Kustodiev Merchants Wife

The Merchant's Wife (1918) by Boris Kustodiev

A wife is a female partner in a continuing marital relationship. A wife may also be referred to as a spouse, which is a gender-neutral term. The term continues to be applied to a woman who has separated from her partner and ceases to be applied to such a woman only when her marriage has come to an end following a legally recognized divorce or the death of her spouse. On the death of her partner, a wife is referred to as a widow, but not after she is divorced from her partner.

The rights and obligations of the wife in relation to her partner and her status in the community and in law vary between cultures and have varied over time.


Wedding and Engagement Rings 2151px

A white gold wedding ring and a single-diamond, gold-banded engagement ring. In many cultures, wives show their marital status through various symbols.

The word is of Germanic origin, from Proto-Germanic *wībam, "woman". In Middle English it had the form wif, and in Old English wīf, "woman or wife". It is related to Modern German Weib (woman, female),[1] and Danish viv (wife, usually poetic) and may derive ultimately from the Indo-European root ghwībh- "shame; pudenda" (cf. Tocharian B kwīpe and Tocharian A kip, each meaning "female pudenda", with clear sexual overtones)[2] The original meaning of the phrase "wife" as simply "woman", unconnected with marriage or a husband/wife, is preserved in words such as "midwife" and "fishwife".

In many cultures, with marriage it is generally expected that a woman will take her husband's surname, though that is not universal. A married woman may indicate her marital status in a number of ways: in Western culture a married woman would commonly wear a wedding ring but in other cultures other markers of marital status may be used. A married woman is commonly given the honorific title "Mrs", but some married women prefer to be referred to as "Ms", a title which is also used when the marital status of a woman is unknown.

Related terminology[]

Bride at Nikah

A young bride at her Nikah.

A woman on her wedding day is usually described as a bride, even after the wedding ceremony, while being described as a wife is also appropriate after the wedding or after the honeymoon. Historically, if her partner was male he was known as the bridegroom during the wedding, and within the marriage is called her husband. If her partner is female she may also be described as a bride during and after the ceremony and as a wife within the marriage.

"Wife" refers to the institutionalized relation to the other spouse, unlike mother, a term that puts a woman into the context of her children. In some societies, especially historically, a concubine was a woman who was in an ongoing, usually matrimonially oriented relationship with a man who could not be married to her, often because of a difference in social status.

The term wife is most commonly applied to a woman in a union sanctioned by law (including religious law), not to a woman in an informal cohabitation relationship, which may be known as a girlfriend, partner, cohabitant, significant other, concubine, mistress etc. However, a woman in a so-called common law marriage may describe herself as a common law wife, de facto wife, or simply a wife. Those seeking to advance gender neutrality may refer to both marriage partners as "spouses", and many countries and societies are rewording their statute law by replacing "wife" and "husband" with "spouse". A former wife whose spouse is deceased is a widow.

Termination of the status of a wife[]

The status of a wife may be terminated by divorce, annulment, or death of the other spouse. In the case of divorce, terminology such as former-wife or ex-wife is often used. With regard to annulment, such terms are not, strictly speaking, correct, because annulment, unlike divorce, is usually retroactive, meaning that an annulled marriage is considered to be invalid from the beginning almost as if it had never taken place. In the case of the death of the other spouse, the term used is widow. The social status of such women varies by culture, but in some places, they may be subject to potentially harmful practices, such as widow inheritance or levirate marriage; or divorced women may be socially stigmatized.[3] In some cultures, the termination of the status of wife made life itself meaningless, as in the case of those cultures that practiced sati, a funeral ritual within some Asian communities, in which a recently widowed woman committed suicide by fire, typically on the husband's funeral pyre.

