The Merchant's Wife (1918) by Boris Kustodiev

A wife is a female partner in a marriage. The rights and obligations of the wife regarding her spouse(s) and others, and her status in the community and in law, varies between cultures and has varied over time.


Origin and etymology

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 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 "wife" as simply "woman", unconnected with marriage, is preserved in words like "midwife" and "fishwife".

Related terminology

The term "wife" seems to be a close term to bride, the latter is a female participant in a wedding ceremony, while a wife is a married woman after the wedding, during her marriage. Her partner, if male, was known as the bridegroom during the wedding, and within the marriage is called her husband. Traditionally, the bride or her family may have brought her husband a dowry, or the husband or his family may have needed to pay a bride price to the family of his bride, or both were exchanged between the families; the dowry not only supported the establishment of a household, 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; for the time of the marriage, they were made inalienable by the husband.[3] A former wife whose spouse is deceased is a widow, and may be left with a dower (often a third or a half of his estate[citation needed]) to support her as dowager. A wife may, in some cultures and times, share the title of her husband, without having gained that title by her own right.[citation needed]

Wife refers especially to the institutionalized form in relation to the spouse and offspring, unlike mother, a term that puts a woman into the context of her children. Also compare the similar sounding midwife, a person assisting in childbirth ("Mother midnight" emphasizes to a midwife's power over life and death).[4] 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.

Differences in cultures


Many traditions like the wedding ring and 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 are guided by the Bible in regard to their view on the position of a wife in society as well as her marriage. 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, not share him with other wives (1 Cor 7:2). 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. However, since the New Testament made no pronouncements about wives' property rights, in practice these were influenced more by secular laws than religion. Most influential in the pre-modern West was Roman law, except in the English-speaking world 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.

In pre-modern times, it was unusual to marry for love alone,[5] although it became an ideal in literature by the early modern period.[6] Roman law required brides to be at least 12 years old, a standard adopted by Roman Catholic canon law. In Roman law, first marriages to brides aged 12–25 required both 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.[7] The New Testament allows a widow to marry any Christian she chooses (1 Cor 7:39). In the 12th century, the Roman 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.[8] Parish studies have confirmed that late medieval women did sometimes marry against their parents' approval.[9] The Roman Catholic Church's policy of considering clandestine marriages and marriages made without parental consent to be valid was controversial; in the 16th century both the French monarchy and the Lutheran church sought to end these practices, with limited success.[10]

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,[11] 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,[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] The situation was assessed by the English conservative moralist Sir William Blackstone: "The husband and wife are one, and the husband is the one."[15] 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.[16]

If a woman did not want to marry, another option was entering a convent as a nun.[17] to become a "bride of Christ",[18] a state in which her chastity and economic survival would be protected.[18][19] Both a wife and a nun wore veils, which proclaimed their state of protection by the rights of marriage.[20] 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.[21] 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.[22]

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";[23] for the first time, wives became distinct legal entities, and were allowed their own property and allowed to sue. Until then, wife and husband were a single legal entity, but only the 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".[24]

Today, a woman may wear a wedding ring in order to show her status as a wife.[25]

In a female same-sex marriage, both spouses may refer to themselves as "wife".

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.[26] 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 his/her wife; a husband is also responsible for the wife's child in states where he is automatically assumed to be the biological father.[27] 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.[28] 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. In some Muslim societies, the father may decide whose wife his daughter is going to be, and possibly even force her into the marriage, although this custom is tradition and is absolutely forbidden by Islam.[29] 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][30] The husband must pay a mahr to the bride, which is similar to the dower.[31]

Traditionally, the wife has had a high esteem in Islam 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. 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.[32] Traditionally and most commonly, the only sign of the marriage is the nikah,[33] the written marriage contract.


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.

In Tamil, a wife is known as a Manaivee. Manai means "house", and manaivee "head of a household". The majority of Hindu marriages in rural and traditional North India are arranged marriages, which means parents that have a son will search for parents with a daughter, through relatives, neighbors, or even brokers. 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 resort to marrying just anyone good looking whenever they want to fall in love.

Indian law has recognized marital rape, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse of a woman by her husband as crimes. The Britannica mentions that "Until quite recently, the only property of which a Hindu woman was the absolute owner was her strīdhana, consisting mainly of wedding gifts and gifts from relatives."[34] 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. She takes all cares of her husband and family. In Hinduism, a woman or man can get married, but only have one wife or husband respectively. Commonly, a wife wears vermillion powder on her forehead to show her status as a married woman.


In Tibet polyandry is common, where the wife takes more than one husband.

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.[35]


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.[34] See Women in Japan, Law of Japan

Expectation of fidelity

There is a widely held expectation, which has existed for most of recorded history and in most cultures, that a wife is expected not to have sexual relations with anyone other than her spouse(s). 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. Even if that is not so, it may still have legal consequences, particularly a divorce. Adultery may be a factor to consider in a property settlement, it may affect the status of children, the custody of children, &c; moreover, adultery can result in social ostracism in some parts of the world.

