October 20, 2011
Elizabeth Abbott, author of A History of Marriage, writes about why men could have mistresses but women could not have misters.
Why Wives Can’t Have Misters
By Elizabeth Abbott
Cheating? Stepping out on one’s spouse? Marriage vows notwithstanding, infidelity is a constant theme in the history of marriage, and has never been restricted to husbands. Wives, too, have always strayed outside the marital bed; some even transformed that marital bed into the setting for extramarital trysts. But even infidelity was riddled with gender discrepancies.
In the past, though a husband might have a mistress, an adulterous wife’s lover could not be the male equivalent — a mister. The reason? In an unequal society, a woman’s relationship with her lover would necessarily reflect her inferior status just as her husband’s reflected his superior one. She could not, therefore, replicate with her lover the non-sexual elements of a man’s relationship with his mistress.
Let’s look at how this was translated into acknowledged infidelities of past eras. An earlier post described two accepted 18th century versions of infidelity among patrician wives: in England, where extramarital sex but not pregnancy was tolerated, and in Italy, where the inventive institution of cavalier servente encouraged emotional intimacy but outlawed sex. In neither country could the philandering wife enjoy the balance of power and legal and social protections that a man could with a mistress. In England, the cheating wife became her lover’s mistress. In Italy, the (theoretically) faithful wife’s devoted companion was known as her amicus or friend. Even in these relatively relaxed arrangements, there was no room for lovers, much less Misters.
Why was this so? Why was the goose denied something that was so good for the gander? The culprit is the double standard that reflected society’s perception of men and women and, on that basis, granted men many rights and privileges inaccessible to women. Until recently, the double standard was at the basis of most of our laws. In other words, the double standard that inspired and facilitated Mistressdom is an impenetrable block to a parallel institution of Misterdom.
This is by no means a bad thing. The double standard, now largely uprooted by egalitarianism, was pernicious. By ensuring that a mistress had no claim on her lover’s estate and by bastardizing children born out of wedlock, the double standard pitted woman against woman and ensured that husbands could cheat with very few consequences.
Nor was the double standard restricted to sex. It extended from politics and law to society and culture. As democracy developed, the double standard engendered laws that deprived women of votes by decreeing that that they had no legal existence outside their husband’s or their father’s. The double standard colored “science,” which taught that women’s intellects are different and inferior. It dictated educational norms, and directed women away from the “difficult” and “manly” studies of mathematics and medicine.
The logic of the double standard also made it necessary to characterize and legally define women as inferior and sexually cold as a means of forcing them to remain in even intolerable marriages. Because of this, even a woman trapped in an arranged marriage with an ailing, absent, aged or alcohol-dazed husband could not find comfort in a mister; her partner in an extramarital affair would be a lover or, if she rewarded him with gifts, scorned as a gigolo, a male who prostituted himself to women.
Yet women risked often drastic consequences in search of the emotional and/or sexual satisfaction that marriage was not intended to supply them. And when they were caught being unfaithful, the double standard was applied in harsh judgement against them.
Yet despite these obstacles, some women — make that many women — were unfaithful, though perhaps not in as great numbers as they are today. A conservative estimate is that at least 4% of children are products of their mother’s infidelity and a corresponding percentage of us are not ancestors’ biological descendants.Moreover, if DNA tests were routinely administered, that statistic might balloon.
This, then, is why wives cannot have Misters; the internal logic of the double standard that designed Mistressdom is rooted in the ideal of empowering men by disempowering women, making it impossible to create Misterdom as a parallel.
Furthermore, today’s egalitarian attitudes and laws have so fundamentally altered the nature of Mistressdom that it no longer resembles its historical model. The Mistress and any children she may bear her lover are no longer excluded as legitimate claimants against his property and his earnings. At the same time his wife may cite his relationship with his mistress as grounds for divorce. The title is the same, but the power structure that once anchored it has been fundamentally altered, leaving Mistressdom a sorry anachronistic misnomer in an egalitarian world.
And so in liberating women from the double standard and uprooting the institutions it fostered and nourished, egalitarianism has struck down the possibility of developing an ungendered new version of Mistressdom, even one designed for women and called Misterdom. That could happen only if women were to forsake equality and subjugate men, and that would be as grave a travesty as their own subjugation once was.