The notion of the nagging wife is one of the most common negative stereotypes there is about married women. Her victim, the henpecked husband, tries desperately to escape her clutches, but she keeps harping away. There is no cultural counterpart to the nagging husband. When men want something done, they don’t, so the reasoning goes, resort to the whining, demanding, and needling that the nagging wife supposedly does. They make “requests.”
What’s behind this stereotype and why have women been characterized in this way for so many centuries? One argument is that men and women speak two different languages. As a result what would come out sounding like a reasonable request from a man translates into an annoying and inappropriate nag from a woman.
The idea that men and women inhabit two different conversational worlds received a boost with the now 20-year-old runaway best-seller written by John Gray, “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.” However, according to Maureen McHugh and Jennifer Harbaugh (2010), writing in the Handbook of Gender Research in Psychology, edited by Joan Chrisler and Donald McCreary, this focus on differences is misguided. It exaggerates whatever differences there are between men and women, emphasizing stereotypes rather than the actual way that men and women behave. In reality, they argue, the speech of one man may differ more that of other men than it does from women. Class, race, ethnicity, region, and education can produce more variability within genders than differences between genders alone. The view that men and women speak differently is based on the “androcentric” assumption that men’s speech is normal and desirable. By not fitting men’s speech patterns, women’s language becomes deficient.
McHugh and Harbaugh point out that when actual counts are made of types of language variations, the results don’t conform to stereotypes. Consider the example of using tag questions at the end of sentences such as “Hot out today, isn’t it?” The “isn’t it?” is a tag question, because it adds no meaning. When people speak in this way, others regard them as showing lack of confidence in what they’re saying. We tend to stereotype women as using these qualifications in their speech than do men based on the assumption that the typical woman lacks self-confidence. However, quantitative studies show that both men and women use tag questions in their speech. Men and women both speak in this way depending on the setting, the topic of the conversation, and the roles of the speakers.
With this in mind, let’s get to the question of the nagging wife. Women who ask their husbands once, twice, or more to do what they want receive this pejorative judgment regardless of whether the request is reasonable or not. McHugh and Harbaugh note that “there is little cultural acknowledgement of the nagging husband” (p. 391). It’s not that men don’t make requests of the women who are nearest and dearest to them, it’s that the behavior is labeled differently depending on who is doing the requesting. By using the derogatory term “nag,” a man trivializes the woman’s request and at the same time puts her in her place. In other words, it’s a double-edged power play. It saves him actually having to do anything in response to her request until he’s good and ready, if at all. By resisting her efforts to mold him to her will, the man can look as if he’s in control of when he agrees to the request.
The social stereotype of the nagging woman can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Consider the following scenario: A woman believes she has asked a man to help her with a household chore but because she was afraid of being a nag, she asked only very indirectly. The man can now, perhaps quite rightfully, believe that there was no urgency, so mentally figures he will do it at some later point in time. The woman may mull this over for perhaps a few minutes or hours, and then burst out with a complaint or criticism. Now she feels like she’s become that nagging wife, and her behavior only reinforces the image. As a result, her self-image becomes tarnished and her husband can respond with righteous indignation. In the end, she may very well end up doing the chore herself, feeling both resentful of him and disgusted with herself.
In general, there’s very little academic research on the topic of nagging. I did a brief review of online columns to supplement this one source I found in the literature and found an illuminating piece called “How to stop nagging” in the Women’s Health section of WebMD. Right off the bat, women are told here to recognize that they don’t know how to communicate their needs (the androcentric bias). If they only knew how to communicate their needs, the argument goes, they wouldn’t need to “whine and nag.” Quoting from a popular advice columnist, the article asserts that "Women need to learn how to properly communicate their needs, and it begins with calmly stating what was said or done and how you felt about it."
However, as McHugh and Harbaugh note in their chapter, seeing women as needing to become more assertive and clearer in their communication blames them for the many inequities they face in both at home and in the work place. The fact of the matter is that given our social stereotypes about appropriate behavior for men and women, there are many women who feel uncomfortable about adopting the more aggressive and demanding tones that such advice suggests they use in their speech. Think of the character Brenda Lee from the very popular TV series The Closer. She disguised her strong will behind a sweet, honey-dipped Southern drawl, often disarming the men she worked with and interrogated. In fact, many strong female lead characters adopt super-sexy ways of talking and dressing so that they’re not seen as threatening by the men in their world.
Women may feel they need to disguise their voices, then, in order to get what they want without sounding pushy or dominant. In an October 2013 study, Albright College psychologist Susan Hughes and her collaborators found that men’s voices, with their deeper tone, are perceived as dominant by members of both sexes. These findings imply that if women want positions of leadership, they need to lower their voices if they want to be perceived as more dominant than they are. This becomes a Catch-22 for a woman in her personal life. If you assert yourself too directly, your requests will be ignored because you’re perceived as bossy. However, if you let your voice go up too high you run the risk of not being taken seriously.
Unfortunately, the stereotype of the nagging wife is not going to go away quickly. It’s too well-engrained in the fabric of the popular media, having been handed down after centuries of characterization in literature and myth. However, there are ways that you can help yourself overcome the potentially harmful effects of this stereotype on you, and your relationship:
Perhaps continuing changes in gender roles and sensitivity to gender inequity will eventually make the phrase “nagging wife” extinct. In the meantime, by opening channels of communication it might be possible for you to keep it from becoming a household word.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Hughes, S. M., Mogilski, J. K., & Harrison, M. A. (2013). The perception and parameters of intentional voice manipulation. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. doi: 10.1007/s10919-013-0163-z
McHugh, M. C., & Hambaugh, J. (2010). She said, he said: Gender, language, and power. In J. C. Chrisler & D. R. McCreary (Eds.), Handbook of gender research in psychology, Vol 1: Gender research in general and experimental psychology. (pp. 379-410). New York, NY US: Springer Science + Business Media.