A woman's role was once clear. If she looked nice, behaved decently in society, could pronounce three out of four ingredients in a boeuf bourgignon and swing a tennis racket or golf club (and actually hit the ball), she could expect a return on her efforts - that is, a suitable husband with what one banker calls 'serious earning potential'. Then, if she were lucky, selfless and deeply committed to advancing his career, she might look forward to the prestige that accrues to the wife of a chairman or chief executive. Today, a wife may be attractive, well-behaved and adept with a menu at La Tante Claire, and just as easily be the chairman as the chairman's wife - or be a chairman married to a chairman (in what Peter York calls a 'wolf pair'). But, regardless of how many times the word executive appears on her CV, if her husband has as many titles, or more, she is still a corporate wife, as archaic as that may sound. It is a role in need of redefining in these changing times.
One thing has not changed: a man in possession of a big job is still expected to bring out the wife. For some women, this may mean going out four or five times a week (often at short notice) as well as the odd shooting, fishing or skiing weekend. What is unclear today is whether a corporate wife's selfless toil, strategic choice of designer outfits and ability to grasp the difference between a prime rib and the prime rate makes the slightest difference to her husband's business prospects. So why do the exhausted wives still bother showing up at Glyndebourne (where their husbands fall asleep at the overture)? Is the corporate wife an advantage or an accessory?
'I bowed out of a lot of events,' confesses Barbara Abt, a former investment banker who says she was often expected to accompany her banker husband but seldom did. 'In fact, a lot of clients thought I was a figment of my husband's imagination. They knew we had gotten engaged and married, and two years later still hadn't seen me.'
While he was entertaining clients, she was pursuing deals elsewhere.
'While I know it didn't hurt his career that I wasn't there, I do think that a woman's presence can help cement a relationship,' she says. 'When you go out with clients whom you don't know very well, that's where it really matters. Thousands may be trying to get his attention. Attending the finals at Wimbledon allows you to make a link in an informal environment. That guy has got to return your phone call.'
Another who hardly ever shows up for her husband's functions is Jane Howard, co-owner of Republic, a strategic issues public relations company.
It doesn't seem to have hampered the career of husband Andrew Fraser, chief executive of Invest in Britain. 'We come together for Buckingham Palace. That's about it,' says Howard. 'I couldn't do it. I have a business to run. There's no way I could turn out at these cocktail parties.'
Howard wants to put a quick end to the view that wives enjoy these perks.
'Is it a treat for the wife to drag a frock on to the train at 7.15 in the morning and change later in the loo? Then you have these dinners - it's always boy-girl, boy-girl, and there are some very senior people.
I can't help but feel sorry for them. I'm a professional, but many of the other corporate wives are at home looking after kids, and all they can talk about is schools. Why do any of us bother turning up at all?'
Indeed, John Browne of BP Amoco, who is single, often brings his mother to events, and corporate open days have as many daughters playing hostess as wives, says Howard. 'Perhaps it's only when a corporate wife performs badly that it matters - a crime of which I am guilty. My banker husband stupidly suggested one day we take a Japanese client out to the theatre and dinner. I was told under no circumstances could I ask the wife any personal questions for fear of offending her. As soon as we sat for dinner, the men started chatting intensely. Having quickly run out of conversation, I spontaneously blurted out to the men: 'You're not discussing business, are you?' My husband's face went ashen. So, yes, a bad corporate wife is a liability.'
However, a wife like Jane Owen, a former marketing executive whose husband is finance director of Brixton Estates, has got to be an asset. Her view is that a partner should offer all-round support and the lines of demarcation are never clear. To turn up for Glyndebourne is just part of the package.
'There are no longer opportunities for three-hour business lunches. Maybe if there were, women wouldn't need to go out,' she says. 'Men don't ask each other personal questions, because they're always focused on work.
I do think it helps to share a drink with another couple. It helps on the relaxation side and, when it does come to a new deal, you have an added edge.'
Owen believes her role goes beyond putting on a fancy frock and being nice to bankers' wives. It's about being there for her husband, old-fashioned though it may sound. 'It's very pressurised and stressed these days and the last thing a man needs to come home to is more stress,' she says.
'If one partner offers support, the other can remain focused. He doesn't have to worry about paying the bills or whether the car is going to show up to go to the opera. Some women get very uptight about this but I think I've got a choice. Forty years ago, running a house smoothly was not something women were ashamed of. There is nothing wrong with being a partner and doing it well.'
