A brief history of nagging

26 08 2008

The nagging wife is the universal villain of married life. From the earliest pages of human history there is perhaps no literature and folk tradition where the character of the nagging wife is not found widely. Along with the sacrificing mother, forsaken lover, tragic hero and evil lord, the nagging wife will be found in all societies and cultures at all times in history. Even in today’s world, irrespective of the differences of race, wealth, religion, culture, language and social reform, the character of the nagging wife is universal. She keeps popping up in jokes, films, songs, novels and other cultural cultural creations.

Socrates, the famous Greek philosopher, is supposed to have had a nagging wife who drove him to spend his time in the city squares and gymnasia, much to the benefit of philosophy. The figure of the nagging wife finds mention in the Bible, (indirectly) in the Quran and is a crucial moment in the story of the Ramayana. She is to be found in renassaince Italy, in medieval England, on the expanding border of America’s “wild west”, in the bedrooms of colonial India and in the sit-coms of post-modern Europe.

What is interesting about this figure of the nagging wife is that it is one of those few characters who transcend history. Like the sacrificing mother, the unrequited lover or the tragic hero, the nagging wife can be found in ancient, slave owning agricultural societies, in prosperous trading medieval ones and in post-industrial wastelands of contemporary West. What is it about the nagging wife which makes this character so universal and transcendental?

Before we explore this question, it would be necessary to make one caveat. Literary and cultural archetypes are almost always caricatures and stereotypes of the real people who live within those societies. Despite this they are based on a certain reality of experience. In the case of the character of the nagging wife, there is enough reason to accept that it is grossly stereotyped and caricatured since all societies we live in are inherently patriarchal and female figures, specially those in relations of contestation with men, would not be represented without malafide distortions. Yet, despite all the caricatures and mis-representations, it would also be difficult to argue that nagging wives do not have a reference in reality. This is not to say that wives always nag or that nagging is a central aspect of their relation. But the fact that nagging, and specifically the nagging wife, has survived much of recorded history attests to the reality of its experience.

The most common explanation of nagging rests on psychology and its related idea of “human nature”. People accept nagging, specially from wives, as an unavoidable feature of the married condition. This brings us to the first real basis for the origin and continued existence of nagging.

Nagging, as a form of inter-personal interaction, is confined within the walls of the institution of marriage. Throughout history, marriage has been largely structured around female monogamy. This means that women have only one husband. Men have, depending on the historical, cultural and economic context, one or more wives. But women, irrespective of historical context, have only ever been allowed one husband. There have been family forms which have group marriage and polyandry, but these are to be found, almost without exception, outside the boundaries of civilised society. So the first condition for existence of the nagging wife is the marriage with strict monogamy for the wife.

Families which have grown out of such monogamous marriages have also, invariably, been patriarchal families. This means that power inside the family rests with the paterfamilias – husband, father, head. The husband owns, not only, the economic assets of the family but also the name and lineage. The wife has historically been powerless in this relation. She has had only two crutches to hold on to. One is her indispensability as the progenitor of the lineage. She has the womb which births the sons who will inherit the name and property of the family. It is this attribute of the wife which gives her some leverage within the family. Her son is her defender inside the family. The second crutch for a wife inside a partriarchal family is the relations of love and attachment that may get built up. As would be evident, the first of these two crutches is of greater resilience while love and attachment are notoriously effervescent.

This condition of the wife has remained largely constant over history. Whichever the country or region, whichever time in history, the family has been based on a patriarchal, monogamous (for the wife) marriage where the wife is totally dependent on the head of the family who is her husband.

Nagging wife, gets beaten by husband and finally driven off by the devil

Nagging wife, gets beaten by husband and finally driven off by the devil

It is this utter powerlessness of the wife which is the source of nagging. The dictionary defines the word “nag” as “To annoy by constant scolding, complaining, or urging.” Bereft of economic, physical or political power, women only had words to defend themselves. They have had to walk the thin line between nagging enough to get their point across and nagging which got them thrown out of the house or beaten or worse, killed. Nagging was the only weapon the wife had, whose constant grating could cut some of the bonds of oppression under which she lived. By its very nature of being constant and repetitive, nagging also becomes unbearable for the person it is directed towards – the husband. If the woman has been a prisoner of the patriarchal cage, her constant scratching at its prison bars with her nagging words, has been her husband’s scourge. Marx’s famous saying about nations, ““any nation that oppresses another, forges its own chains”, can easily be transposed in this context to argue that any human who oppresses another forges his own chains (of nagging).

