‘Your Husband Comes First in the House’: a (Catholic) Guide for The Young Wife (1938)

The following booklet belonged to my grandmother. It sort of surprises me that she owned a copy: she wasn’t the typical stay-at-home wife. Rather, she owned and ran the local shop in her rural community. In many ways, it served as a centre of activity. Locals stopped by not just to pick up their groceries, but also to catch up on the day’s news. At the back of the shop, people played cards or rings and she would cut up cake for them. Occasionally, that spot played host to political meetings. And when her husband — my grandfather — died relatively young, she also took on the responsibility of a small farm, which he had run alongside his main business as a saddler. She was a strong, independent woman.

My grandparents
My grandparents
(Not to be reproduced)

How she came to have this booklet, which was part of a ‘Homely’ series, I don’t know. Perhaps she bought it for herself, or maybe it was a gift. I also find it fascinating that she retained it. I’d be very interested in finding out more about the series, which also included The Young Husband. Was it typical for newly married couples to acquire such literature?

This particular booklet is the 3rd edition, published in 1938. It was printed in Ireland, but translated from German so I’m intrigued about the origins of the content. It was available from the Irish Messenger Office for the price of two pence. It includes sections on house-keeping, parents-in-law and sacrifice, as well as this gem:

Your husband comes first in the house. His will should prevail. Therefore you belong to him more than to your parents (p. 23). 

However, the content is largely focussed on the expectations, not of the husband or even of future children, but rather of God and the church:

You are beginning a new life which you have entered through sacred doors. It was not a mere ceremony which took place before God’s altar. God’s hands were extended over you in blessing for the holy task which lies before you (p. 3)

And, in the context of the recent debate Ireland has had on abortion, here’s a section called ‘A Murderess’

When the mother’s life is endangered by the birth of the child, the life that is coming may not be destroyed. Even the doctor may not do this. He may do all that is possible to save the mother’s life except anything that would directly destroy the life of the child … Woe to the mother who is a murderess! (p. 26).


Updated, 4 November 2013:

Because of the interest that this post generated, I posted the link on Reddit recently.  Sadly, the discussion over there descended into accusations of Catholic Bashing and suggestions that there might be an agenda.  To be clear: this article was a personal piece.  It was prompted by the fact that I found the pamphlet among my grandmother’s belongings and was quite surprised because she did not conform to the role prescribed for women in the booklet.

The booklet is also an interesting source for social history, offering an insight into perceptions of women and expectations of their role as wives at a particular time in Ireland.  Since writing this post, I have incorporated the booklet into my academic research for a new project I’m working on that explores the lives of ordinary women in twentieth century Ireland.

I cannot speak for any of those who chose to comment on the thread, but I would like to emphasise the following, which I have posted on Reddit.  I’ve found myself questioning the benefit of Reddit as a forum to discuss history recently, and this has confirmed my personal conclusion that an account there is really of no benefit.  In the event that deleting my account results in any links I posted and threads resulting from them also disappearing, I think it is important, therefore, that I record my response below:

If you re-read my article, you’ll see that I do, in fact, to quote directly from the piece that I wrote, say ‘It was printed in Ireland, but translated from German so I’m intrigued about the origins of the content’. Nor do I at any time state that the advice given was unique to Ireland. I might add that I chose to use the leader ‘and other advice for the Young Wife in Catholic Ireland’ because the booklet was widely circulated in Catholic Ireland.

What the post does actually say is a: my grandmother did not conform to the role advised for women, b: that the content emphasises the role of the wife in a Catholic context.

While I appreciate that everyone is entitled to their own opinion — the study of history is, after all, based on critical engagement — there is no evidence in my article to support your insinuation that the purpose of this link was to start a “‘Catholic Ireland’ bashing” thread.

The individual who made the claim subsequently clarified that their observations were made more in light of the comments from other users.  Nonetheless, the whole discussion only serves to confirm to me that Reddit is not the place for me — at least not when it comes to talking history.


Read the pamphlet in full:


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Published by Dr Ciara Meehan

Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire.

9 thoughts on “‘Your Husband Comes First in the House’: a (Catholic) Guide for The Young Wife (1938)

  1. I think that the paradox of a strong, autonomous wife owning a book about wifely subordination is not unusual and is demonstrated all the way back to the early modern period. My Protestant, English grandmother of a similar generation as your grandmother was like this – the power of the marriage – which my grandfather acknowledged but sometimes challenged.

    But it also seems to define married women’s peculiar position of having to run households, farms, estates even when their husbands were absent, and then return to some degree of public deference when he came back. Linda Pollock has a great article: ‘Teach her to live under obedience’ about this.

    Anne Kugler’s book on the early eighteenth century Lady Sarah Cowper shows in great detail how one woman could own all these printed guides on how to be subordinate – yet actually seek far more from marriage. Sarah had commonplace books and copied out all the instructions and wrote how she was following them, criticising her husband who she said was not. Yet Kugler shows that Sarah subtly and not so subtly twisted the meanings of what she wrote so that it suited her own agendas. She may not have even realised that she was realigning their message to suit her own more autonomous desires.

    So – a paradox that was somehow not a paradox!?

    1. This is fascinating, Joanne. I particularly like the description of Sarah Cowper’s dual roles — it sort of reminds me of my grandmother. I’ll have to have a read of the book. When you consider the longer past precedent, it is, as you say, a paradox that, on closer inspection, is not a paradox at all.

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