Nicola Griffith posted the other day about overcoming her longstanding distaste for the word wife.
Twenty years ago, when I first married Kelley, in a ceremony with zero legal validity, but much emotional truth, in front of family and friends who'd flown in from all over the world, I might have hurt anyone who called me her wife or her my wife.This, despite what she'd learned from feminism, and the etymology of the word itself (which she details). I remarked in a comment that from this post, you'd think people only married in English. What the female partner in a heterosexual marriage is called is less important than what she's committing herself to, or being committed to. As Griffith points out:
But when we got married last year on the 20th anniversary of that first wedding, in front of a judge, with the full legal force of the USA and UK and many other countries behind our vows, we used the word wife.
We'd talked about it over the years. We'd disliked it over the years. But when we were looking at the old, old vow "to take this woman as your legally wedded wife" with all the ancient rhythms of have and hold, richer and poorer, sickness and in health we knew it was the right word.
When two women call each other wife, wife no longer means chattel. It can't—chattel can't own each other. It no longer means object not subject, that is, subject to another's will. How can two people with the same status subject each other to anything? These days, in the US and UK, wife means, Woman in a legal marriage. By association, woman also no longer means object not subject. It no longer carries with it the implication that someone else is in charge. A woman is no longer automatically a lesser member of a household.I think Griffith is being overoptimistic here. Male supremacy isn't dead yet. Women in mixed households still work the Second Shift of housework and caregiving. In same-sex couples the division of labor will be different, just because they are the same sex, and there's no automatic fall-guy for the scut work.
I've noticed over the years that many gay people are as resistant to a non-gendered conception of marriage-like partnership as many straight people are. Some screwed up their faces in distaste when I said matter-of-factly that in a same-sex couple, there'd be two husbands or two wives; simple. Like heterosexuals who couldn't understand how two men or two women could have sex without one "playing the man" and the other "playing the woman," they couldn't think of husbands and wives except as opposites -- you couldn't have two of each. I've never understood why. When I first read Joanna Russ's sf story "When It Changed," the following exchange made perfect sense to me. The premise of the story is that a plague killed all the human males on the colony planet Whileaway. The women who survived constructed an all-female society, with women pairing up together and children produced by induced parthenogenesis and, later, merging of ova. After centuries of this successful arrangement, a spaceship crewed by men arrives. (It's significant that there are no women in the crew.) One of the men talks to a female couple:
“You are—?” said the man, nodding from me to her.Simple, no? Two women married to each other are both wives. Two men married to each other are both husbands. But many gay people I encountered, even those who said they wanted to marry, balked at the notion, even if they indignantly rejected any notion of old-fashioned roles in their marriage. (This reminds me of my welcoming reaction to the 1960s feminist who said simply that whatever she wore was women's clothing, because she was a woman and she was wearing it. Most sophisticated social-constructionist gender rebels to whom I've quoted her were offended by her lack of essentialism.) They wanted the "ancient" prestige of marriage and its vows, but not its content. One commenter on Griffith's post wrote, "I call Ellen my spouse. All the celebration with none of the etymological baggage! :-)" It's not the etymology that's the baggage, though. It's the history, a not-all-that-distant history which despite significant changes is still with us.
“Wives,” said Katy. “We’re married.”
More recently so many same-sex couples have adopted the standard terms that I think this battle too has been largely won. If you want to call it "marriage," I think you should have to use "husband" and "wife" too. "Spouse" sounds like a copout to me, a disingenuous evasion of the baggage you've just bought yourselves. And it doesn't stop being baggage just because you call it something else.