It is not only the wife who deploys this weapon of the weak. Children use it to excellent effect. In that context (parent – child) it is not generally called nagging but rather ‘pestering’. It too emerges from a similar context of powerlessness of children within the family, where the only way for them to get their point across is to ‘pester’ their parents till they accept defeat. Today, the power of children to pester their parents into taking decisions is an important weapon in the arsenal of advertisers who use “pester-power” to sell everything from groceries to cars.

In the contemporary world, many families have moved out of the context under which nagging by wives exists. Women own property, often they are in positions of power and are effective decision makers. Nagging does not automatically end in these contexts, just like it does not automatically exist in all patriarchal families. Today nagging is not necessarily confined to the patriarchal family and has been, in a sense, freed from the context of the patriarchal family under which it originated and survived. It has become a cultural archetype which women (and men) absorb into their personalities in the process of socialisation. Where it exists outside the immediate context of the patriarchal family, it exists only as a weapon of offence and not as a survival skill of the weak wife and it “forges its own chains” for those who deploy it in inter-personal relations. The question arises, are we courageous enough to surrender this weapon?

~  ~  ~

This was published in my weekly column in The Post on 27 August, 2008.

.

Advertisements

Actions

Information

7 responses

26 08 2008
zetkin

The basic point of ‘nagging’ being a weapon of the weak against opression that women face in patriarchal family structures is very well argued. The ‘nagging wife’ however has been ‘legitimised’ as a social problem. In 2004, the Supreme Court of India ruled that a husband can seek divorce if he is ‘subjected to mental agony and cruelty due to constant nagging’ by his wife.

This leads to a few questions around your article:

1. Is patriarchy independent of the social structures within which it operates?

2. Your distinction between social spaces that lie outside the immediate context of the patriarchal family is not clear. Is there any social structure anywhere in the ‘civilized’ world that permits a social sphere for women (and men) that is outside the ‘immediate context of the patriarchal family’? If ‘nagging’ is picked up as part of socialisation, then how can one expect that ‘nagging’ as a weapon of defence or offence would be surrendered unless there is change in the basic patterns of social relations within which patriarchy is embedded?

27 08 2008
Nivedita Menon

Hey Aniket,
Enjoyed reading this, and agree largely with your analysis, except for your somewhat economistic reading of the patriarchal family. This leads to your concluding that where “Women own property, often they are in positions of power and are effective decision makers”, and then “the context for nagging” has ended. But economic powerlessness is only one (though very important) aspect of the position of women within the family. There are at least three other factors:
a) The ideological power of the institution of “marriage” has not been recognized sufficiently, which traps women in unbearable situations despite economic independence. If you cant walk out, you nag, hoping to change him.
b) The sexual division of labour does not automatically end with women’s economic independence. All it means is that the female CEO becomes responsible for organizing an efficient staff to run “her” home, a task that involves considerable energy. Much nagging is addressed towards male abdication of responsibility for the home and children.
c) A second point related to the sexual division of labour is that the ties to children produced by the fact of women’s responsibility for reproductive care, further produce a state of paralysis for women feeling unhappy in relationships ranging from merely irritating-to-violent. Again, feeling trapped, nagging becomes a desperate attempt to change the situation.
c) Thirdly, the normalized construction of heterosexual “romance” in particular ways, in which the “weakness” of the “female” of the couple (whether it is actually a heterosexual couple or not), is eroticized, plays a significant role in couple-type relationships. Since weakness leads to nagging, it is a distasteful (for the “man”), side-effect of a submissive and caring “wife”.
All of this means that the context for “nagging” is much more complex, and cannot be seen to change with economic independence for women.
Also, I’m not sure what you mean by nagging “outside the immediate context of the patriarchal family”, when “it exists only as a weapon of offence and not as a survival skill of the weak wife”. I would retain “nagging” for a particular practice generated within patriarchal structures, so as not to lose its specificity.
By no means am I suggesting that all women are wonderful and all men ******s, and of course all sorts of power plays go on inside relationships, arising from individual psycho-social biographies. Nevertheless, I think neither you nor I would like to reduce patterns in intimate relationships to individual vagaries. Indeed, your analysis of nagging as a social and historical phenomenon is evidence enough of that.
In short, I dont think “nagging” as “a weapon of offence” and as “survival skill of weak wife” are incompatible, as you suggest. it is precisely the weapon of offence of the weak wife. If someone has to “nag”, then they are weak, period. When you are powerful, you only have to ask (demand!) once.
Thanks again for the stimulating post.

