The world and his or her wife

I’m talking to a young woman I’ve just met at an academic event. We stand around for a few minutes chatting, until eventually she glances at her phone and says, ‘I should go, my wife’s waiting’.

My wife. Only a few months earlier, no British woman could have uttered those words and meant ‘the woman to whom I am legally married’. But the 2013 Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act has changed the language along with the law. Along with the legal and financial benefits that come with being married, lesbians and gay men have acquired the ability to do something heterosexuals do without a second thought: refer casually to their spouses in everyday conversation.

But I’m not the only feminist I know who feels ambivalent about these references. That isn’t because I’m opposed to same-sex marriage (or at least, no more opposed than I am to marriage in general). It’s because for feminists, wife is a word that carries a lot of ideological baggage.

The issue isn’t the basic dictionary definition, ‘a married woman’. Where marriage exists, there will be a need for terms denoting the parties to it. But if you close the dictionary and open a thesaurus, the problem becomes more apparent. In my thesaurus, the entry for wife contains the following list of synonyms:

Mate, helpmeet, spouse, bride, better half, little woman, the missus, old lady, ball and chain, trouble and strife.

By contrast, the entry for husband reads

Mate, spouse, groom, bridegroom, partner, old man, hubby.

Evidently wife is not just a neutral term for a married woman, nor is it exactly parallel to husband. There are more synonyms for wife, and many of them are negative, expressing hostility or condescension. This is what I mean by ‘ideological baggage’. The associations of words are a product of the way they have been used over time. And wife is a word whose use has been shaped by the history of marriage as a patriarchal institution.

For most of that history it was wives who wore the ball and chain. When the Normans conquered England in 1066, one of the things they brought with them was the legal doctrine of ‘coverture’, which decreed that when a woman married she ceased to exist as an independent person. She was subsumed into the person of her husband, which in essence reduced her to his possession. As the jurist William Blackstone explained in 1765:

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband.

Whereas an unmarried woman (‘feme sole’) could own property, make contracts and keep her own earnings, a wife (‘feme covert’) could do none of those things. Her husband controlled her person, her property, and any wages she earned.

Coverture in its ‘pure’ form ended in the 19th century, when Parliament passed legislation granting property rights to married women. But many of the beliefs and practices associated with it persisted. One common argument against giving women the right to vote was that their husbands already voted on their behalf. In the 1960s married women could not enter into financial agreements without their husband’s permission. And until the 1980s a wife had no legal right to refuse her husband sex.

One obvious linguistic hangover from the days of coverture is the custom of married women taking their husbands’ names. The most extreme form of this practice, in which the woman is known publicly not just as ‘Mrs Smith’ but as ‘Mrs John Smith’, is now largely confined to the aristocracy and the super-rich (you often see it in the lists of wealthy donors that appear on the walls of museums), but it used to be more widely prized as a mark of a woman’s status. I learned this the hard way in 1977, when I was working in a high street bank. Noticing that a customer’s cheque book identified her as ‘Mrs David Graham’ (and assuming the account must have been opened in the dark ages), I asked her if I could change it to ‘Mrs Helen Graham’. I have never forgotten her furious response. ‘Of course not, you stupid girl’, she hissed, ‘there is no such person as Mrs Helen Graham. The wife of Mr David Graham is Mrs David Graham. How could I be married to myself?’

At the time I’d never heard of coverture, and I don’t suppose Mrs Graham had either. But her words distilled its essence. ‘The very being…of the woman is incorporated…into that of the husband’. There is no such person as Mrs Helen Graham.

The idea that a woman’s status is defined by who she marries is implied in many common phrases and sayings. We meet it at an early age: ‘the farmer has a wife’. ‘Mr Bread the baker and Mrs Bread the baker’s wife’. We run into it whenever we hear the phrase ‘the world and his wife’, which implies that ‘the world’ consists of men, while women exist only as men’s appendages. And we encounter it continually in media reports about women. Whatever a woman is in the news for, from climbing Mount Everest to assaulting her next door neighbour, if she’s married that will always be treated as relevant information.

