When I was married to a man, I was the poster girl for the traditional wife role. And that's probably why I wince when I hear a lesbian say, "I'd like you to meet my wife." Wife? I think, I've been there...can't we come up with a better word? To my mind, Wife means maid, waitress, cook, seamstress, nurse, counselor, Mommy, chauffeur, homemaker, sex provider, etc. It all started for me in 1967 when Billie Jean King was at the top of her tennis game and I was stepping into adulthood. At the age of twenty-two, I married Ted, my high school boyfriend. Neither of us knew much about love or, for that matter, what we wanted from life. I was tired of the dating scene and decided it was time to settle down, since that's what my friends were doing. We each thoughtlessly assumed our new titles, husband and wife, ignorant of the fact that those terms were code words for specific gender roles.
Ted graduated Yale Law School in 1968, the same year that Yale Law graduated its first female student. He became a successful lawyer; I left my job as an administrative assistant and became a housewife. He earned at least three times what I could hope to earn, and he didn't hesitate to remind me. "Since I earn far more than you can, it makes sense for you to stay home and take care of the kids and the house." I nodded in agreement.
For twelve long years I gave it my best, but I never became "the good wife." In an earlier blog I called myself a "late-blooming lesbian panther." Now, as an almost grey panther with some life wisdom, I recognize that I've had many late-blooming tendencies. I was a late-blooming lesbian (came out at the age of 34), a late-blooming writer (began in my fifties), as well as a late-blooming feminist. I awakened to feminism about thirteen years after the 1960 onset of the women's movement.
My husband and I followed our parents' example in creating a traditional marriage. As wife, I tried cooking elaborate meals, using my prized wedding gift, The Joy of Cooking. Coq au Vin, beef stew, and paella were some of the recipes I followed, verbatim. I wasn't a very creative cook and it certainly didn't come easy to me. When preparing a special meal, I shuttled between the open cookbook, the ingredients scattered on the kitchen table, and the gas range. I zipped around the kitchen, flour for coating the chicken glued to my sticky hands, a pan of butter blackening on the stove, onions rapidly burning in the frying pan, as I madly searched for sweet aromatic curry, which I eventually realized I didn't have. My approach to house cleaning was along the same order. Every few weeks, when my tall, professionally attired husband calmly stepped through the front door after a day of legal work, his eyes would tear up. He'd get a powerful whiff of chemically-induced lemon scent, and a quick scan of the kitchen would reveal that I'd been cleaning: the broom leaning against the white and royal blue kitchen wall, the spray can of furniture polish perched on the table next to a vase of freshly cut fragrant roses with wild purple flox, and a little mound of neatly piled dust bunnies beside the basement door. "You forgot to put a few things away," he pointed out. "Oh, I just didn't get to that part yet," I explained defensively.
Fortunately, I had colleagues, feminist ones, who began to speak to me about my marital role. I had begun working part-time in the women's healthcare field, where I met women who had different lives and different views from the suburban housewives of my community. I was enticed by these women who were actively fighting for their rights. They embodied a fiery passion and a genuine affection, and this, more than anything, was what inadvertently opened the door to my love for women. I jumped into the "movement" in 1976, creating with seven other women the Women's Sexuality Collective. We ventured into territories considered unladylike and outrageous, like creating groups for women with sexual problems to teach them how to reach orgasm through masturbation. Later on, when I came out while still married, the women in my collective were my staunchest supporters. Changing my beliefs and attitudes was serious work, and it was an often-painful endeavor. I had to find a way out of my boring, oppressive marriage, even though I was sadly aware of the collateral damage that would result: my kids were innocent and my husband was baffled by all my changes.
Falling in love with a woman helped me move out of my marriage and into a new world of women. I discovered that intimate relationships with women were based on parity--there were no predetermined roles. Both partners were women, born and raised with similar gender expectations. When I met my long-term partner, Judy, we negotiated our areas of responsibility, and I found that my absent-minded housekeeping gradually improved. She was better equipped to repair household appliances and to mow the lawn because she was stronger than me and had a mechanical and technological mind. Once intimately bonded, we figured out who was better at what, who had time for what, and tried to divvy up the chores. It was no panacea; we occasionally had to renegotiate our roles when our tasks became unbalanced.
Why, I wonder, would lesbians, who have an opportunity to create a different model for marriage, choose to use the label wife? Many straight women across our country experience the role of wife in the same way I did. Can't we come up with better, more neutral terminology than wife? What would we call a lesbian partner, if not wife? Marital partner? Many feel that the term "partner" seems empty, as if both members of the couple worked at a law firm. Spousbian? Or just Spouse (the same term for men or women, heterosexual or gay)? None of these roll off the tongue, but they are possibilities. What would you suggest? I'd love to hear your ideas.