Essays

Elizabeth Hardwick and the Feminist Marriage

What happens when care becomes work?

Apoorva Tadepalli

Elizabeth Hardwick at home in Castine, Maine in the 1980s. Susan Wood via Getty Images

Shortly before the novelist Mary McCarthy’s fourth and final marriage, while she was still in the process of divorcing her third husband, her close friend, the philosopher Hannah Arendt, asked her, “Why do you have to marry him? Why can’t you just live with him?” This was not an option. “I was always the marrying type,” McCarthy said years later, recalling the conversation. As the literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick observed after McCarthy’s death, “There were many things Mary didn’t believe in, but she certainly believed in marriage, or rather in being married.” When I met my husband, I began to feel the same way McCarthy did. I didn’t want a long-term committed relationship or to move in together. I wanted those things to happen as a result of being married. Marriage felt like a state of being so enormous and altering that I began to feel that there wasn’t anything I believed in more.

I did not always feel this way. The idea that I would one day be a married woman came to me very quickly, and fairly late in life compared to most women throughout history; I had built a whole identity around detachment from romance and commitment to work. But I lost interest utterly in this freewheeling, independent life soon after I met my now-husband, realizing for the first time that devotion to a partner—deeply caring for him and his needs and wants—could be more interesting than self-protection. Almost as if to make up for lost time, I rushed toward my new married self, the doting wife I was going to be, and zealously embraced her, happily taking on his errands and laundry and fussing over his health.

This does not always impress people, more than a half century after second-wave feminism tried to reimagine traditional marriage as the companionate marriage, casting aside previously fixed roles and duties and embracing instead friendship, attraction, and equal division of labor. As couples struggle with what that “equal division of labor” looks like, marriage and domestic life are still deeply scrutinized by feminists. While women today have more freedom to be and do new things, they have not gained the freedom to never worry about those old tasks. Jia Tolentino’s bestselling Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion concludes with a critique of women who “so readily accept the unequal diminishment of their independence.” Sophie Lewis’s landmark Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family described family as a “bourgeois norm that capitalist society naturalizes and imposes on everybody.” Last year, an essay in The Atlantic recounted the author’s “demolishing” her marriage as a “home-improvement” task she undertook in response to the drudgery and tedium of parenthood and a husband who stood “between me and myself.” In June, a tweet posited that the rise of “submissive tradwife content” was comparable to the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade. A New York Times column about the value of weathering periods of hardship in a marriage was flamed on social media as advice that “degrades women.” The traditional family unit is outdated, our culture tells us—and has been for some time.

That some women might choose as I have—to continue to do what we have historically been forced to do—raises suspicions. To be a caretaker in a marriage today, and enjoy it, is to have everyone gawk at your relationship. When my husband told a friend how much I enjoy cooking for him, she replied, “Some people have internalized a lot of patriarchal values.” A few years ago a colleague used the term “wife guy” to describe another colleague who often brought up his wife’s work in conversation. It was odd to me that there should be a term for something so obvious—why shouldn’t he talk about her?—but I quickly realized that Tolentino had already established the narrative about the wife guy as a husband who “lavishes praise” on his wife “as compensation for erasing her. Wife-veneration tastes a bit like imprisonment.” When I mentioned learning the term to my husband, he said, “Oh, lots of people call me that. They mean it affectionately, but they do think it’s weird.”

I’ve never found it weird. I had always been confident that I could adeptly manage the very real tension between intimacy and independence. Married life loses something profound when gestures of attachment are shamed in the name of independence, and when what needs to get done becomes a set of chores or tasks to be divided up, rather than caretaking that is done out of love. Feminism and caretaking are often described as contradictory. Being too eager to care for someone else means I’m not interested enough in taking care of myself, and in this world, self-love cannot include the active love of other people.

To be a caretaker in a marriage today, and enjoy it, is to have everyone gawk at your relationship.

This sort of feminist critique often leaves me feeling lonely, and it helps me to look to the example of women of earlier generations. Elizabeth Hardwick’s writings on marriage and care offer another way for me to make sense of my own feminism. I believe as much as the next woman in the importance of careers and shared chores, but not at the expense of dismissing the sort of caretaking that I find rewarding. Hardwick addressed this tension between caretaking and women’s liberation in her essays on the “feminine principle,” published together for the first time in May in her Uncollected Essays. Hardwick was a compulsive caretaker to her husband, the poet Robert Lowell, and to their daughter Harriet. Her letters—which Lowell later used and altered without her consent in a book of confessional poetry—are alive with concern for him, long after he abandoned her and Harriet in 1972, and even after he betrayed her privacy a few years later.

The essays in the new collection don’t directly address her marriage, but her writing from the early 1970s about the effects of women’s liberation, the changing power dynamics between husbands and wives, and the ways in which politics can play out in matters of love offer insight into how she must have been thinking about her own relationship. They help explain the tremendous effort she put in her personal life to maintain a crucial balance between self-sufficiency and devotion through her marriage’s—and, interestingly, her divorce’s—most difficult times.


