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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

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.]

  • At 5/31/2006 05:08:00 PM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    Thanks for continuing this conversation, H. I quite agree about the potentially masking function of the word--that is, the way it can pretend that all relationships are equal when legally they *aren't*--and I'd have agreed with your colleague about retaining the language in your hiring policy that acknowledged that difference. I also do believe that marriage is meaningfully different than domestic partnership (but then, as a Catholic, I would: it's not about God; it's about the ritual!)

    But using "partner" generically for spouses and domestic partners might be construed to signal--especially since the terminology is rather new--not so much the belief that the relationships ARE equal, but a belief that they SHOULD be. (Another aside: can anyone explain to me people who claim to support gay civil unions but not gay marriage? Anyone?) With a little luck, they soon will be in New York as well as in Massachusetts.

    And finally, as for my childhood friend's parents: they were indeed Lutheran, and whether or not they valued the companionate over the procreative aspects of marriage, they were a) clearly very much in love, and b) had no biological children. Both theirs were adopted.


  • At 5/31/2006 07:49:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    I personally am going to start using "helpmeet," which I assume is gender neutral: "Oh, Helpmeet! Are you ready to go to the park?" "Oh, Helpmeet! Can you go move the car?"

    I do amuse myself...


  • At 6/01/2006 12:03:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I was just at a conference where a female colleague referred frequently to her partner, always taking assiduous care that she use gender neutral pronouns. She's one of those people who you know for years without ever being quite sure of their sexual orientation. Eventually (after a few hours) she let slip a "he" or a "his," thus outing herself, clearly against her will, as a heterosexual. This is not the first time I've encountered the "stealth heterosexual," and I'm curious what it means. She knew I was married to a woman, so it presumably wasn't to shield herself against any anti-heterosexual rage on my part (heterophobia being so widespread and all).

    On to politics. First, the problem with the academic (generally leftist) obsession over non-discriminatory language is that there is no necessary link between formal techniques or terminologies and ideologies--that is, you could just as easily say that by using the term "partner hire" as a catch-all phrase you are not glossing over the historical and material differences between committed straight and gay couples, but rather that you are championing the utopian principle that all forms of (consensual, legally aged) partnership are to be regarded as equal in the eyes of institutions and governments. Why not, after all? In fact, why not call them "spousal hires" and perversely insist that committed gay couples are to be seen as identical in the eyes of the law... Likewise, you could claim (it wouldn't be very fashionable, but you could) that the insistence on separate terminology is merely a left-wing and multiculturist return to a kind of "separate but equal" mindset. And so on.

    Finally, Flavia, there is indeed an explanation for people who claim to be for civil unions but against gay marriage. This nonsensical position, as well as any other, perfectly illustrates the current condition of the Democratic party. Faced by a country that is clearly uneasy about gay marriage, and believing that the electorate is voting based on values, Democrats have repeatedly opted for craven, self-contradictory positions that simultaneously alienate them from their own base and garner universal contempt from the center and right-wing. "I voted for the Iraq war before I voted against it." "Don't ask, don't tell." "I'm in favor of civil unions, but against gay marriage."

    More charitably, one could suggest that it is the position of most Democratic politicians who actually are in favor of gay marriage, but daren't say so yet (just as the left-wing core really would like to outlaw hand guns, but has to face the political reality that saying so would be suicide). Regardless, it would be nice if Democrats stopped doing this.


  • At 6/01/2006 05:54:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    "Partner" is used quite a lot in the UK too, and for much the same reasons. (But see http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,,839870,00.html for an anti-"partner" rant by the professionally stroppy Julie Burchill.) The Civil Partnerships Act, which gives gay and lesbian couples the same legal benefits as married couples, avoids using the term "marriage" so as to maintain a distinction between heterosexual and homosexual relationships (though the distinction in many ways is now between those who get married or register their partnerships and other cohabiting couples, who have no legal rights).

    I actually quite like "boyfriend", in a girl-group "hey la, my boyfriend's back" sort of way, but I tend to use "partner" in professional contexts. Most of my friends in my age group tend to use "boyfriend" or "girlfriend", but maybe that will change as we hurtle through our thirties. The popular term for cohabiting used to be "living in sin", but "housemate in sin" doesn't really cut it...

    (My own helpmeet is a non-academic - do I win a prize?)


