Throughout much of history—and certainly to this day, in many parts of the world—women have been largely controlled by men. Governed by either their fathers or their husbands and held down by societal norms, women were often forced into roles as wives, mothers, and runners of households when they might have preferred to, say, get an education or hold down a job. However, not every marriage throughout history was this way. Despite social pressure, there have been men along the way who bucked societal norms and either helped drive their wives’ careers to success or just did their part to allow them personal control over their pursuits, in eras where the husband traditionally ruled the roost and called all the shots. The men on this list were happy to be outshone by their gifted spouses, so hey, let’s hear it for the boys—or at least a few of them, anyway.
In 1894, as she was studying for her second science degree at the University of Paris, Maria Skłodowska was introduced to Pierre Curie by a mutual friend who thought Pierre, a physics and chemistry instructor, might have some extra lab space for Maria to use. Immediately recognizing her talent as a researcher, Pierre took her into his own lab as a student, and they worked harmoniously together, although Maria initially rejected Pierre’s quick marriage proposal. By the following year, she had gone back to her native Poland after finishing her degree, Pierre had convinced her to return to Paris to work on her Ph.D. (which was practically unheard of for a woman at the time), and the two were married.
Pierre was thrilled by his bride’s brilliance; as he wrote to her, “It would be a beautiful thing, a thing I dare not hope, if we could spend our life near each other hypnotized by our dreams: your patriotic dream, our humanitarian dream and our scientific dream.” Pierre’s dream came true, as the Curies worked side by side as peers and pioneers in the field of physics, particularly magnetism and radioactivity, until his death in 1906. With physicist Henri Becquerel, they won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, and Maria—known in France as Marie Curie—went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on her own in 1911.
Paul and Julia met when they were both stationed in Ceylon during WWII, as members of the Office of Strategic Services. (The OSS was Julia’s second choice—she’d only joined because at 6 feet 2 inches, she was too tall to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps.) After the couple returned to the U.S. and married in 1946, Paul learned that his new wife didn’t really know how to cook, as she’d been raised in a household with a chef. After getting married, Julia began cooking and found out she “enjoyed it immensely.” Her foodie husband took her to France and introduced her to French cuisine, and she took the reins from there.
Paul and Julia worked in tandem in the beginning of her career as a chef, as he took the photographs that were converted to sketches for her early cookbooks (he was credited in The French Chef Cookbook as “Paul Child, the man who is always there: porter, dishwasher, official photographer, mushroom dicer and onion chopper, editor, fish illustrator, manager, taster, idea man, resident poet, and husband.”). And Paul’s great admiration and support for her skills is well documented, as surviving letters to his twin brother, Charles, attest. The Childs were an inseparable, rock-solid team: When they hosted dinner parties, they’d plan the menu together; and while Julia cooked, Paul would chop veggies, set the table, pour wine, and serve the plates. Then they’d both clean the house together after the show was over. A voracious reader, he also proofread and edited her books, and he dabbled in poetry on the side. His most frequent subject? Julia.
When newspaper publisher Putnam married pioneer pilot Earhart in 1931, after his sixth proposal, his new wife insisted on keeping her own name—which was very unusual for married women at the time—and Putnam was thereafter derisively called “Mr. Earhart.” (He reportedly bore it well.) Earhart also made it clear that she intended an equal partnership in every way, and in a letter that was delivered to him the day of the wedding, she wrote, “I want you to understand I shall not hold you to any midaevil [sic] code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly.” Putnam was down with it, though, and he also cosigned her request that “you will let me go in a year if we find no happiness together.” Although some of today’s feminists find their agreement to be startlingly progressive for the early 1930s, Putnam himself seemed unfazed: “Thousands of wives and husbands are operating on exactly the same basis, successfully and happily,” he wrote at the time. “It’s not even ‘modern’ anymore.”
