The idea of a “work wife” isn’t a new one, but it is a rapidly evolving one. To go back to the very beginning: The concept made its pop-culture debut in 1929—that’s nine years after women’s suffrage passed and nine years before the Fair Labor Standards Act established a minimum wage—when the author Faith Baldwin published a book called The Office Wife. A novelist who wrote about women trying to balance careers and families (yes, 90 years ago!), Baldwin was ahead of her time in so many ways, and her story was made into a Warner Bros. film—a talkie, specifically—the following year.
Back then, the term “office wife” (which later spawned “work wife” with its amply appealing alliteration) was used to describe a man’s especially high-functioning secretary—someone who took care of him like a wife, but at work. It’s the sort of dynamic that’s easy to conjure when picturing 1950s and ‘60s office culture, with the women like Joan Holloway buzzing about the building and low-key running the place (long before she was made a partner).
As the professional opportunities for women started to expand and the glass ceiling inched a little higher, the notion of a work wife changed, too. For a prime example, look to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, where Mary Richards and Murray Slaughter play out their WJM-TV partnership as peers over seven seasons from 1970 to 1977. That sort of male-female working bond spread far and wide for the next 40-odd years, and in 2006, of 693 people surveyed by the media company Vault.com, 32 percent of respondents said they had a work spouse.
Over the last decade or so, though, the definition of the work wife has evolved more dramatically. Women have co-opted the term to refer to the women they’re closest to at work.
This shift isn’t happenstance—it’s a direct consequence of an evolving business environment. Slow but steady progress toward dismantling male dominance at the office has carved out space for women to collaborate instead of compete professionally, and that’s set the stage for change.
This evolution in the business world coincides, unsurprisingly, with a long-overdue cultural shift that recognizes that female friendships aren’t all about backstabbing and cattiness. The Mean Girls narrative got hit by a bus and in its wake came #squadgoals and Shine Theory—the former being a sentiment of solidarity that originated with Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame before being co-opted by Taylor Swift and the whole internet, and the latter being a philosophy developed by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow (hosts of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend and work wives themselves) that’s rooted in the idea that we ought to befriend, not compete with, women we admire. Since emerging in 2013, Shine Theory has spread like wildfire.
Naturally, this ethos also holds true for friendships at the office. The age of the undermining Tess McGill/Katharine Parker Working Girl rivalry is behind us, and Oprah and Gayle, Abbi and Ilana, Kathie Lee and Hoda, and Tina and Amy are the new relationship role models.
We see this work wife embrace in the world around us, from the businesses we support—see: the influx of co-founded-by-women companies like SoulCycle, Away, theSkimm, and Huda Beauty —to the TV shows we binge. These types of personal-professional relationships anchor everything from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to GLOW, from Grey’s Anatomy to The Bold Type, and that’s to say nothing of women partners who are actually producing our entertainment, like Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers of Shondaland, and Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine of the new Hulu show PEN15.
But the swell of female partnership isn’t happening only amongst those running the show (or starring in the show). The work wife ethos has been adopted enthusiastically by bosses and assistants alike, seized by women with side-by-side cubicles at publishing houses and those who lead meetings together at financial institutions. As of February 2019, there were nearly 200,000 posts on Instagram with the tag #workwife, the bulk of which picture two or more women.
With this evolution, the term has come to connote a whole new value system: of women supporting—nay, fighting for—other women, bringing the vulnerability and compassion intrinsic to their friendships to the office, and creating workplaces that value the whole person, not just the productive, profit-driving one. It has revealed the true potential of women partnering and has given us a taste of what could happen if work-wifedom gained serious ground.
With the 100th anniversary 10 years away, our question is this: How will this term and the mentality it has come to define grow over the next decade? How much more work can it do to transform not only women’s relationships at the office but also the office in general by 2029? We’re looking forward to a hell of a centennial.
Adapted from Work Wife by Erica Cerulo and Claire Mazur, copyright © 2019 by Erica Cerulo and Claire Mazur. Used by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.