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THE EXECUTIVE WIFE: The Facts Contradict the Fiction

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IN the current folklore of U.S. business the wife of an executive is often represented as being equally important to her husband’s career as his own abilities. Some U.S. corporations have taken to interviewing wives before hiring or promoting executives, others regularly appraise executive wives by visits to the home or at corporate parties. A few even provide seminars and conferences for wives in an attempt to fashion the ideal executive helpmate. All this has prompted a string of articles, fiction and movies depicting the ideal “Mrs. Executive” —a woman who furthers her husband’s career by molding herself into the pattern of corporate living, helping to achieve success by an endless round of professional sociability.

This week the Chicago management-engineering firm of John A. Patton Inc. released a survey of 4,000 wives of the nation’s top executives—the women who are supposed to set the pattern. The results offer some hard facts to challenge the proposition that executive wives must also marry the corporation. Sixty percent of the wives polled advised the young executive wife to remain aloof from corporate contacts, attend only necessary social functions, such as conventions; even the 40% who disagreed recommended only “a middle ground” of sociability. Said Mrs. Margaret Barry, wife of a vice president of the Michigan Bell Telephone Co.: “It seems wiser to have one’s best friends outside the company.” Many of the wives reported that they had seen careers hampered rather than helped by overly chummy wives as well as by those who drank or talked too much.

While more than half the women felt that the executive wife could well undergo some company appraisal, most drew the line at anything so crass as an interview, favored more informal methods, e.g., dropping in at home. The dissent (45%) to even this moderate approach was surprisingly vehement. Said Mrs. Elizabeth Harvey, wife of the director of industrial relations for General Electric’s Automotive Division: “This recent development is abhorrent to any sensible woman who desires to be a homemaker as opposed to a business appendage.”

Such opinions highlight a growing revulsion—among both men and women—to the much-publicized concept of a “corporate wife.” The men who hire or promote executives are still far more interested in the husband’s abilities than in the wife’s worth. Said an Atlanta executive: “We need good men so bad they could be married to almost anyone and we’d grab ’em. Of course, we’d prefer that she not use a toothpick, but beyond that she’s his problem, not ours.” Most corporations hope for some social relationships among executives, but do not try to forge them by selecting wives to fit into a pattern. “I doubt very much,” says Mrs. George Romney, wife of the president of American Motors, “if anything very important is ever accomplished at parties.”

Even among the few firms that insist on formal interviews, the general feeling is that a wife affects her husband’s advancement only when their home life is so strained that it harms his work—and even then he is not necessarily disqualified. “Anything that a company might do to imply that advancement depends on the wife’s activities,” says Henry Arnest, assistant vice president of the grocery products division of the Carnation Co., “is a kiss of death to the whole idea of better understanding in the company.”

Most executives think—and their wives agree—that the executive wife should be moderately informed about her husband’s business, yet not so concerned that she meddles in his work or tries to push him. (The wife of a $30,000-a-year Detroit executive recently got ulcers while sweating out a promotion for her husband; he came through fine.) Qualities of tact, graciousness and amiability are important if the company is in a small town or if the husband is a sales executive who must entertain frequently.

But few top executives really expect wives to conform to any stereo. typed image. Said Joseph E. Adams, vice president of White Motor Co.: “Consider the nation’s top executives. How many of them would have been hired if wives had been a factor in the selection? Some men need a psychiatrist at home who will listen to their problems. Others need frivolous wives to distract them. Some need wives who are prominent in civic activities, some not. You can’t type a wife.”

Again and again executive wives themselves state firmly that the only sensible approach to the goal of being an ideal executive wife is to relax and forget about emulating a prototype. As Mrs. Charles Vychopen, wife of the traffic director of Slick Airways, put it: “You can’t afford to get too inhuman about everything, and you can’t be too sophisticated about how you act. The best thing is just to try to be yourself.”

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