Last year, two and half months before the publication of Hild, I emailed my editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux: “I hope it’s not too late to change my author bio. I no longer want it to read that I’m Kelley’s ‘partner’ because we’re getting married.
He wrote back: “No problem. I’ll just change partner to wife. So the end of the bio will read ‘She lives in Seattle with her wife, the writer Kelley Eskridge.'”
I blinked. I blinked again. I hesitated. Wife. Then (with some misgivings) I gave the okay.
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.
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.
Yet it’s still not easy to introduce Kelley as my wife.
I read my first feminist theory when I was 19. It made me so angry that I couldn’t leave my flat for three days because I thought I might hurt the first man I saw. In the countries I call home (the UK and US) until relatively recently husbands could rape their wives with impunity. Wives could do nothing about that. A wife belonged to her husband. A wife submitted to him and depended upon him; a wife wasn’t allowed to make decisions for herself, to borrow money…
So growing up wife was, to me, an ugly word. Anathema. A badge of second-class citizenship. So ugly, in fact, that it changed the way I thought. I and the woman I first lived with and loved1 never called each other my anything. Not even my lover. Using the possessive for another human being seemed wholly wrong.
And then I met Kelley and fell in love. And now she is my wife. Now I am her wife. What changed?
The etymology of wife is complicated. Looked at superficially we can say the Modern English wife (female spouse) is from Middle English (ME) wif/wiif/wyf (mistress of a household) which in turn is from Old English (OE) wīf (female, lady, woman—from wīfman, female person, though I’m not sure when that formulation occurred). But look a little deeper and you see that various meanings from past eras hang on in different guises, so we get the OE sense of woman preserved in midwife and old wife’s tale, and the ME sense in housewife and (more specialised) fishwife (tradeswoman of humble rank).
And then we ask, where did wīf come from? From Proto-Germanic *wiban2. Which in turns might (things apparently get a bit guessy at this altitude, or maybe depth) come from the Proto-Indo-European *weip- (to twist, turn, wrap, perhaps with a sense of veiled person), or *ghwibh- (shame, also pundenda). So: wife might ultimately come from a sense of hiding one’s shame. No wonder I’ve never liked it.
But words change. They change because the world does, because the speakers of a language put the words to different use, one that reflects their evolving worldview. In this sense, frothing conservatives are right: changing the traditional definition of marriage has changed marriage.
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.
Wives and husbands3, women and men, are both now human beings in and of themselves. Though legally related. Family. Which entails obligation and connection, belonging that isn’t necessarily possessive. I never had a problem calling the woman who bore me my mother though no one would have dreamt of assuming she was my chattel. Rather, we belonged to each other.
More women—of every age and sexuality and marital status—understand this and are refusing to accept the notion that women belong to men. I don’t think it’s a coincidence, for example, that the Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen began some time after the SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality. Yes, before that there was #bindersfullofwomen. And, yes, SCOTUS ruled as it did because attitudes were already changing. But they are part of a continuum.
Interesting times lie ahead.
1 But see how awkward that phrasing is?
2 This disquisition is from notes I jotted down some time ago without attribution. (It’s a bad habit I’m trying to break.) A quick search shows that a good chunk comes from the Online Etymology Dictionary but some, well, it’s a bit of mystery. I’m guessing I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary, my favourite book, and that I added two and two myself to make four, but if anyone out there recognises any of it, please let me know. I’ll be happy to give credit.
3 Husband is a later formulation. It’s from Old Norse and probably replaced OE wer in the 13th century.