Legal rights of the wife[]

The legal rights of a wife have been since the 19th century, and still are, in many jurisdictions subject to debate. This subject was in particular addressed by John Stuart Mill, in The Subjection of Women (1869). Historically, many societies have given sets of rights and obligations to husbands that have been very different from the sets of rights and obligations given to wives. In particular, the control of marital property, inheritance rights, and the right to dictate the activities of children of the marriage, have typically been given to male marital partners. However, this practice was curtailed to a great deal in many countries in the twentieth century, and more modern statutes tend to define the rights and duties of a spouse without reference to gender. Among the last European countries to establish full gender equality in marriage were Switzerland,[4] Greece,[5] Spain,[6] and France[7] in the 1980s. In various marriage laws around the world, however, the husband continues to have authority; for instance the Civil Code of Iran states at Article 1105: "In relations between husband and wife; the position of the head of the family is the exclusive right of the husband".[8]

Exchanges of goods or money[]

Thai Bride Price 2008

A traditional, formal presentation of the bride price at a Thai engagement ceremony.

Traditionally, and still in some parts of the world, the bride or her family bring her husband a dowry, or the husband or his family pay a bride price to the bride's family, or both are exchanged between the families; or the husband pays the wife a dower. The purpose of the dowry varies by culture and has varied historically. In some cultures, it was paid not only to support the establishment of a new family, but also served as a condition that if the husband committed grave offenses upon his wife, the dowry had to be returned to the wife or her family; but during the marriage, the dowry was often made inalienable by the husband.[9] Today, dowries continue to be expected in parts of South Asia such as India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, and conflicts related to their payment sometimes result in violence such as dowry deaths and bride burning.

Changing of name upon marriage[]

In some cultures, particularly in the Anglophone West, wives often change their surnames to that of the husband upon getting married. For some, this is a controversial practice, due to its tie to the historical doctrine of coverture and to the historically subordinated roles of wives; while others argue that today this is merely a harmless tradition that should be accepted as a free choice.[10] Some jurisdictions consider this practice as discriminatory and contrary to women's rights, and have restricted or banned it; for example, since 1983, when Greece adopted a new marriage law which guaranteed gender equality between the spouses,[11] women in Greece are required to keep their birth names for their whole life.[12]


Non marital by countries

Percentage of births to unmarried women, selected countries, 1980 and 2007.[13]

Traditionally, and still in many cultures, the role of a wife was closely tied to that of a mother, by a strong expectation that a wife ought to bear children, while, conversely, an unmarried woman should not have a child out of wedlock. These views have changed in many parts of the world. Children born outside marriage have become more common in many countries.

Although some wives, in particular in Western countries, choose not to have children, such a choice is not accepted in some parts of the world. In northern Ghana, for example, the payment of bride price signifies a woman's requirement to bear children, and women using birth control are at risks of threats and coercion.[14] In addition, some religions are interpreted as requiring children in marriage; for instance Pope Francis said in 2015 that choosing not to have children was "selfish".[15]

Differences in cultures[]


Many traditions like a dower, dowry and bride price have long traditions in antiquity. The exchange of any item or value goes back to the oldest sources, and the wedding ring likewise was always used as a symbol for keeping faith to a person.


Historical status[]

Christian cultures claim to be guided by the New Testament in regard to their view on the position of a wife in society as well as her marriage. For example, the New Testament condemns divorce for both men and women (1 Cor 7:10–11), and assumes monogamy on the part of the husband: the woman is to have her "own" husband, and the husband was to have his "own" wife (1 Cor 7:2). In medieval Christianity, this was understood to mean that a wife should not share a husband with other wives. As a result, divorce was relatively uncommon in the pre-modern West, particularly in the medieval and early modern period, and husbands in the Roman, later medieval and early modern period did not publicly take more than one wife.

In pre-modern times, it was unusual to marry for love alone,[16] although it became an ideal in literature by the early modern period.[17] Roman law required brides to be at least 12 years old, a standard adopted by Catholic canon law. In Roman law, first marriages to brides aged 12–25 required the consent of the bride and her father, but by the late antique period Roman law permitted women over 25 to marry without parental consent.[18] The New Testament allows a widow to marry any Christian she chooses (1 Cor 7:39). In the 12th century, the Catholic Church drastically changed legal standards for marital consent by allowing daughters over 12 and sons over 14 to marry without their parents' approval, even if their marriage was made clandestinely.[19] Parish studies have confirmed that late medieval women did sometimes marry against their parents' approval.[20] The Catholic Church's policy of considering clandestine marriages and marriages made without parental consent to be valid was controversial, and in the 16th century both the French monarchy and the Lutheran church sought to end these practices, with limited success.[21]

