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CATHY YOUNG

A return to submissive wives?

QUITE A FEW people would probably rail against Laura Schlessinger, the radio pop psychologist known for her diatribes against abortion, working mothers, and gay rights, even if she said that you should be kind to animals and brush your teeth regularly. When "Dr. Laura" writes a book which pins most of the blame for modern marital problems on selfish, overly demanding women, that's bound to ruffle feathers.

Schlessinger's new book, "The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands," is viewed by friend and foe alike as a "back to the good old days" treatise: for some, a rediscovery of the deep truths we've forgotten in the rush to women's liberation; for others, an attempt to roll back decades of women's progress.

Yet some of what Schlessinger says doesn't sound terribly radical. In the age of feminism, she argues, we have paid a lot of attention to women's complaints about men and criticized men for not meeting women's needs -- but we've forgotten that men too have needs and women too have faults. Somehow, we've even developed the notion that a woman who seeks to meet her husband's needs is subservient (but a husband who fails to meet his wife's needs is a pig).

"Most of the women who complain that they are not getting what they want from their husbands should stop and look at how disrespectful and disdainful they are of them," writes Schlessinger (who stresses that she isn't talking about abusers or womanizers but about basically decent, underappreciated husbands).

Schlessinger has a point, and to some extent her message can be read as one of equality: If you want your husband to treat you well, be nice to him, and don't forget that he has feelings too. Some of the callers mentioned in her book could definitely benefit from the advice to respect and appreciate their husbands more. One woman bristles at the suggestion that her husband should have input in decisions about purchases for the family. Another expects her husband to be "understanding" when, between kids, job, and all sorts of other activities, she has no time for sexual or emotional intimacy.

Alas, the sensible stuff here comes with a lot of baggage. Thus, reminders that marriage is a two-way street are intended mostly for wives who forget about their obligations: Schlessinger is emphatic about her belief that the happiness of the marriage depends on the wife, and if the husband is neglecting her it's probably her own fault.

There's also her irksome propensity to present grossly simplistic caricatures of the sexes as eternal verities. She is particularly fond of one male caller's comment, "Men are only interested in two things: If I'm not horny, make me a sandwich." Little deviance from traditional roles is tolerated: women cook and make a happy home, men are out in the workforce "slaying dragons"; a husband's demand that a wife give up her career to spend more time with him is treated as an expression of love.

What's more, Schlessinger's catalog of wifely sins ranges from wanting to take an extended vacation sans husband to failing to take an interest in his hobbies. And while she is certainly right that it's not "subjugation" to love a man or take pride in your marriage, must she approvingly cite a listener who writes, "Remember that without him, you are only a sorry excuse for a person"?

In this respect, Schlessinger's book is somewhat reminiscent of Laura Doyle's "The Surrendered Wife," another self-help book that made a splash a few years ago. Despite its cringe-worthy title, the book made some good points: for instance, that a lot of women confuse being empowered with controlling their husbands. (For instance, they expect their husbands to pitch in at home but get hypercritical if the husband doesn't do everything the way they think is right.)

Yet upon closer inspection, it turned out that Doyle's "surrendered wife" didn't just surrender control over her husband: She also let him take charge of decisions affecting them both, and graciously acquiesced when he tried to run her life.

Why does this retro advice resonate with so many women who can't be written off as doormats? Part of the problem is that feminism, these days, offers very little by way of an alternative. Too often (Schlessinger is right about that), it has promoted anger, rancor, and male-blaming instead of equal partnership. The majority of women do want loving relationships with men. If champions of gender equality have nothing meaningful to say on the subject, advocates of wifely submission will fill the vacuum.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

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