up after me,” she stated, appealing to all housewives around the country whose husbands took them for granted.

“I want a wife who takes care of the children when they are sick, a wife who arranges to be around when the children need special care, because, of course, I cannot miss classes at school,” said Brady Syfers, who was married to a professor at nearby San Francisco State.

“I was terrified,” Brady Syfers recalled in a 2007 NPR radio interview. “There were lots of hecklers — up near the stage I can remember hearing them as I read, which only egged me on.”

When she finished her list of sometimes sarcastic, sometimes funny, but very realistic demands, the crowd of women roared as they recognized themselves in her words. The short satire was mentioned in television, radio and newspaper reports about the demonstration across the country, she said in a 2005 taped interview with her daughter, Maia Syfers.

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After that exhilarating moment, the essay went on to define the women’s movement of the 1970s. It resurfaces often as a feminist classic — a treatise about an imbalance between the sexes that still resonates today as the country marks the 100th anniversary of suffrage.

Earlier this year, as parents struggled to home-school their children during the pandemic, the New York Times commissioned a poll by Morning Consult on the division of labor between couples. Nearly half of fathers with children younger than 12 said they were devoting more time to educating their kids than their spouses, but just 3 percent of women agreed with that assessment.

Fifty years ago, “Why I Want a Wife” started simply as a housewife’s complaints about the lack of recognition for women’s work.

In 1968, Brady Syfers was a faculty wife with two small children. The end of that year her husband got involved with a strike at his university, San Francisco State, that called for creating a Black and ethnic studies department at the majority White school.

Brady Syfers opened up her house as a fundraising headquarters for the strike. Week after week, she organized, fed and worked with the student and faculty strikers, from 7 in the morning until late into the night. For the first time in her life, Brady Syfers was politically active, and she loved it.

“It was exhilarating to be involved in something outside the four walls of my home,” she said in the NPR interview.

When the strike ended five months later — the longest student-led strike in U.S. higher education history — the Black Student Union had a meeting celebrating its win and to thank participants who worked on the strike. Her husband, James Syfers, was given a note of special thanks for raising money. But Brady Syfers was never mentioned.

Feeling angry and unappreciated, “I decided it was time for me to look for the women’s movement,” she said in the 2005 interview.

She found a nearby women’s consciousness-raising group at San Francisco’s Glide Memorial Church, where she met Pam Allen, now known as Chude Allen.

“When I first met Judy, she described herself as a disenfranchised and fired housewife,” Allen said in a phone interview. “She was angry.”

The more Brady Syfers began examining her role in society, the angrier she became. It wasn’t just being overlooked during the student strike. She had faced sexism her whole life.

During college at the University of Iowa, she studied painting and was quite talented, according to Maia Syfers. That’s where she met James Syfers, her future husband. After earning a BFA, she wanted to pursue a master’s degree. To do so, she had to go before a committee who would recommend her to further her studies. At the meeting, the all-male committee told her that she had the talent but that there wasn’t much purpose in going for a master’s — because no university would hire a woman.

She was devastated, her daughter said.

In consciousness-raising meetings at Glide, Brady Syfers began to describe what Betty Friedan’s pioneering book, “The Feminine Mystique,” called “the problem that has no name.”

“I was an isolated housewife who had never worked outside the house, and I was badly depressed, miserable and confused about it,” Brady Syfers said in 2007. “I had no idea why I was so depressed.”

Except for “The Feminine Mystique,” Brady Syfers said there was no language in the late 1960s to talk about female unhappiness.

“If you wanted to know anything about women, you went to the Ladies’ Home Journal. That’s all there was,” she said in 2007.

She explained that nothing was written for, by and about women’s collective experience — their history, their psychology, their daily lives. In 1969, the three-year-old National Organization for Women was still considered a small group, Brady Syfers said in 2005.

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The women’s movement of the early 1970s “was an outgrowth of the civil rights movement,” she said. “But it was very much kind of sub rosa. And of course, it was treated scathingly by men and the media.”

Consciousness-raising groups were mocked by men, but Brady Syfers said the sessions were defiant political acts.

Women around the country were pooling personal experiences to create a social, historical analysis of women’s condition. It was a revolution in thinking, she said. Soon a whole women’s press movement publishing feminist pamphlets and underground newspapers exploded around the country, led by the radical Redstockings group in New York.

It was at a consciousness-raising group that Brady Syfers began listing her grievances about the strains of being a housewife. As she talked, the list grew longer and longer until finally someone in the group challenged her to write it down.

So she went home and started writing. Two hours later, she had finished “Why I Want a Wife.” She presented it at the next group meeting, and members applauded. Brady Syfers was thrilled with the response.

“Why I Want a Wife” was first published in a Bay-area feminist underground newspaper called “Tooth and Nail,” according to Allen. The essay began being reprinted in other feminist underground presses across the country during 1970 and 1971.

Meanwhile, in New York activist Gloria Steinem and a group of feminists including Letty Cotton Pogrebin began collecting stories to include in a national magazine to unite and give voice to women’s liberation followers across the nation. In December 1971, the inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine appeared as an insert in New York magazine. That issue included “Why I Want a Wife.”

“We reprinted it so more readers could have the laughter and wisdom that comes from reversing unequal roles,” Steinem wrote in an email.

“I wish it weren’t still relevant but even though many marriages have become more equal, Judy’s words live on,” Steinem said.

“It had a seismic impact,” Pogrebin said in a phone interview. “It didn’t exaggerate what sex roles were all about. Women were expected to do it all.”

Pogrebin pointed out that the theme of “Why I Want a Wife,” which was changed to “I Want a Wife” in Ms., matched the cover of the inaugural issue, which showed a multi-handed Hindu goddess as a housewife juggling more tasks than were humanly possible.

After its publication in Ms., “Why I Want a Wife” became known around the world. “My mother always kind of joked a little bit about ‘Why I Want a Wife,’ because it became so popular,” Syfers said. “It’s paid royalties every year since it was published in Ms. and hundreds of books.”

Brady Syfers ended up getting a divorce years later and reverted to her original name, Judy Brady. She remained an activist in San Francisco the rest of her life, fighting for the rights of women, the disabled and breast cancer survivors. In May 2017, she died at age 80 and a memorial service at the Women’s Building in San Francisco celebrated her life of activism, Maia Syfers said.

“She was proud of ‘Why I Want a Wife,” but I think she was surprised at how iconic it became. She said it came right from her gut.”

Read more Retropolis:

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