Thank You for Not Being Totally Worthless

Examining the way men and women writers praise their spouses in their acknowledgments.
This image may contain Hair Human and Person
Illustration by Melanie Lambrick

​I never skip a book's acknowledgments section. It can be informative, touching, inspiring — or downright infuriating.

"Finally, without my wife, Rhoda, who served as editor, research assistant, and soul mate, this project could never have been finished." —Randall Bennett Woods, author of LBJ: Architect of American Ambition.

As a female historian, I have developed a Pavlovian response to older, white men who refer to their wives as "research assistants." As soon as I could see straight, I took to Twitter, where such "findings" thrive, and wrote "male historians often call wives research assistants while female historians say husbands were patient/encouraging."

It isn't the first time I've written about this issue. I made a similar observation in a long-form essay at the Atlantic, but when I looked at the comments section, I realized most postings focused on men — as did responses to my tweet. The idea of women supporting and sacrificing for male genius has certainly been explored, yet I can't explain why women would primarily thank their husbands for emotional labor ("patient/encouraging"). Don't husbands proofread their wives' work? Aren't wives understanding of their husbands' professional obligations?

My theory that husbands and wives recognize each other differently in public is correct, says Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown. It turns out the author of You Just Don't Understand shares my obsession with acknowledgments and remembers how differently she and a male colleague interpreted one long ago. Tannen saw a female author's recognition of her husband's contributory support (such as editing and research) as unremarkable, while her colleague pounced. He saw an admission in her gratitude; she could not have completed the project without her husband.

This is not uncommon. When aviatrix Beryl Markham thanked her third husband, Raoul Schumacher, in her memoir's acknowledgments "for his constant encouragement and his assistance in the preparations for [West with the Night]" in 1942, no one took issue. When her memoir enjoyed a second life in the late 1980s, however, critics were suddenly suspect. Schumacher never wrote anything on par with West with the Night, not that it mattered. The charge that Markham didn't entirely write the memoir herself follows the book wherever it goes, including No. 8 on National Geographic's 2001 list of the "100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time." The magazine didn't dismiss the allegation as unfounded or untrue, but irrelevant.

A man's intellectual authorship would never be so easily dismissed. "Mr. Fitzgerald — I believe that is how he spells his name — seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home," teased Zelda Fitzgerald in her New York Tribune review of her husband's book The Beautiful and Damned, but it was no joke. F. Scott Fitzgerald was constantly and openly appropriating parts of Zelda's diary and private letters without permission, but few seem to care. It's just another part of the Great Gatsby author's extraordinary talent.

Why are women so easily questioned and men so quickly excused? In Second Sex (1949), French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir — the lifelong partner of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre — wrote that women have always been viewed in relation to men:

She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute — she is the Other.

Beauvoir et al. bummed me out, so I sought better examples of literary couples in hopes that they were somewhat egalitarian in acknowledging each other. Joan Didion was no help. She rarely wrote acknowledgments other than to thank publications that had previously published her essays; thus her husband, writer John Dunne, seldom appears until The Year of Magical Thinking, a book she wrote about mourning him. Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, and Virginia Woolf and Leonard Wood seemingly emerged unscathed from the gendered-acknowledgment trap, too.


Ignoring my historian's impulse to look toward the past, I turned to the present. I took a closer look at a couple I know: nonfiction writer Evan Hughes and novelist Adelle Waldman. In Literary Brooklyn (2011), Hughes thanked his "confidante, editor, companion, and great love, Adelle Waldman," for both contributory and emotional support in a sentence. In Waldman's novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (2013), she expressed similar sentiments in a short paragraph. Besides length, the only major difference was the insight the extra words offered. Hughes called Waldman a "confidante," while Waldman wrote that Hughes "endured endless conversations about Nate and company." In both instances, we understand that they are friends and advisers, but Waldman's detail allows us to better understand what that looks like.

According to Dr. Tannen, this point is significant. When women get home from work, they tell the men they live with whom they saw, what they experienced, and how it made them feel. Tannen calls this "rapport-talking." She dubbed the limited, impersonal responses men offer — their day was fine, average, uneventful — "report-talking." In meetings, however, men tend to speak more than women, a trend that begins in the classroom. For girls and women, intimate talk keeps relationships healthy. A woman might meet a female friend for a drink with the intention of sharing personal information, while a man is likely to meet a male friend for a drink and activity, like watching sports. It isn't necessarily a matter of how many words we use, but rather where, when, and how we use them.

"If anything, women are showing off [in acknowledgments]," Dr. Tannen explained. "They work hard to create closeness, and they're proud of what they've built." And why shouldn't they be? Insecure dimwits may use it to discredit women, but they'd likely find the fuel they need with or without it.

I wrote to a sociologist friend to find out what this meant on a day-to-day basis, outside a book's rarefied space, expecting a link to a research paper or book. Instead, she responded with an anecdote. In her home, she struggles to find the right words to recognize her husband's efforts. "I don't mean to say that I'm not grateful for you," she tells him, "but I really hate that I'm expected by society to be super-grateful for the fact that you're not totally worthless around the house."

I understood her resentment. A couple of years ago, I spent a month finishing the first draft of my book in a Wi-Fi-free apartment six hours from home. I was supposed to return the day before Christmas, which my then-partner celebrated. I needed to do no more than throw on a dress and head to his parent's house. Instead I discovered the exact scene I'd hoped to avoid: the apartment was messy, the kitchen was littered with takeout containers, and an unwrapped pile of presents for his family came up short. I kept hearing myself offering guilt-ridden apologies to his family while thanking him for his efforts, but in reality I was mad at both of us. I didn't want one of my primary roles to be savior, domestic or otherwise, any more than I wanted a savior for myself.

Acknowledgments can be fraught. Sometimes we praise because we're proud and thankful, and sometimes we do it out of expectation and obligation. My sociologist friend and I are certainly guilty of giving empty praise, and by doing so, we may have unwittingly perpetuated the very gendered expectations we're trying to dismantle. Worse, we let it get to us. "Anger, resentment, envy and self-pity are wasteful reactions," wrote Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "They greatly drain one's time. They sap energy better devoted to productive endeavors."

Indulging these emotions is a problem, but I realized in researching this piece that the sometimes wordy, effusive way women acknowledge their significant others really isn't. Women should thank men for whatever they damn well please. If the male perspective is treated as one opinion among many rather than the standard, it loses much of its power. Then the way women communicate, whether on the page or off it, isn't better or worse. It's just different.

Alexis Coe is the author of Alice + Freda Forever and co-host of the new Audible series Presidents Are People, Too!