I'm a stickler about words, being of the "Eats Shoots and Leaves" perspective. Punctuation, too. (Not sentence structure, obviously.) So when today's NYTimes featured a story about married lesbians calling each other "wife," I noticed.
The writer, Sarah Sarasohn, married her spouse 13 years ago. (See, they didn't need any kind of legal re-definition to do it!) But the thing that got me was that she and her mate, the other mother of the children Sarasohn bore, decided that their commitment should be a political statement rather than a personal life situation: "Using the term was about irony and politics." When first married, Sarasohn used the term to be "very in-your-face. It derailed whatever other conversation I was having because I had to explain what I meant by 'my wife.'"
Her concern at the time was that "wife" implied "servant," and that was not her intent.
Let me underscore that I am not objecting to Sarasohn's choosing a life commitment with another woman. I have views about deeming this "marriage," though, and it's related: blurring the distinction between male and female diminishes the specificity of our language; renders the words ("wife," husband," "marriage") an amoebic goo that makes analysis of our world more difficult. And analyzing, synthesizing, dissecting the world--ie making judgments--is the essence of intellectual pursuit.
We've already got a gender-neutral word for married partners: spouse. We've also got "partner," not as specific and not necessarily marital. But this is about preserving a descriptor for the unique combination of opposites, male and female.
Why should we preserve these distinctions? We're just smearing into an amalgm of people anyway, flowing in and out of relationships, some of which happen to have the governmental benefits of marriage, others of which are easier from which to extricate. Evolution and enlightenment. Broadening definitions so they're not so sex specific, or status-specific is more descriptive of the real world. But on the other hand--why not expand the vocabulary, rather than contract it?
Perhaps there should be two new words for gay "husbands" and "wives" that more accurately reflect their own unique types of combining. Their two-of-a-kind of uniting certainly deserves its own special language. Instead of glomming onto the old-fashioned words, the ones that since the start of the English language have meant male and female's joining, with the usual outcome of creating a new generation, gays should be creative enough to find words that reflect their own special sensitivities. Let "marriage" remain. Then Ms. Sarasohn and other lesbians won't have to worry about the servant-like connotations that "wife" carried, or the bread-winner history that "husband" used to imply.
She and her "wouse" (woman spouse) could be just as "in-your-face" with their own word. Gay men can make a statement referring to their...well, "mouse" is taken. We've got "domestic partners," but devise a new term for commited gay couples that isn't the gender-linked term "marriage." Leave "wife" and "husband" so we can at least have more choice in language, rather than less.