Hardwick’s letters to Lowell
reveal a wife and mother committed to—almost obsessive about—taking care of the people around her, making life convenient for them. She handled all of Lowell’s taxes, nagging him about them year after year; she took complete charge of packing up and renovating their home in Maine. “I want more than my life to do what is best for everyone,” she wrote, even though what was best for everyone was not best for her and involved mostly drudgery. She worried constantly about Lowell’s health, forgetting all anger toward him the moment he mentioned the slightest cold. She pushed through the frustration she often felt about having to take care of him, and in spite of herself, offered him support and comfort that he could not do without.

Even after their separation she could not shake tending to his needs, offering to have ready “something practical in the way of clothes” when he came to New York in the winter. I admire how unflappable she was, weathering the turbulence of her relationship less through any attempt to reach some emotional or intellectual resolution than through hard, consistent work: housework, paperwork, logistical work, boring work. Love, one sees in the story of Hardwick’s marriage, is a question of nurture, care, routine maintenance.

Hardwick’s marriage and circumstances are obviously very different from mine—she was much older during this period than I am now and came of age in the 1930s. She also was a mother and had been married over twenty years, whereas I’ve been married less than two. But the type of constant care that she writes about has always made sense to me. Growing up, my family practiced a relentless, outward love, everyone insisting on being the one to clear the table or do the dishes; sometimes this is sweet and warm but often it’s brusquely practical (“don’t be stupid”). Recently my cousin had to shout at a dinner table crowded with overenthusiastic relatives, “Can everyone stop trying to serve each other food and just eat!” My mother often went above and beyond expectations, striving to foresee what we might want or need before we knew it ourselves. In the world I grew up in, caring for other people, actively trying to make their lives easier, is sometimes treated as the only real way to be a person. A life of isolated self-love has no purpose; true meaning comes from committing to loving others, deeply and well. Of course, there are problems with this approach to love, and selflessness, like anything else, can be taken too far. But there is also enormous comfort in being part of this world, where people are eager to provide and care whether others want it or not.

This was the kind of world I wanted to build around me: solid, dependable, ever-present. Because of my family and how much I have always been allowed to need them, sacrifice (although we probably wouldn’t always call it that) holds a special value for me. After my husband began spending time with my family, soon after we met, he told me that his friends treated the act of doing things for one’s partner—cooking, cleaning, pampering—as at best a chore, “the minimum work required to not be an asshole.” Caretaking was a task, to be done solely in the name of fairness, but beyond that, it meant weakness. “In your family,” he observed once, surprised at the enthusiasm with which we tried to be of use, “doing things for each other means strength, not weakness.”

Love, one sees in the story of Hardwick’s marriage, is a question of nurture, care, routine maintenance.

Hardwick did not always enjoy the work of being Lowell’s caretaker, but she did choose it, repeatedly, even when she found it hateful. She told him that she disliked feeling like “the custodian of everything,” of how running after him to do his taxes made her feel “like a truant officer, which indeed I am not.” She complained of his thanklessness and of being taken for granted. But she just couldn’t help herself. “I do not know what caused me to take action when you carelessly wrote, ‘What have we done about the papers.’ I noted ‘we’ but somehow was seized (‘I’ as always) with the desire to do what you wanted,” she wrote him in a rare angry letter.

This tendency of hers, to pounce on the slightest offhand mention of a need, something lacking in her love’s life, reminds me of my mother, who worked an extremely demanding job for thirty years and managed a strenuous schedule but who still could not bear to be a less-than-perfect caretaker. Like her, Hardwick found it impossible to resist this care work, even when it was exhausting. She felt she both had to and wanted to.

Hardwick was wary of second-wave feminism’s unintentional reduction of domestic work. The women’s liberation movement, she worried, would allow us to dismiss “the splendors and miseries of the daily, the domestic”—but “there is a sovereignty in housekeeping, and housework itself is a matter of honor.” In a review of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Hardwick criticized Beauvoir’s accusation that “those who insist they find fulfillment in the inferior role are guilty of ‘bad faith,’” which is similar to the accusation that I can only want to cook for my husband because I haven’t yet learned how to refuse. But the impulse to turn one’s back on both love and labor—in particular, care work—has something of the “internalized patriarchy” about it too; as Hardwick reminds us, everything is labor, and labor is a “matter of course.”

This doesn’t mean everything must be labor as it’s defined by capitalism. Feminism, influenced as it is by a capitalist understanding of the world, may encourage us to view domestic work and caretaking as labor that should be redistributed like any other labor, but I find this reading of care a little bloodless. In the wake of liberation, the imperative to define our lives in terms of the labor we ought to reduce made Hardwick cautious, and she warned her readers that “miracles have a way of leading to some new and unexpected liabilities.” The freedom to refuse the care work that had for so long been expected of women calls motives into question anew.


“The loosening of contracts
is painful to many. The rules are not known,” Hardwick wrote in 1972, in an essay called “Is the ‘Equal’ Woman More Vulnerable?” The contract she referred to was the conventional dynamic in which women were caretakers. Liberation had called into question the assumption of “who will do the dishes,” but it didn’t sufficiently address the question of why. As Hardwick points out, “housework, child rearing, cleaning, keeping, nourishing, looking after—these must be done by someone.” Feminism may have shaken up traditional assumptions of who would perform these tasks, but it also devalued the importance of doing them at all: housework became reduced to mere work, rather than something that may be done out of love or generosity or concern for a partner’s comfort and happiness.

Since social norms no longer dictate that I be solely or even partially responsible for housework, this sort of care work is expected to be voluntary, and I’ve found myself grappling with exactly the kind of “unexpected liabilities” Hardwick predicted: the risk of doing such work for credit or recognition, driven less by pure altruism than by a chance for praise or moral superiority. Not long ago, I spent eight days cooking three fresh meals a day for my husband while he huddled in his room with Covid; he couldn’t finish everything I had enthusiastically made before it spoiled, and in a fit of rage over the unacknowledged and wasted effort I threw away every single item in the fridge, Tupperware and all, even though no one had asked or needed me to put in that effort. When he bought me expensive saris as a thank-you and apology at the end of the week, I was offended by the effort to one-up my devotion and I didn’t speak to him for another eight days. Another time we got into such a tangle trying to clear each other’s plates from the table that one fell and shattered.

He and I often find ourselves in this dance of sacrifice, where the need to have my own way is at constant war with the need to be noticed for not getting my way. If I were a more fully emancipated woman, perhaps “my way” would have been to simply let him get takeout and not slave over his meals for a week. If I were more like Hardwick, I wouldn’t care about not getting noticed for the work. My petulance comes from the completely helpless feeling I have when I wrestle with these moments of contradiction. I so value the qualities of keeping house and caring for other people, and few things make me feel more capable, but these qualities are often incompatible with recognition or reward.

Hardwick was wary of second-wave feminism’s unintentional reduction of domestic work.

Hardwick understood that even if society no longer expected women to be tender, helpful, or sacrificial, that did not necessarily mean that we no longer felt compelled, in our hearts, to be so, or that we could simply forget the pleasures of being so. Being a good caretaker would put me in the legacy of the women who raised me (and most women throughout history), who believed in the honor of reliability and competence and altruism. To reject care work and define our value differently is to be, statistically, more alone. Either way, I feel unworthy of a life partner solely on the basis of my individual character or my intellectual accomplishments.

My husband cannot comprehend this; what he loves most about me are my mind and personality. Those are more attractive to him than my wifely reliability, which he doesn’t think very much of, and this bothers me more than I like to admit. Robert Lowell may have left his wife, but he also needed her, in the most fundamental sense of the word. Maybe, I think wildly, when my husband and I have a tug-of-war over dirty dishes that he insists I don’t have to wash—maybe he doesn’t need me at all.

Hardwick has been useful company when I find myself in such moods. Marriage calls upon us to serve beyond ourselves: to view our time as dedicated to another in ways that can’t be mapped out equally. “Getting my way” can feel genuinely upsetting when I am constantly thinking about someone else’s comfort and happiness. When that person is constantly thinking about mine, it becomes even more impossible. I think this is what John Updike meant when he (lovingly) called the marriage between his recurring characters Richard and Joan Maple a “degrading intimacy”: this unwillingness or inability to clearly separate what I want, what is good for me, from what I want for the sake of someone else.

Hardwick has helped me understand that perhaps I don’t have to feel insecure about that tension, that enjoying something and needing to do it can coexist. I try to be less defensive now about what I do to be helpful or considerate, and I remember that I may be doing it for someone else, and that may be unfair, but I’m also doing it for myself.

Hardwick’s method of care was a practical devotion, a contradiction she embodied: simultaneously passion and pragmatism, joy and obligation. A pleasurable caretaking activity may have looked like the picture of subjugation to an outsider, or felt unjust in a moment of weakness, but she did not allow these to spoil her fun. One of Hardwick’s most remarkable qualities was her ability to be charmed by the world, even when the care work in her life was dull or unrewarding. She dreamed of “cracking chestnuts and washing dishes” with McCarthy at Thanksgiving. She admired her “beautiful and consoling” house, with its “tides at the window, the moon on the bedspread.” Such was the joy I felt recently, in the middle of a big move and a mostly-packed-up apartment, at the discovery of a small amount of basil on its last legs and some stewed tomatoes tucked into the freezer on an industrious day some weeks earlier: in lieu of a takeout dinner, a spontaneous makeshift caprese salad, the un-temporary feeling of home amidst chaotic transition.

These are joys connected with a life of serving others, perhaps, but they are still very private joys. For Hardwick they were private joys not easily ruined, whether by the “ingratitude of children” or her “unacknowledged generosities” or the outrage of modern feminism. To experience such joy required work and focus just like anything else, a “willingness to study difficult material” and a “devotion to things as they are”—but it was her commitment to the world: the world she was serving, and her inner world as well.

Apoorva Tadepalli is a freelance writer. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The Point, n+1, Bookforum, The Atlantic, and elsewhere.
Originally published:
July 18, 2022

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