It’s OK, The Word “Wife” Isn’t Going To Bite

A woman goes through life with a number of labels that she doesn’t have any control over, either by birth or by society’s imposition. But one label she should get to choose is whether she wants to be someone’s “wife” or not.  This should be a right for all of us.

A recent piece on by soon-to-be-married author Tracy Clark-Flory about the word “wife” really pissed me off.  Clark-Flory wrote about going over the language of her wedding ceremony script with her fiancé and getting to the part that says “I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

Husband? Wife? I could barely conceal my gagging sounds. He said something to the effect of, “Ew, gross.”

She continues:

It makes me feel like Betty Draper, like I should be fetching his slippers and a scotch on the rocks — and remembering to get the roast bird out of the oven. (In reality, I’ve only just recently expanded my cooking repertoire beyond Kraft mac ‘n’ cheese and things you put in the microwave. He, however, will roast a chicken and make a rustic tart from scratch — all in one night.) I am a daughter, partner and friend — but a wife? I can’t help but imagine saying “I’m his wife” with heavy air quotes, a roll of the eyes or exaggerated feminine cheer.

Clark-Flory then expresses concern that the Middle English/Old English terms for “wife” and “husband” translate, roughly, to “vagina” and “householder.” It’s not that I don’t understand Clark-Flory’s discomfort with both words or their histories (although dredging up the Old English definition? really?). But I’m uneasy with how glib she was about that choice when so many people are scrambling to have the same one.

Traditional notions of the “wife” being the husband’s submissive helpmate are stilling hanging on in 2013 — and not just in the uber creepy Michelle Duggar “God says you should let your husband control all the finances” way. Take, for instance, this study that came out over the summer which found that husbands appear to be threatened by their wives out-earning them. “Given these findings, it isn’t surprising that when a wife earns more than her husband, the risk of divorce rises, too,” The New York Times wrote. No one  would disagree, either, that the dominant pop culture depictions of “wife” (at least of white ladies like Clark-Flory and me) range from June Cleaver on “Leave It To Beaver” to the cartoonishly preening and narcissistic “Real Housewives.” So I get it: there’s much to empathize with in Clark-Flory’s disinterest in subsuming the traditional roles expected of a “wife,” as well as a heterosexual marriage in general. For example, last week, I got engaged and already I’ve been asked multiple times if I’m “keeping” my name, whether I’m pregnant, whether I’m expecting to get pregnant soon, and whether my fiancé asked my father’s permission for my hand in marriage. (Yes, no, no, and no, in case you were wondering.)

Yet the reductive association of “wife” with polishing furniture and sternly warning tykes “Just wait until your father gets home!” is simplistic to the point of being offensive. Generally speaking, it’s best not to presume you know about the dynamic in any relationship, whether it is that of a husband and wife, a partner and a partner, or a “marriedperson” and a “marriedperson.”  Additionally, the reality is that traditional gender roles in relationships are deeply in transition to the point of no return. Data about women’s rising income and education level in marriage supports this: a 2010 Pew study found that between 1970 and 2007, women’s education levels over their husbands has risen significantly and the percentage of wives whose incomes best their husbands has quintupled. The National Bureau of Economic Research noted that a wife’s status is no longer as a “secondary earner” to her husband’s paycheck, illustrated by the fact that wives in the 1990s were more likely to continue working (both at all and the amount of hours) regardless of their husband’s wages. In other words, middle-class and upper-middle-class wives are firmly established as co-breadwinners in a heck of a lot of marriages by choice. While it would be foolish to ignore the economic necessity of such decisions, we can also safely assume some wives and husbands share a notion of a financial equal partnership.

Furthermore, on the domestic front, traditional wifely gender roles are eroding.  A Pew study from March found that amongst couples who have children (who, to be clear, may or may not be married), fathers are increasingly doing housework and childcare — all mothers are still workin’ that second shift by doing more. To be sure, if you look closer at all the data in all these studies, you will find information that indicates traditional views still have a foothold. But my point overall is that the vast differences in the roles of “wife” and “husband” in June Cleaver-style traditional marriages really and truly are on the way out and new definitions are being formed.

To her credit, Clark-Flory does quote a few people who happily use the term “wife” (and “husband”), noting they are able to “divorce [the terms] from their previous meanings.” (Though I would argue that if a hetereosexual couple does choose to have a more traditional marriage, the kind that would make the author “gag” at how “gross” it is, it’s none of her damn business anyway.) These folks speak for most of us. Even recognizing the negative associations with the word “wife,” many people find it empowering to take such words (“slut,” “bitch,” etc.) and reclaim them our own way. Wives today, whether they realize it or not, are part of a wave of feminism that will continue to further “expand the definition” and “rehabilitate” the word wife, as Andrea Grimes wrote in a past Hitched column.

One important way we can do this is by acknowledging that plenty of women want to be a wife but have been a maligned segment of the population. Legally calling your spouse your “wife” or “husband” has not even been a right until recently for gay and lesbian couples. (Which, to be fair, Clark-Flory does briefly note in her piece.)  She and her fiancé Christopher are enjoying a right that some couples waited decades — or are still waiting — to have. That’s some tragically unfair shit. Quite honestly, I find sneering at the language used to describe something people find so sacred and so desirable a little tasteless in it’s lack of recognizing her own privilege.

I’m particularly sensitive to this right now. I’m also queued up to become a “wife” and it’s bringing up more than a little white liberal guilt about my own privilege. My fiancé is Australian. I am very, very aware that if he happened to be of the same gender, we might have been one of the 36,000 binational couples who were treated unequally under the law.  I live in a country that has privileged heterosexual couples with the right to marry and denied that right to gay and lesbian couples; that is especially true for gay couples in which one partner is an immigrant. My best friend, who is a gay, was in a relationship for four years with a European woman that she could not petition a green card and its attendant security for because of provisions in the Defense Of Marriage Age. There is absolutely no reason on this Earth why she and I should be treated differently when it comes to who we want to marry.

I’m not attempting to compare my impending marriage to my white, cis heterosexual dude in any way to the discrimination faced by LGBTQ couples. We’re pretty fucking privileged in all manner of ways and I’m sure even I don’t even comprehend them all. But I will confess to anticipating a huge feeling of relief when his green card is secured and immigration paperwork is a thing of the distant past. It means the government will legally recognize my relationship with the man that I love; there won’t be this current cloud anxiety and fear and uncertainly looming over us. We’ll work on our own definitions of what husband and wife mean in the home and in the bank account(s) throughout our marriage. But I will be thrilled that I’m legally able to call myself his wife because of what it signifies from both our respective governments — and everyone should have the right to feel as thrilled as we will be.

So I do hope Clark-Flory does conceal her “gagging sounds” at how “gross” husband and wife sounds. It’s her choice not to use them and that’s fine. Just remember, some couples would give everything to get to say them.

[Salon: Ready To Marry, But Not For “Wife”]
[New York Times: Breadwinner Wives And Nervous Husbands]
[Pew Research: Women, Men & The New Economics Of Marriage PDF]
[National Bureau Of Economic Research: Changing Work Behavior Of Married Women]
[Pew Research: Modern Parenthood]
[USA Today: Ruling Opens Immigration System To Gay Couples]

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[Old fashioned husband and wife via Shutterstock]