  • At 6/01/2006 01:35:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Bracketing for now the question of bureaucratic naming and self-identification, what's the default term you all use for other people's spouses/significant others/partners/helpmeets? I like Aldo's point about the effects of terminologies on ideologies (or lack thereof), so my question is more concerned with social graces (i.e., not wanting to annoy or anger others). I've been trying to stick just with using first names (so, "How's Julie?"; not, "How's your wife Julie?"), which isn't the easiest thing to do with a memory like mine. In general I'm never quite sure what term to use, especially with single-sex couples who live together, own homes, wear wedding bands, and sometimes have kids, but of course aren't legally married. I'd like to use "spouse" or "husband," but I'm not sure whether doing so would be appropriate. And as some of the commentators over at Flavia's note, it seems so straight to refer to a gay person's helpmeet as his or her "partner."

    Re: civil unions.
    Civil unions = recognized by state
    Marriages = sanctified by a church

    It'd be so much easier if states were able to remove themselves from the marriage racket entirely and only recognize civil unions instead. That way the various religious groups could squabble among themselves about whether they're going to marry same-sex couples, interfaith couples, interracial couples, etc. But, alas, that's not really an option with modern day Puritan-Platonists in positions of power. The attempt by Democrats to finesse this issue doesn't bother me anywhere near as much as the drive among Republicans to engage in outright demonization and discrimination (as I'm sure Aldo agrees). If I were a politician I'd try to frame it the way I have above: the state should recognize only civil unions, both gay and straight, and the religious folks can decide whether their particular sect will "marry" any particular couple.


  • At 6/01/2006 02:01:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    With people who are legally married, I use wife or husband, since after all, they've chosen to get married and so they are, in fact, wife and husband. I can't imagine how people could object to you referring to their wives/husbands if they decided to get married (I'm saying this as a married person, incidentally).

    I tend to use "partner" for all unmarried couples, as I mentioned, though I use the person's name, as you do, whenever I know it (and know the person). In terms of social graces, I think if you used wife or husband for any unmarried but long-term committed couple, you'd run the risk of offending them or at least of getting lectured: if they are straight, then they've probably chosen not to marry for some reason; if they're gay, they might well (and I would think rightly so) object to being named as if they're married when they're discriminatorily prevented from actually do so.

    On the civil union vs. marriage issue, I think Simplicius has it exactly right. If the state wants to give special status (tax, probate, etc) to couples because of various social engineering reasons (odd that on this issue conservatives are all in favor of governmental social engineering), this is a legal entity ("union" or whatever you want to call it). I think the debate would be clarified and liberals might have a better chance of winning it if we stressed the separation of legal/civil unions and religious marriages. The state could still choose to recognize any marriage performed by a religious person, as it does now, by granting in some fairly pro forma way (by issuing/selling a license, as now) a civil union as well.


  • At 6/01/2006 02:46:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Ok, "partner" it is.

    I wasn't worried about the heterosexual couples objecting to "husband" and "wife" but the gay couples who are married in every sense except the legal one. I'm not crazy about using "partner" to describe both their relationship and that of a couple that started dating two months ago, but there you have it. "Partner" definitely seems like the safest choice.

    Unless of course we can convince everyone to start using "helpmeet"....


  • At 6/01/2006 03:11:00 PM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    Actually, I think the best way to finesse this issue in a casual social setting--especially if you're relatively friendly with the person you're speaking to--is to use a deliberately lighthearted or wacky term: "How's your Best Girl?", for example, or "gentleman friend," or "better half," or whatever. That way you don't have to remember said better half's actual name AND you can avoid seeming overly square OR offending your addressee.

    And for the record, I'm all in favor of the civil-unions-for-everyone proposal.


  • At 6/01/2006 03:17:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Flavia's comment reminds me to tell everyone that this conversation is continuing in the comments over at her original post, where it began, so check that out too.

    I knew someone once, however, who insisted on constantly referring to my significant other, or later to my wife, as my "sweetie" or "honey" or some other term of endearment. As in: "how's your sweetie?" This drove us crazy. Especially because he never seemed to say such things to her about me...


  • At 6/02/2006 04:40:00 AM, Blogger bdh wrote…

    Not to be crass, but we've forgotten "significant other". I personally prefer this option, since it is not limited to members of the same/opposite sex, but extends outside our species to pets, cars, plants, etc...


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