27 08 2008
Shruti

Very interesting read Aniket!!! I agree with the first half of the argument. However, to me, more than a weapon of the weak, nagging is a perspective in which the society places it. As children’s demands are ‘pestering’, for men it is ‘instructions’ or even better ‘suggestions’!

To sum it, Women ‘nag’, men ‘instruct’!

28 08 2008
Pragya

Not much else to add just one small incident that I am witness to in my regular life would like to share that.

A woman CEO friend of mine has a tough time. She does not have a husband to nag or instruct her, but rest of her family (including her son and parents and support staff) keep “nagging” her through out the day either over the phone or in person when she gets back home. I think history and even today’s contemporary society’s out-of-the-closet non-patriarchal families will indicate “nagging” is also restricted to the physical space specifically ‘home’. People at home need a scratching post more often probably. So as I see it end of the day people who would be at home would end up “nagging” the primary bread winner of the family no matter what is the gender and how economically powerful.

29 08 2008
Manjari Katju

I was just wondering that if the figure of the nagging wife is found across a vast geographical spread and has a presence in familial relations at all times in history, is there an equivalent for it in any of the Indian languages? I cannot think of any term in Hindi which conveys the exact or near exact meaning of nagging. If there is, I would like to know. The terms in Hindi, to my knowledge, that come closest to nagging are ‘kosna’ and ‘dik karna’. But while ‘kosna’ means to curse and to damn which can be in the absence (from the immediate surroundings) of the person who is being cursed (nagging needs the immediate presence of the husband who is being nagged), ‘dik karna’ can mean anything from teasing, annoying, bullying to harassing, and anybody can be subjected to this not just the husband. Similarly, the object of ‘kosna’ can be anybody not specifically the husband.
In fact, when in course of everyday conversations we bring up the issue of nagging, we use the term ‘nagging’ rather than a term in Hindi or Bengali or etc for it. As far as I can say this is because we don’t have a term for it in our languages. And, if some of our Indian languages do have it and some don’t, it is even more intriguing!
Does this mean that nagging as a wifely practice was absent in our societies? Seems a little far fetched with the literary and historical references (mostly in the form of caricatures) to it that we find. Does this mean then, that nagging was such a normal, ingrained and acceptable practice that it did not evoke any special lexical presence. Or, does this mean that the men of India found escape from nagging by being situated in large multi-member families (which could very well be polyandrous) and by forging polygamous alliances, and as such nagging never became a central issue of the patriarchal marriages and thus, the equivalent of the term ‘nagging’ never got built in societies within India.
The last but one sentence of the column, ‘Where it exists outside the immediate context of the patriarchal family, it exists only as a weapon of offence…’ – is a weak claim, and raises some questions: If nagging is intrinsically tied to the patriarchal family, can it exist outside it? If it does, then it won’t be the same ‘nagging’ as we know it and also if it continues in the same form, the implication is that some elements of patriarchy have remained intact in this so called non-patriarchal family.

12 08 2009
shweta

Universal “villains”.Is it that nagging is too grim an act that one can equate it to something villainous? According to me , to some extent nagging is also a sign of showing the degree of authority and possession of a person on the other.Power and other factors play a part too ,but it is not only that.

If women tend to nagging,it is because of the feminine softness inherent in them that restrains the eruptions of violence every now and then.Women nag when men try to dictate them.Nagging is much softer an act than dictating,is it not

Talking of transcendence ,don’t know why the issues related to the fairer sex attract the greatest attention.even if other issues too have transcended.

11 07 2010
Nagging thoughts « Media Misses

[…] A brief history of nagging It is this utter powerlessness of the wife which is the source of nagging. The dictionary defines the word “nag” as “To annoy by constant scolding, complaining, or urging.” Bereft of economic, physical or political power, women only had words to defend themselves. They have had to walk the thin line between nagging enough to get their point across and nagging which got them thrown out of the house or beaten or worse, killed. Nagging was the only weapon the wife had, whose constant grating could cut some of the bonds of oppression under which she lived. By its very nature of being constant and repetitive, nagging also becomes unbearable for the person it is directed towards – the husband. If the woman has been a prisoner of the patriarchal cage, her constant scratching at its prison bars with her nagging words, has been her husband’s scourge. Marx’s famous saying about nations, ““any nation that oppresses another, forges its own chains”, can easily be transposed in this context to argue that any human who oppresses another forges his own chains (of nagging). […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: