Book Review: The Proper Care And Feeding Of Husbands

"Dr. Laura" Schlessinger rose to fame during what one might call a golden age of conservative talk radio, in the 1990s. Compared to today, this was a very different time. Angry talking heads had not yet been completely discredited, and traditional media still ruled the roost. Everyone got all of their information from major, corporate news conglomerates. Conservative radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh represented a sort of "underground," where overtly conservative viewpoints could be discussed. Perhaps best of all, every-day listeners could call in and interact with those ideas in a way that didn't happen on, say, CBS Nightly News.

Dr. Laura, of course, was not a conservative political commentator. She was a practicing marriage and family therapist who ran a call-in radio program to help people sort through their ethical dilemmas. But her traditional approach to organizing the family, coupled with her firm take on human morality, found a ready audience among the listeners of conservative talk radio, who then fueled her fame.

As tends to happen with famous conservatives, mainstream media found plenty of offensive-sounding quotes and private scandals in Dr. Laura's past, and amplified them. There is nothing the liberal media likes more than a conservative hypocrite they can parade around and lampoon. Dr. Laura's core fanbase was able to accept her explanations at face-value and her apologies as genuine, but I definitely have the sense that media attacks prevented Schlessinger from rising quite as high as similar 90s talk icons, like Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil.

Published in 2006, The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands hit bookstore shelves at a time when Dr. Laura was still quite popular, before she moved her website to a subscription-based model, and before she moved her radio show to Sirius XM. While I believe it is a successful book (in terms of book sales), it has a terrible reputation for being "anti-feminist propaganda."

To be sure, some women who read the book will end up feeling attacked. These women have probably never heard Dr. Laura's radio program, or if they have, find it to be highly offensive for its non-feminist bent. Also to be sure, there are plenty of passages in the book that directly criticize the prevailing views of feminism circa-2006. Anyone who sympathizes with those feminist views will probably object to the book from start to finish.

I, however, committed to reading the book with an open mind. I'm tolerant of people with so-called "black-and-white" moral views, mostly because I, too, lean toward the belief that there is a mostly objective moral right and a mostly objective moral wrong. I believe that it is right and important to "judge" in the sense that judging human behavior helps clarify one's own moral beliefs. Consequently, reading or listening to someone else's view of concrete right and wrong serves the same purpose for me -- it helps me better understand my own moral philosophy.

What I found from reading The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands is that its ideas -- even the non-feminist ones -- have aged remarkably well.

For one thing, Dr. Laura's view of marriage is founded on the belief that men and women simply think and act differently. This was a stark and unpopular contrast to the 2006 feminist view that sex is a social construct. Even so, subsequent research has proven increasingly clear and robust; there are unambiguous cognitive and psychological differences between the sexes, and those differences are precisely the ones that common sense would suggest. Dr. Laura was right.

For another thing, the central principle that permeates the entirety of the book, if only openly stated a time or two, is that people can derive great and profound meaning in their lives from the act of tirelessly dedicating oneself to one's marriage. That dedication, in Dr. Laura's view, should come first and foremost, ahead of all other things. One's commitment to marriage should come before career; it should come before good times, before girls-only weekends, before fatigue, before one's commitment to one's parents, and sometimes even before the children. Such a commitment is obviously difficult, but Dr. Laura's position is that it is worth it. When one commits to the marriage ahead of all other relationships, then that enables people to better raise their children, draw better boundaries between themselves and their friends and family, and most importantly, find profound joy in the bedrock relationship of our adult lives: our marriage.

This notion of meaning found in living a better life at home certainly presages the ideas of Jordan Peterson, although the target demographic is obviously quite different.

Another aspect of the book that might raise liberal hackles is Dr. Laura's approach to sex. Her belief is that men only really find a meaningful bond with their wives through the act of sex. This idea rings true to me, and anyone who has bothered to listen to Schlessinger's radio program can attest to the vast number of men who have thanked her profusely for saying so. The truth is, Schlessinger has a keen understanding of what physical intimacy means to a man, and she incorporates it into her marriage philosophy. Where others might object is when she advises women to try to please their husbands even if they're "tired" or otherwise not in the mood. While a feminist objector could protest quite loudly at that, it's important to understand it in context. Dr. Laura's advice is for wives who are married to loving husbands; it's for wives who have good lives, but who have let their relationships deteriorate through the inertia of a hectic, modern life. So, when she writes that women can often find themselves in the mood if they just get started with their husbands, she's pointing out that two people who love each other can ultimately have a lot of fun, and grow closer together, if the "tired" wife can simply get herself started, even if grudgingly.

I hasten to add, as Schlessinger herself adds at the outset of the book, that her advice is not intended for women who are genuinely abused. In fact, she refers to what she calls "the three A's" throughout the book: adultery, addiction, and abuse. Any of these three A's are, in her view, grounds for divorce.

What's left is a book full of practical tips for wives in less-than-perfect marriages on how to improve the quality of their marital bond. That is, Dr. Laura wants women to take responsibility for and control of their lives, and argues that in doing so, they will be happier and have more profoundly meaningful lives than they ever imagined. Despite its conservative bent, The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands is a manual for empowering married women.

This brings me to my main point: The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands occupies a very unique space in the world of ideas, because it articulates a philosophy of conservative sex-positive feminism. Conservatives, as you know, are not typically known to be either feminist or sex-positive. The fact that Dr. Laura seems to be all three things highlights the fact that concepts have far more potential for overlap than our polarized world would like to believe.

If today's feminists could manage to do so with an open mind, I believe reading this book would greatly expand their understanding of what feminism could be. Meanwhile, conservatives have their own lessons to learn from this book, lessons about practicing what they preach, lessons about the importance of sex in a committed relationship, and lessons about putting one's spouse ahead of one's meddling extended family.

It's an excellent book, a very short read, and I highly recommend it.

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