See also


  1. ^ Etymology of "Weib" (broken link to a uni personal account)
  2. ^ Watkins, The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, p. 32.
  3. ^ Britannica 2005, dowry
  4. ^ Merriam-Webster on Midwife, and Britannica, midwife
  5. ^ William C. Horne, Making a heaven of hell: the problem of the companionate ideal in English marriage, poetry, 1650–1800 Athens (Georgia), 1993
  6. ^ Frances Burney, Evelina, Lowndes 1778, and Seeber, English Literary History of the eighteenth century, Weimar 1999
  7. ^ Anti Arjava, Women and Law in Late Antiquity Oxford, 1996, pp. 29–37.
  8. ^ John Noonan, "The Power to Choose" Viator 4 (1973) 419–34.
  9. ^ J. Sheehan, "The formation and stability of marriage in fourteenth century England" Medieval Studies 33 (1971) 228–63.
  10. ^ Beatrice Gottlieb, The family in the Western World from the Black Death to the Industrial Age Oxford, 1993, pp. 55–56.
  11. ^ Antti Arjava, Women and law in late antiquity Oxford, 1996, p. 63
  12. ^ A. Arjava, Women and law in late antiquity Oxford, 1996, 133-154.
  13. ^ Elizabeth M. Craik, Marriage and property, Aberdeen 1984
  14. ^ In the 18th and 19th century, which contained much criticism of these facts, see also Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Boston 1792
  15. ^ William Blackstone, Commentaries upon the Laws of England
  16. ^ Brockhaus 2004, Kranzgeld.
  17. ^ Though cloisters' practices were not bound by modern national borders, see sources for Spain, for Italy, and for Britain
  18. ^ a b (Taking) The White Veil
  19. ^ The welfare of the cloister members was ensured by the Catholic Church and the Pope.
  20. ^ Silvia Evangelisti, Wives, Widows, And Brides Of Christ: Marriage And The Convent In The Historiography Of Early Modern Italy, Cambridge 2000
  21. ^ John Hajnal, "European marriage patterns in perspective" in D.E. Glass and D.E.C. Eversley eds. Population in History London, 1965.
  22. ^ Michael Flynn, The European Demographic System, 1500-1820 Johns Hopkins, 1981, pp. 124–127.
  23. ^ "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, [1]
  24. ^ Stepfamily as individualized marriage
  25. ^ Howard, Vicki. "A 'Real Man's Ring': Gender and the Invention of Tradition." Journal of Social History. Summer 2003 pp. 837–856
  26. ^ Maternity pay and allowance, and work and family guide
  27. ^ Cuckoo's egg in the nest, Spiegel 07, 2007
  28. ^ The restrictions of her abilities to do this vary immensely even within a legal system, see case NY vs. Fishman, 2000
  29. ^ Spiegel 07, 2007
  30. ^ Clothes
  31. ^ Qur'an verse 4;4
  32. ^ Westernized Muslims
  33. ^ Nikah in marriage
  34. ^ a b Britannica, Legal limitations on marriage (from family law)
  35. ^ Britannica 2004, Legal limitations on marriage (from family law)

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Wife — Wife, n.; pl. {Wives}. [OE. wif, AS. wif; akin to OFries. & OS. wif, D. wijf, G. weib, OHG. w[=i]b, Icel. v[=i]f, Dan. viv; and perhaps to Skr. vip excited, agitated, inspired, vip to tremble, L. vibrare to vibrate, E. vibrate. Cf. Tacitus, [… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • wife — W1S1 [waıf] n plural wives [waıvz] [: Old English; Origin: wif woman, wife ] the woman that a man is married to →↑husband, spouse ↑spouse ▪ Have you met my wife? ▪ a refuge for battered wives ▪ …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • wife|ly — «WYF lee», adjective, li|er, li|est. of a wife; like a wife; suitable for a wife. –wife´li|ness, noun …   Useful english dictionary

  • WIFE — can refer to:* WIFE (AM), a radio station at 1580 AM licensed to Connersville, Indiana * WIFE FM, a radio station at 94.3 FM licensed to Rushville, Indiana * WMOJ FM, an FM radio station formerly known as WIFE FM from 1994 2006 …   Wikipedia

  • wife — [ waıf ] (plural wives [ waıvz ] ) noun count *** the woman that a man is married to: I d better phone my wife and tell her I ll be late. wife of: a reception for the wives of the ambassadors …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • wife — (n.) O.E. wif woman, from P.Gmc. *wiban (Cf. O.S., O.Fris. wif, O.N. vif, Dan., Swed. viv, M.Du., Du. wijf, O.H.G. wib, Ger. Weib), of uncertain origin. Du. wijf now means, in slang, girl, babe, having softened somewhat from earlier sense of… …   Etymology dictionary

  • wife — [wīf] n. pl. wives [wīvz] [ME < OE wif, woman, akin to Swed viv, Ger weib < ? IE base * weip , to twist, turn, wrap, in sense “the hidden or veiled person”] 1. a woman: still so used in such compounds as midwife, housewife, etc. 2. a… …   English World dictionary

  • wife — index consort, spouse Burton s Legal Thesaurus. William C. Burton. 2006 …   Law dictionary

  • wife — has the plural form wives …   Modern English usage

  • wife — [n] married woman bride, companion, consort, helpmate, mate, monogamist, other half*, partner, roommate, spouse; concepts 414,415 Ant. husband …   New thesaurus

  • wife — ► NOUN (pl. wives) 1) a married woman considered in relation to her husband. 2) archaic or dialect a woman, especially an old or uneducated one. DERIVATIVES wifely adjective. ORIGIN Old English, «woman» …   English terms dictionary

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