A style icon in his own right, Carl had no problem with the spotlight being fixed on his ever-fabulous wife, Iris. For 42 years, the pair co-ran Old World Weavers, a textile business they founded in the 1950s, and they traveled the globe together, procuring statement pieces to wear at upscale parties around NYC. Carl was known to wear the sharp threads as expertly as Iris ever did. In 2005, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute ran an exhibit dedicated to her art and style. The event launched her from being a celebrated, but ultimately fashion-world-only collaborator, to a nationally recognized figure—and Carl was incredibly proud and supportive of Iris’s newfound fame. “As friends have pointed out, some husbands would have been jealous, or envious, or annoyed,” Iris said, “but he just loved it, he wallowed in it.” Upon Carl’s death in 2015, at the age of 100, friend and fellow designer Duro Olowu told The New York Times that “…his dedication to Iris is an example to us all of true and unconditional love and mutual respect.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay was flourishing in New York City as a successful poet and playwright when she met the Dutch businessman, poet, and feminist Eugen Boissevain in 1923. He was the widower of political icon Inez Milholland, whom Millay had met and admired during her time at Vassar College, and although Millay had rejected many proposals of marriage, she accepted Boissevain’s after knowing him only a few weeks. Boissevain worked in importing, mostly coffee and sugar, and in addition to his work, he took on all the household duties in order to allow his wife to write as much as possible. He traveled the world with Millay, catered to her whims, and condoned her relationship with her lover, George Dillon, in 1928. (Millay signed off on Boissevain’s lovers as well.) Later, in the mid-’40s, Boissevain devotedly attended to Millay for two years as she suffered a nervous breakdown and was unable to write. The pair never allowed any of the drama to split them up; after 26 years, it was only death that parted them, with Boissevain passing away in 1949 and Millay following just over a year later.
It was Grace Lee who pursued her husband, Jimmy Boggs, which was uncommon for a woman to do in the 1950s, to say the least. The two were working as political activists in Detroit in 1953 when Grace took a shine to Jimmy, who was a man of few words. “I kept chasing him,” she said. “He kept avoiding me. And he finally came to dinner one night and asked me to marry him, and I said yes.” Over the course of their 40-year marriage, the Boggses would establish or assist Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, Gardening Angels, the Detroit civic organization Save Our Sons And Daughters (SOSAD), and Detroit Summer, a “multi-racial, inter-generational collective” to develop youth leadership in Detroit. After Jimmy’s death in 1993, associate professor at the University of Michigan Stephen Ward said that they had “built a durable partnership that was at once marital, intellectual, and political. It was a genuine partnership of equals, remarkable not only for its unique pairing or for its longevity, but also for its capacity to continually generate theoretical reflection and modes of activist engagement.”
Though Carl Dean isn’t a historic figure in that he is very much alive, his wife, Dolly Parton, is a living legend, and he’s been by her side since 1964. Dolly and Carl met outside the Wishy Washy Laundromat on the very day she moved to Nashville from rural Appalachia, when she was 18 and he was 21. “I was surprised and delighted that while he talked to me, he looked at my face (a rare thing for me),” Dolly recalled of their first encounter. They married two years later. The quiet type, Carl famously shuns the limelight, but he’s never been resentful of Dolly’s megastardom and “has always been supportive,” choosing to express his feelings for her through poetry. Until he recently retired, Dean ran an asphalt-laying company and carefully stayed out of Parton’s many business ventures—although he’s known to occasionally visit the Dollywood theme park, undercover, just to check on things. He also sees her movies the old-fashioned way—by buying a ticket and going to the cineplex. In 2016, the pair renewed their vows after 50 years of marriage.
You might say that Albert was born to play second fiddle. From the start, it was his older brother who was slated to take over for their father in ruling the duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha—and even when the two teenaged princes traveled to Windsor in 1836 to see their young cousin, Victoria of Kent, who was looking for a husband, everyone expected her to choose lively, sociable Ernest and not the reserved Albert. But after Victoria was crowned queen of the United Kingdom, the two visited her again, and she proposed to the younger prince. But with marrying the queen, Albert was given a completely unheard-of title: that of a prince consort (although the title wouldn’t be officially granted until 1857). Specifically, he was not to be king.
Albert was fine with the inherent lack of power though and excelled at the tasks ahead of him. Taking his unorthodox role in stride, he became Victoria’s trusted adviser and essentially her secretary, supporting his queen throughout disputes with Prussia and the United States, as well as taking on much of her day-to-day workload whenever her frequent pregnancies interfered. The marriage was also a love match—unlike his philandering brother and father, it’s said Albert never so much as looked at another woman. His letters to his wife consistently reflect this, e.g.: “Heaven has sent me an angel whose brightness shall illumine my life … In body and soul ever your slave, your loyal Albert.”
Although Lewes and his partner of over 20 years, Mary Anne Evans, were never legally married (as he was technically married to someone else), they lived together from 1854 until his death in 1878—and started referring to one another as husband and wife right off the bat. (The two even took a honeymoon to Germany soon after moving in together, and Evans began calling herself Mary Anne Lewes thereafter.) A philosopher and critic, G. H. Lewes encouraged her to begin a career as a novelist in 1857, when she was writing pieces for magazines—unattributed ones, per Victorian convention, because she was a woman—and she took on the masculine byname George Eliot for her first book, 1859’s Adam Bede. As it and her subsequent books became instant successes, Lewes’ own works were not garnering the attention he’d hoped for; his wife’s most productive and lucrative years were his least. But Eliot was careful to point out in letters to her friends that Lewes was not jealous of her success in the slightest, and people who knew them corroborated this idea: It’s known that Lewes managed her social and literary relationships for her and “devoted the last decade of his life almost entirely to fostering [Eliot’s] genius.”