The New Testament made no pronouncements about wives' property rights, which in practice were influenced more by secular laws than religion. Most influential in the pre-modern West was the civil law, except in English-speaking countries where English common law emerged in the High Middle Ages. In addition, local customary law influenced wives' property rights; as a result wives' property rights in the pre-modern West varied widely from region to region. Because wives' property rights and daughters' inheritance rights varied widely from region to region due to differing legal systems, the amount of property a wife might own varied greatly. Under Roman law, daughters inherited equally from their parents if no will was produced,[22] under the English common law system, which dates to the later medieval period, daughters and younger sons were usually excluded from landed property if no will was produced. In addition, Roman law recognized wives' property as legally separate from husbands's property,[23] as did some legal systems in parts of Europe and colonial Latin America. In contrast, English common law moved to a system where a wife with a living husband ("feme couvert") could own little property in her own name.[24] Unable to easily support herself, marriage was very important to most women's economic status. This problem has been dealt with extensively in literature, where the most important reason for women's limited power was the denial of equal education and equal property rights for females.[25] The situation was assessed by the English conservative moralist Sir William Blackstone: "The husband and wife are one, and the husband is the one."[26] Married women's property rights in the English-speaking world improved with the Married Women's Property Act 1882 and similar legal changes, which allowed wives with living husbands to own property in their own names. Until late in the 20th century, women could in some regions or times sue a man for wreath money when he took her virginity without taking her as his wife.[27]

If a woman did not want to marry, another option was entering a convent as a nun.[28] to become a "bride of Christ",[29] a state in which her chastity and economic survival would be protected.[29][30] Both a wife and a nun wore veils, which proclaimed their state of protection by the rights of marriage.[31] Much more significant than the option of becoming a nun, was the option of non-religious spinsterhood in the West. As first demonstrated quantitatively by John Hajnal, in the 19th and early 20th centuries the percentage of non-clerical Western women who never married was typically as high as 10–15%, a prevalence of female celibacy never yet documented for any other major traditional civilization.[32] In addition, early modern Western women married at quite high ages (typically mid to late 20s) relative to other major traditional cultures. The high age at first marriage for Western women has been shown by many parish reconstruction studies to be a traditional Western marriage pattern that dates back at least as early as the mid-16th century.[33]

Contemporary status[]

In the 20th century, the role of the wife in Western marriage changed in two major ways; the first was the breakthrough from an "institution to companionate marriage";[34] for the first time, wives became distinct legal entities, and were allowed their own property and allowed to sue. Until then, partners were a single legal entity, but only a husband was allowed to exercise this right. The second change was the drastic alteration of middle and upper-class family life, when in the 1960s these wives began to work outside their home, and with the social acceptance of divorces the single-parent family, and stepfamily or "blended family" as a more "individualized marriage".[35]

Today, a woman may wear a wedding ring in order to show her status as a wife.[36]

In Western countries today, married women usually have an education, a profession and they (or their husbands) can take time off from their work in a legally procured system of ante-natal care, statutory maternity leave, and they may get maternity pay or a maternity allowance.[37] The status of marriage, as opposed to unmarried pregnant women, allows the spouse to be responsible for the child, and to speak on behalf of their wife; a partner is also responsible for the wife's child in states where they are automatically assumed to be the biological legal parent.[38] Vice versa, a wife has more legal authority in some cases when she speaks on behalf of a spouse than she would have if they were not married, e.g. when her spouse is in a coma after an accident, a wife may have the right of advocacy.[39] If they divorce, she also might receive—or pay—alimony (see Law and divorce around the world).


Women in Islam have a range of rights and obligations (see main article Rights and obligations of spouses in Islam). Marriage takes place on the basis of a marriage contract. The arranged marriage is relatively common in traditionalist families, whether in Muslim countries or as first or second generation immigrants elsewhere.

