Partners and Spouses
|Over at Ferule & Fescue, Flavia has an interesting post about the use of the word "partner" to mean significant other. I suspect, as does she, that this usage is particularly prevalent in academic circles, and less so elsewhere. Although I wonder if it is also common in other professions where gays and lesbians are prominent. In any case, she's interested in the generic use of the term to denote both heterosexual and homosexual couplings. I've thought about this a bit myself, because a little while back my department was adopting a new policy on the hiring of significant others, and we had a little debate about what to name this policy. "Spousal hiring policy" was clearly out since we wanted to indicate its non-discriminatory (at least in theory) nature; someone suggested "spousal/partner hiring," at which point another person argued that we should just drop "spousal" altogether and adopt "partner" as the generic term, thereby signalling (so he argued) our commitment to the idea that there is no difference between heterosexual and homosexual couples.|
But it was just that idea that there is no difference that prompted some of us (led by a couple of the queer faculty members, but not restricted to them) to argue that we should retain "spousal" along with "partner" in the name. Because there is an important difference between heterosexual couples and homosexual ones: the heterosexual "partners" can become spouses if they so choose; the homosexual partners cannot (except in the great state of Massachusetts). So simply adopting a "partner hiring" policy erases that crucial discriminatory reality. In the end, this argument won the day. And I agree with it, and by extension, I usually use spouse, husband, or wife to describe married heterosexuals. But this leaves the question of how to refer to unmarried heterosexuals. I agree with Flavia that at a certain point boyfriend and girlfriend start to sound ridiculous, and so I suppose partner is the best option. But I still think it can mask, rather than attending to productively, discrimination based on sexual orientation. In other words, it seems a bit Orwellian to call couples by the same term when we don't actually, materially treat them the same.
Not quite a Renaissance topic, of course, but one that I suspect most academics are facing as spousal/partner hiring becomes a bigger and bigger issue in the profession (the reason being, I think, that academics can barely talk to non-academics much less get them to marry them). Of course, there is a Renaissance angle to this: the Reformation and Counter-Reformation may have transformed the understanding of spouses, wives, husbands, and life partners (aka, helpmeets?) as much as the rise of the gay rights movement and the gay marriage movement has in our day. When I read Flavia's remark that "I've always liked the term 'spouse' for this reason, too: in elementary school my best friend's parents were German immigrants, and they addressed each other this way in charmingly and affectionately accented English: 'Oh, Spouse! Can you come here, sweetheart?'"--I couldn't help thinking of people like Gouge and Whately and Dod and Cleaver and wondering if those German immigrants were rather low-church Calvinists or Lutherans, stressing the companionship and partnership of marriage over its procreative function?
[UPDATE: see this comment on Flavia's post by bdh (of Sound and Fury), who notes that the OED defines partner as (in part) "A person who is linked by marriage to another, a spouse; a member of a couple who live together or are habitual companions; a lover," and that the first citation for this definition is to Milton's Paradise Lost. All of which makes me actually believe what I wrote rather off-handedly in the final paragraph above.]