Frank Butler might be one of the more unfairly maligned historical figures out there, in large part thanks to the 1940s musical Annie Get Your Gun, which paints him as kind of a jealous jerk. In 1875, Butler was traveling through Ohio as a performing marksman with his show, Baughman & Butler, when he foolishly bet Cincinnati hotel owner Jack Frost 100 bucks that he could best any local sharpshooter. Turns out, Frost knew just the gal for the job. After 15-year-old Annie Oakley beat him by just one shot, Butler was intrigued rather than embarrassed, and the pair began dating.
“Little Sure Shot” married the Irishman about a year later, by which time Butler had figured out that his wife was not only a better shot than he was, but she had more star power too. He stepped aside and made her the lead in their road show before they both joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show—as Butler put it, she “outclassed” him. Butler seems to have been an easygoing fella, brushing off the myriad proposals of marriage to his wife from her fans, and not getting too ruffled when he was mistaken for her butler as she was being feted by the British aristocracy. They had been married for 50 years when Oakley died of anemia in 1926, and it’s said that Butler was so grief-stricken that he stopped eating. He died 18 days after his wife.
Denver teenager Ruth Handler took a vacation to Hollywood around 1936, and then informed her sweetheart back home, Elliot, that she would be staying permanently. So, he moved there as well. They soon married, and after a brief stint running a successful giftware business, they joined Harold “Matt” Matson in a new venture which they named Mattel (a name derived from “Matt” and the first two letters of “Elliot”). They began with picture frames, but they soon expanded into dollhouse furniture, and when Matson left the company and Ruth took over his job, as an equal partner, she became interested in manufacturing dolls as well. After watching their daughter, Barbara, play with dolls, Ruth invented the Barbie Teen-Age Fashion Model doll.
Although Elliot was unsure about the idea, he put faith in his wife and green-lighted the Barbie doll, marketing it as the alternative to baby dolls and aiming to empower girls to engage in speculative play rather than just mommy practice. It became one of Mattel’s best-performing products, of course, and the rest is history. Responding to negative reactions from feminists, Barbie expanded her career path under the Handlers’ joint direction, becoming not just a model but a fashion designer in 1960, a nurse in 1961, and an executive—just like Ruth—in 1963. Elliot developed other products with the company too, including Mattel Modern Furniture, a series of wooden dollhouse pieces with a midcentury Scandinavian aesthetic, It was a failure, though, and Elliot later said that one of his mistakes was that he wasn’t able to recruit his “brilliant” wife to develop a marketing campaign for the line.
The namesake of the band Sonic Youth, Fred “Sonic” Smith was the guitarist for the far-left political rock band MC5, a.k.a. The Motor City Five. In 1976 poet/musician Patti Smith (no relation) was attending a party a record label was hosting when the two were introduced. By ’78, Fred and Patti were an item, and he encouraged her songwriting from Day 1 and taught her to play the guitar. They married in 1980 and collaborated on musical projects such as 1988’s Dream of Life until his death in 1994. “Fred crafted that whole album,” Patti said. “He wrote all the music. A lot of the concept of the songs were his.” She claims she tried to put both of their names on the album, but Fred refused, insisting on giving his wife all the credit. “I look at Dream of Life as [Fred’s] gift to me.”
When they married in 1954, Marty and Ruth Ginsburg decided that whatever they were going to pursue, they would do it together, with absolute mutual respect and support. That pursuit turned out to be law. But when Ruth made Law Review at Harvard and Marty didn’t, at a time when men were expected to be the breadwinners and top achievers in their households, Marty’s reaction was only to frequently boast to others about how he was proud he was of her. (Marty ended up doing quite well for himself in the field, becoming a Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center and an internationally renowned expert on taxation law.) He also happily cared for the children and handled other domestic tasks—again, in the fabulously sexist 1950s—so that Ruth could focus on her career. After she was sworn into the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993, he developed a reputation around the Supreme Court for presenting each of his wife’s clerks with homemade cakes for their birthdays.
Before Marty died of cancer in 2010 (just after the couple’s 56th anniversary), he reportedly told a friend, “I think the most important thing I have done is enable Ruth to do what she has done.”