Women in general are supposed to wear specific clothes, as stated by the hadith, like the hijab, which may take different styles depending on the culture of the country, where traditions may seep in.[Quran 24:31][Quran 33:59][40] The husband must pay a mahr to the bride, which is similar to the dower.[41]

Traditionally, the wife in Islam is seen as a protected, chaste person that manages the household and the family. She has the ever important role of raising the children and bringing up the next generation of Muslims. In Islam, it is highly recommended that the wife remains at home although they are fully able to own property or work. The husband is obligated to spend on the wife for all of her needs while she is not obligated to spend even if she is wealthy. The Prophet commanded all Muslim men to treat their wives well. In fact in the hadith he even said "The best of you are those who are best to their wives".

Traditionally, Muslim married women are not distinguished from unmarried women by an outward symbol (such as a wedding ring). However women's wedding rings have recently been adopted in the past thirty years from the Western culture.[42]


In Indo-Aryan languages, a wife is known as Patni, which means a woman who shares everything in this world with her husband and he does the same, including their identity. Decisions are ideally made in mutual consent. A wife usually takes care of anything inside her household, including the family's health, the children's education, a parent's needs.

The majority of Hindu marriages in rural and traditional India are arranged marriages. Once they find a suitable family (family of same caste, culture and financial status), the boy and the girl see and talk to each other to decide the final outcome. In recent times however the western culture has had significant influence and the new generations are more open to the idea of marrying for love.

Indian law has recognized rape, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse of a woman by her husband as crimes. In Hinduism, a wife is known as a Patni or Ardhangini (similar to "the better half") meaning a part of the husband or his family. In Hinduism, a woman or man can get married, but only have one husband or wife respectively.

In India, women may wear vermillion powder on their foreheads, an ornament called Mangalsutra (Hindi मंगलसूत्र ) which is a form of necklace, or rings on their toes (which are not worn by single women) to show their status as married women.

Buddhism and Chinese folk religions[]

China's family laws were changed by the Communist revolution; and in 1950, the People's Republic of China enacted a comprehensive marriage law including provisions giving the spouses equal rights with regard to ownership and management of marital property.[43]


In Japan, before enactment of the Meiji Civil Code of 1898, all of the woman's property such as land or money passed to her husband except for personal clothing and a mirror stand.[44] See Women in Japan, Law of Japan

Expectation of fidelity and violence related to adultery[]


Inca woman and man to be stoned for adultery, by Huamán Poma

There is a widely held expectation, which has existed for most of recorded history and in most cultures, that a wife is not to have sexual relations with anyone other than her legal husband. A breach of this expectation of fidelity is commonly referred to as adultery or extramarital sex. Historically, adultery has been considered to be a serious offense, sometimes a crime, and even a sin. Even if that is not so, it may still have legal consequences, particularly as a ground for a divorce. Adultery may be a factor to consider in a property settlement, it may affect the status of children, the custody of children; moreover, adultery can result in social ostracism in some parts of the world. In addition, affinity rules of the Christian Church, of Judaism and of Islam prohibit an ex-wife or widow from engaging in sexual relations with and from marrying a number of relatives of the former husband.

In parts of the world, adultery may result in violent acts, such as honor killings or stoning. Some jurisdictions, especially those that apply Sharia law, allow for such acts to take place legally.

As of September 2010, stoning is a legal punishment in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, and some states in Nigeria[45] as punishment for zina al-mohsena ("adultery of married persons").[46]

See also[]

Look up wife in
Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
  • Marriage
  • Fiancée
  • Husband
  • Personal property or movable property
  • Wife acceptance factor
  • Wife selling


