As a lesbian pondering eventual marriage, the question arose in my mind whether the words “husband” and “wife” had any language origins in gender. Aside from tradition, is there any reason a husband must be a man and a wife must be a woman?
There are indeed gender ties to the word wife. The oldest meaning of the word—coming from Old English, Old High and Middle High German, and Old Norse origins—is simply woman, or more specifically a woman of humble rank or bearing and often old. Think of “old wives tales,” “fishwife,” “alewife,” etc.
From the same origins, the oldest meaning of the word “husband” is less sex-specific, in that its first and foremost meaning is householder, freeholder, or master of house. It still has ties to sex by being technically a male master of the house, but it is unclear whether the gender specification is part of the actual etymology or if that is simply a connotation assumed by the dictionary in translation. The gender ties to wife, on the other hand, cannot be mistaken.
This brings forth a couple different questions: 1) What is actually the more egalitarian wording for a heterosexual couple? 2) What are the language opportunities for gay, lesbian, and transgender couples?
For a heterosexual couple, perhaps depending on religious denomination, the most common marriage pronouncement wording is “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” Another option is “man and wife,” but this one is less preferred by modern, egalitarian couples.
In an unofficial yahoo.answers poll most people agree that “man and wife” makes the wife sound like a possession. The man has always been a man, so now the only change is that the woman is becoming his wife. Sounds pretty patriarchal, right? They argue that if a woman becomes a wife, then a man must become a husband. They both have roles to play.
If the words man and woman imply identity and the titles of husband and wife imply marriage roles, then we must ask what these implied roles are? In the modern, egalitarian sense, we hope that a woman becoming a wife and a man becoming a husband are both basically assuming roles of commitment in love for each other. That seems like the lowest common denominator, right? Everything else—who protects, earns money, raises children, cooks food, pays bills, etc.— is up to the individuals. Everything gets a little tricky if it’s implicit in the titles.
In actuality, the word husband implies a role of ownership more than the word man does. The only granted improvement is that rather than implying ownership of the woman, “husband” implies ownership of the house, and head of the household. This is only a minor improvement though, since the woman is part of the household.
Even though “man and wife” seems most egalitarian by these definitions, that may not be true either. Wife is not a very feminist title in either combination, since it is merely a degrading version of the word woman. Man remains a very pure gender identity. A gender identity at its purest combined with a degrading gender identity is not necessarily any more egalitarian than a patriarchal gender role combined with a degrading gender identity. In either case, the woman is degraded.
In other words, “husband and wife” is actually no more egalitarian than “man and wife.” Sorry to disappoint. The best way to phrase it if you want to avoid all gender role implications might be “partners,” “spouses,” or simply “man and woman.”
What does this mean for lesbians, gays, and transgenders? Simply this: keep in mind the meanings when you decide your preferences. It would certainly be possible for a lesbian woman to take the title of husband if she and her partner considered her the head of the household. It would also be possible for transgender woman to take the title of wife. Just keep in mind what the words you choose mean.
Whether or not we think about it consciously, words can evoke subconscious expectations and understandings we don’t always like.
I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on this different perspective! Do you think the implied meanings of husband and wife are a problem?
Stay strong and stay informed. 🙂