Many corporate wives do enjoy their lives but would readily admit that sacrifice and compromise are part of the unspoken deal (as much as black-tie dinners, shooting weekends and fat pay packages are). Jill Ritblat, a former barrister and wife of the chairman and chief executive of British Land Company, says she will always cancel her plans when her husband's demanding social schedule infringes upon her own (equally) demanding arts schedule. 'We do spend endless evenings eating huge dinners late at night, talking to technical advisers,' she says. 'I'm begging to go home but I like to support him. If one is married, what is the point if not to cheer him on? I do occasionally feel superfluous but I'm of a generation that was drilled to offer moral support. Of course there are things I miss - things I would rather be doing - but I think, why bother getting married if you're not going to add to that person's life?'
Therein lies the dilemma: a corporate wife who nurtures her husband's career, often at the expense of her own ambitions, feels increasingly superfluous. Hence the glittering fundraising events, like Tommy's campaign and Baby 2000, organised by corporate wives such as Kay Saatchi and Hayat Palumbo, where his contacts can't possibly say no to her pounds 150 dinner invitation.
She may be trading on his influence but she can justify it as a charitable cause. Meanwhile, the working corporate wife, who often carries the full responsibility of the children and home, doesn't know into which camp she fits - his or hers? She barely has time to breathe, yet feels judged by other women (Nicola Horlick is the best example of reverse feminism).
She wants her own wife, not a lecture from someone else's.
Isabelle Hotimsky, a head-hunter who just started her own firm, MW Partners, looks at it from both sides. She is married to the joint head of fixed income and derivatives at CSFB. When wearing her head-hunter's hat, she acknowledges how important a traditional wife can be. 'When you're talking to male executives in mid-career or senior management, you're often talking about changing lives. The wives, I think, are quite influential in their decision-making. As we are often calling the men at home, we get to chat with the wife, and the more we know about her, the better. When we figure out that there is a dual career, and the job in question involves a change of location, forget it.'
As far as her own life is concerned, Hotimsky exercises the right of choice. She has worked throughout a 15-year marriage and the birth of two children. 'I definitely think that, whether a woman works or not, she will end up with the household issues beyond work. She will do everything that involves domestic life. Men can't look after children and do their jobs.'
It is worth noting that while Isabelle spoke to me, she was having a massage, talking to her children and writing a cheque to Food Ferry. Even though husband Marc travels a great deal, Isabelle is unfazed. 'The French say that when you do very little, you get into trouble,' she says. 'When you look at the couples who are having problems, it's not because they're dual working couples, it is because the wife is bored or they are bored with each other. I think that success in marriage is in not relying on someone else for your own living. I'm very suspicious of corporate wives who say they work for the bank when they have never worked at all.'
Ros Taylor of Plus Consulting found some surprising results when she interviewed 80 business leaders recently for her upcoming book Key to the Boardroom. When asked what was the principal ingredient in their success, most chief executives had the same answer: happy family lives. But the majority of the 25 female CEOs quizzed said they feared family would detract from their careers. 'Most of the men I interviewed have stay-at-home wives,' says Taylor, 'and after 55 interviews, I got a very good impression of what a good corporate wife is.'
According to Taylor, loneliness is as much a part of modern corporate marriage as is the non-stop social life. 'Firstly, she has to be able to do without her husband. She has to be independent and find rapture and joy at home. The best corporate wives are not wild extroverts who go to the opera every night; they are women who can be quite domesticated and capable of running several large households - remember, many live in the country. Basically she gets a lifestyle she couldn't have otherwise, and he gets a bit of nurturing and stress reduction.'
Sir Bob Reid, deputy governor of the Bank of Scotland and a veteran corporate animal, holds the view that the wife a man chooses matters a great deal.
He has been married for 41 years. 'I am certainly suspicious of a man on his third wife. He either has a selection problem or a retention problem. It shows lack of judgment,' Reid says. He adds that it can be a social drawback because many first-time wives don't like second or third wives.
He is also suspicious of men who lack a solid family backdrop. 'The whole thing about life is that you get into trouble because you don't have a wide breadth of experience. You have to be suspicious of people who don't have children jumping on their sofas at home. They don't know about real life.'
He says he is eternally grateful for his wife Joan, who has given him three sons and held up through those 41 years of corporate life, including moving house 28 times when he was working for Shell. 'This is my proposition,' he says. 'Two people working on two different projects is one-plus-one and it gives you two. But two together are stronger than the two singles and the partnership makes the third plus. In my case, I know my wife stands behind me.'
Many marriages today are run like businesses. Wolf pairs - couples such as Michael and Carolyn Portillo, Cherie and Tony Blair, Matthew Freud and Elisabeth Murdoch - are increasing in number. Two high-flyers can use each other's talents as effectively as one high-flyer with a steadfast support at home. As far as divorce goes, the dinkies (double income, no kids) are at greater risk, and greater still when children come along.
According to One Plus One, a marriage and partnership research organisation, 'The progress of individualism has contributed to the drive for greater equality for women. Although a positive outcome in itself, couples are experiencing difficulties in negotiating new roles and responsibilities where traditional roles have been discarded. The high premium placed on relational elements of marriage means there is more pressure to leave a marriage if it does not live up to expectations and less of a stigma in doing so.'
Professionals such as clinical psychologist Jennifer Gomborone are often there to pick up the pieces. 'I get the two high-flyers scenario,' she says. 'Both are out there working, and yet the husband still expects her to look after him as well as the children. What I see walking into this office is the exhausted and stretched half of the relationship. The last priority for many successful women is themselves. Her own business almost always comes second. If it doesn't, the relationship often goes into marital disharmony. I guess you could say that unless one is helping, one is hindering.'
Both sexes, it seems, are struggling to find harmony. 'I feel sorry for men today,' says design curator Janice Blackburn, whose husband David is a partner in the Broadgate Development. 'Women have now been brought up to be tough, motivated and aggressive. My sons and their male friends (in their twenties) are only familiar with ambitious and competitive women.
But not men over 50. They are having to deal with a new breed of woman in the workplace. It's like all the new technology; they are dealing with something they don't really understand.'
Joan Reid adds: 'When I was a career adviser for 17-year-olds, most of the girls had a list of priorities. They all said they wanted to learn inner self-confidence. They were all planning to marry some kind of marionette.
Then they would come back at age 28 when they were working at McKinsey, having just got off a plane from Belgium with a baby at home, saying, 'I'm so tired.''
Harpers & Queen recently published an article describing the New Geisha wife, a generation of young women who throw in the professional towel to devote themselves fully to the task of facilitating the lives of their bonus-bringing banking husbands.
The difference between the NGs and the previous generation is that they run the household the way their predecessors once did the bank; the husbands are lucky if they even know where their bonus went. Their view is: why have two tired people when one is enough, and if he's already bringing in six figures what's another few zeros going to add?
'I could set up my own business, but what's the point? - it would pay for flowers,' says Aliai Forte, married to Rocco Forte, chairman and chief executive of RF Hotels, who got married at the age of 20 and rapidly started a family. 'When I was 21, I was having dinner with this and that bank chairman. My friends felt sorry for me. They were going to discos and glamorous parties. I had a child, I was playing house and I loved it. Now I think many of them are jealous.'
Forte would very much like to be on the RF payroll but for now she is content looking after her husband and her family. 'Men are under so much pressure today, it's so competitive. I think it's really the role of a wife to take some pressure off the husband, and it certainly helps if she does it with some style. I think one should always do things well.'
By all accounts, corporate wives once did things very well (and maybe we're heading back in that direction). Whereas today most clients are happy to be entertained at Nobu or Le Gavroche, a requisite three days' preparation was the norm in Penny Govett's day.
'We sat down for dinner. We had a cook in the kitchen, a butler and, of course, the table would have been laid the day before,' says Govett, an art consultant who was previously married to William Govett, chairman of investment trust management group John Govett & Co. 'Hospitality then was very important. My husband would say so-and-so is coming in from New York, I would send flowers to the hotel and make sure they had transport.
We regarded our roles as a job to be taken very seriously. We spent our time getting our hair done and making sure we had the right clothes. We spent hours arranging flowers. Though my instincts were bohemian I tried very hard to be what I thought a chairman would want his wife to be. Today a wife is expected to be the mother of his children; anything else is not part of the deal.'
Corporate wives fall into two distinct camps: those who work and those who don't. What is particularly interesting in light of today's post-feminist climate is that age is not the distinguishing characteristic. There seem to be as many young women playing corporate hostess as older ones. The only tangible difference is that when a woman today says she is not involved in her husband's business, it means the exact opposite. Almost all the interviews started with 'he' and ended with 'we'. Never underestimate the corporate wife: you may end up working for her yet.