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Redefining "Wife"

February 12, 2010

Guest post by Audrey Bilger “That’s no lady, that’s my wife,” the “old ball-and-chain,” the “battle-axe”—such expressions seem to belong to an older time, when a comedian could get a laugh by saying, “Take my wife…please!” If you look up “wife” in the Urban Dictionary, though, you’ll find that negative associations persist. The first definition delivers a one-two punch: "1. The Good Part--The woman you marry and live with for the rest of your life. 2. The Bad Part--The woman you marry and live with for the rest of your life." Even more crass is the entry that presents the word as an acronym for Wash, Iron, F---, Etc. I could never see my wife in these terms—and she doesn’t see me that way either. In our shared life as a married lesbian couple, we’ve found that two wives can be better than one, at least in changing the way we think of the word. In part this is because our marriage is such a hard-won right—married gay men feel the same pride in this victory—but in an even more fundamental way, when the word wife becomes detached from husband as the lesser of two terms, the meaning shifts, in a positive direction. As the oft-maligned half of the husband/wife pairing, wife has had to carry a great deal of baggage. More than the word husband, wife brings with it a legacy of inequality. Until the late 19th century in England and America, upon marriage, a wife’s legal identity was subsumed under that of her husband. They were legally one person, and that person was the husband. In the traditional formulation, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” the man was viewed as an individual in his own right, the wife was expected—by definition—to stand by her man. Even though many heterosexual couples today don’t buy into the man-and-wife formulation, it’s difficult to completely transcend the conceptually imbalanced frame that’s been handed down to them. Having been in both a straight and a lesbian marriage, I can testify to the transformative power of separating the word wife from its status as the lesser term in a male/female binary. When I was married to a man, I found that no matter how hard we tried to live on an equal footing, cultural expectations and demands came into play. If he did housework, friends and family told me I was lucky to have a husband who “helped out.” Phone solicitors asked to speak to the “head of the household” or the “lady of the house.” Regardless of how individuals organize their personal relations within a straight marriage, in the culture at large wives still get cast as subordinate. In 2008 after the California Supreme Court lifted the marriage ban, I was able to marry the woman I had been with for 12 years. At first, we were reluctant to use word wife, uncertain as to whether it would fit us properly—or be accepted by others. As soon as we started calling each other wife, however, we began to see how this one word helped to ratify our union on a daily basis. We also found that we were free to live on our own terms. Gender norms don’t dictate which one of us “wears the pants.” Whereas in my straight marriage, I tried to avoid the term because of its demeaning associations, I now see myself as contributing to the work of redefining it and thereby helping to raise the status of women in this arena. Few who oppose gay marriage broadcast a desire to keep women in their place (that would be radically unpopular)—it’s more acceptable to stir up fears against homosexuals--but when you stop to think about it on the level of words and their meanings, wife will change far more than marriage when same-sex marriage rights are won. Because the focus of marriage equality discussions has been on sexual orientation—since the rights of gays and lesbians as a disenfranchised group are most directly on the line here—little attention has been paid to how those who define marriage as between a man and a woman seek to roll back the clock on feminist advances. The broader agenda of the so-called marriage defenders is to insist that women and men stick to ideas about the family as defined by one set of religious groups. Defenders of California’s Proposition 8 in the federal trial underway at this time have clarified their interest in enforcing “traditional,” antiquated ideas about marriage and women’s roles. When they claim that procreation is the “central or defining purpose” of marriage, as attorney Charles J. Cooper put it, and that the state has an interest in “steering procreation into households of a mother and father,” in attorney Andrew Pugno’s words, they’re seeking to enforce biology as destiny—for men and for women—and to regulate women’s reproductive freedom. Although they frame their arguments around the notion of protecting women and children (who without a man around the house can become a burden on the state), they’re more concerned about reviving a social system that has passed its expiration date. For those who want to be free to set the terms of their own life, same-sex marriage should be a cause for celebration. Once we accept the possibility of wife and wife or husband and husband, the whole system of opposite-and-unequal terms gets thrown out of whack. Instead of falling into pre-ordained roles of husband as lord and master and wife as dependent housekeeper and child-bearer, individuals can discover innovative ways to express relatedness. In this sense the opponents of same-sex marriage are right. Gay and lesbian marriages will change the way we think about marriage, and lesbian marriages will transform the word “wife.” For better, not for worse. For further reading on same-sex marriage rights, check out today's photo essay, Just Not Married: Fighting for Equality on Valentine's Day, by Leslie Von Pless.
Tags: Feminism, LGBT