Wikiquote has a collection of quotations by or about:
  1. ^ Etymology of "Weib" (broken link to a uni personal account)
  2. ^ Watkins, The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, p. 32.
  3. ^ "India's invisible widows, divorcees and single women". BBC News. 
  4. ^ In 1985, a referendum guaranteed women legal equality with men within marriage.[1][2] The new reforms came into force in January 1988.Women's movements of the world: an international directory and reference guide, edited by Sally Shreir, p. 254
  5. ^ In 1983, legislation was passed guaranteeing equality between spouses, abolishing dowry, and ending legal discrimination against illegitimate children [3]Demos, Vasilikie. (2007) “The Intersection of Gender, Class and Nationality and the Agency of Kytherian Greek Women.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. August 11.
  6. ^ In 1981, Spain abolished the requirement that married women must have their husbands’ permission to initiate judicial proceedings [4]
  7. ^ Although married women in France obtained the right to work without their husbands' permission in 1965,[5] and the paternal authority of a man over his family was ended in 1970 (before that parental responsibilities belonged to the father who made all legal decisions concerning the children), it was only in 1985 that a legal reform abolished the stipulation that the husband had the sole power to administer the children's property. [6]
  8. ^
  9. ^ Britannica 2005, dowry
  10. ^ "Why should women change their names on getting married?". BBC News. 
  11. ^
  12. ^ Heather Long. "Should women change their names after marriage? Ask a Greek woman - Heather Long". the Guardian. 
  13. ^ "Changing Patterns of Nonmarital Childbearing in the United States". CDC/National Center for Health Statistics. May 13, 2009. Retrieved September 24, 2011. 
  14. ^
  15. ^ Stephanie Kirchgaessner. "Pope Francis: not having children is selfish". the Guardian. 
  16. ^ William C. Horne, Making a heaven of hell: the problem of the companionate ideal in English marriage, poetry, 1650–1800 Athens (Georgia), 1993
  17. ^ Frances Burney, Evelina, Lowndes 1778, and Seeber, English Literary History of the Eighteenth Century, Weimar 1999
  18. ^ Anti Arjava, Women and Law in Late Antiquity Oxford, 1996, pp. 29–37.
  19. ^ John Noonan, "The Power to Choose" Viator 4 (1973) 419–34.
  20. ^ J. Sheehan, "The formation and stability of marriage in fourteenth century England" Medieval Studies 33 (1971) 228–63.
  21. ^ Beatrice Gottlieb, The family in the Western World from the Black Death to the Industrial Age Oxford, 1993, pp. 55–56.
  22. ^ Antti Arjava, Women and law in late antiquity Oxford, 1996, p. 63
  23. ^ A. Arjava, Women and law in late antiquity Oxford, 1996, 133-154.
  24. ^ Elizabeth M. Craik, Marriage and property, Aberdeen 1984
  25. ^ In the 18th and 19th centuries, which contained much criticism of these facts, see also Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Boston 1792
  26. ^ William Blackstone, Commentaries upon the Laws of England
  27. ^ Brockhaus 2004, Kranzgeld.
  28. ^ Though cloisters' practices were not bound by modern national borders, see sources for Spain, for Italy, and for Britain
  29. ^ a b (Taking) The White Veil
  30. ^ "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Cloister". 
  31. ^ Silvia Evangelisti, Wives, Widows, And Brides Of Christ: Marriage And The Convent In The Historiography Of Early Modern Italy, Cambridge 2000
  32. ^ John Hajnal, "European marriage patterns in perspective" in D.E. Glass and D.E.C. Eversley eds. Population in History London, 1965.
  33. ^ Michael Flynn, The European Demographic System, 1500-1820 Johns Hopkins, 1981, pp. 124–127.
  34. ^ "Companionship marriage" and "companionate marriage" are synonyms (the latter being the older one), although the term usually refers to a relationship based on equality, it might instead refer to a marriage with mutual interest in their children, [7]
  35. ^ Stepfamily as individualized marriage
  36. ^ Howard, Vicki. "A 'Real Man's Ring': Gender and the Invention of Tradition." Journal of Social History. Summer 2003 pp. 837–856
  37. ^ "Pregnant employees' rights". 
  38. ^ Cuckoo's egg in the nest, Spiegel 07, 2007
  39. ^ The restrictions of her abilities to do this vary immensely even within a legal system, see case NY vs. Fishman, 2000
  40. ^ Clothes
  41. ^ Qur'an verse 4;4
  42. ^ "ZAWAJ.COM: Articles and Essays About Marriage in Islam". 
  43. ^ Britannica 2004, Legal limitations on marriage (from family law)
  44. ^ Britannica, Legal limitations on marriage (from family law)
  45. ^ Handley, Paul (11 Sep 2010). "Islamic countries under pressure over stoning". AFP. Retrieved 22 April 2011. 
  46. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions about Stoning". violence is not our culture. Retrieved 14 May 2013. 

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