In December 2014, the Church of England announced that it had chosen the Reverend Libby Lane to be its first female bishop—a historic decision which was reported by the Daily Mail under the headline ‘Saxophone playing vicar’s wife is C of E’s first woman bishop’. This reference to Rev. Lane’273s marital status was particularly confusing, because she herself was also a vicar. If she had not been ordained a priest, she would not have been eligible to become a bishop. By referring to her as a ‘vicar’s wife’, the Mail implied that the role from which she had been elevated was confined to such ancillary functions as teaching Sunday school and pouring tea.

Is it possible to use the word wife without implying that its referent is an appendage, an encumbrance, a servant, a possession? As always, context matters: there is a difference between the stand-up comedian who opens his routine with ‘take my wife—please!’ and the young woman who makes her excuses by saying ‘I should go, my wife’s waiting’. But while the specifics of context make every utterance unique, the words that compose an utterance cannot be freshly minted each time they are used. When I hear a woman say ‘my wife’s waiting’, I cannot help hearing an echo, however faint, of the misogyny of the ‘take my wife’ joke, and the casual sexism of ‘the world and his wife’. I feel the ghostly presence of a gallery of stereotypes: the nagging wife, the wife who ‘doesn’t understand me’, the wife whose selfless dedication to her husband’s career is acknowledged in books and at award ceremonies.

But many lesbians—not, by and large, great apologists for male supremacy—have embraced the word wife with pride. I don’t remember terminology being an issue during the campaign for equal marriage: it seemed to be taken for granted that same-sex spouses would be referred to as ‘wives’ and ‘husbands’. And there is logic in that. If, as a minority, what you want is not just legal but also social recognition—having the legitimacy and value of your relationships affirmed by society at large—then there are good reasons to prefer the words that are already used by and about the majority group. Symbolically those words say, ‘we are just like you; our relationships are no different from yours’.

I said earlier that displaying your married status via casual references to your spouse (like ‘I should go, my wife’s waiting’) is something heterosexuals do all the time. According to the conversation analyst Celia Kitzinger, who has studied this phenomenon, when heterosexuals say ‘my wife’ or ‘my husband’ (which it turns out they do very frequently, most often in contexts where their marital status has no bearing on the matter at hand), the message it conveys is one of ordinariness. Letting people know you’re married, without making a song and dance about it, is a way of presenting yourself as a normal, unremarkable, responsible adult.

In the past, non-heterosexuals couldn’t do that. Unlike ‘my wife/my husband’, formulas like ‘my partner’ or ‘my girl/boyfriend’ didn’t say unambiguously, ‘I’m in a grown-up, stable, committed relationship’. Though those who have it may not notice it, being treated as unremarkable is a form of privilege. From that perspective, it’s not surprising if campaigners saw being able to use the traditional spousal terms as one aspect of the equality they were fighting for.

But the traditional terms have different implications for lesbians and gay men. For lesbians, wife has costs as well as benefits: it allows them to claim greater social legitimacy for their relationships, but it also has uses which are demeaning to their sex. There’s a trade-off, in other words, between two kinds of social status. Gay men who adopt the label husband do not face that dilemma. Husband is not demeaning to men: marriage has never reduced men to non-persons, or required them to submit to the authority of a spouse.

Of course it’s true that the meanings of words change, and this happens because they start to be used in new contexts. Perhaps the extension of wife to lesbians, whose marriages are (at least in gender terms) reciprocal arrangements between equals, will help to shift the old view of married women as subordinates. Perhaps in future wife will mean no more than ‘a female person who is married to some other person’.

Or perhaps—since most marriages will continue to be heterosexual—the old ways of using wife will simply be carried over into the new context of lesbian marriage. Women married to women will be talked about in the same ways as women married to men; perhaps we’ll hear lesbians making jocular allusions to ‘the wife’ and her ‘wifely duties’.

Some queer theorists might see this as subversive, a challenge to heteronormative assumptions about marriage. For feminists, however, the problem is that it does not challenge patriarchal assumptions about women. The phrase ‘wifely duties’, whoever uses it, still suggests that a wife exists to serve. An ‘inclusive’ version of an old cliché like ‘the world and his or her wife’ still implies that a wife is an appendage.

For as long as these expressions remain in common use, it will be hard to argue that wife has shed the baggage of its patriarchal history. But with language, you’re never starting from scratch. What Marx said about history is also true about meaning: we make it ourselves, but ‘under circumstances existing already , given and transmitted from the past’.