EqualiSea

The Pulse on Gender Equity in Seattle & Beyond

The Evolution of the Word 'Partner'

Gender Equality OverallMartha BurwellComment

Language is fascinating.  If ever you’ve sat with a dictionary in your hand and thought that the language on those pages was defined, static, unmalleable, you would be mistaken. Wicked, sick, twisted: Just a couple of decades ago each of these words would have solely negative connotations; nowadays these words are commonly used to describe something positive.

And so too the language that we use to define our relationships is changing

The word ‘partner,’ used in a romantic context, is a word that has evolved quickly over the past few years, shifting from meaning almost exclusively lesbian or gay romantic partner, to a more fluid word that can be used for relationships between people of any gender.

One reason for this evolution could be the increase in LGBTQ rights.  LGBTQ people have fought long and hard to have their relationships recognized.  Before the right to marry, ‘civil unions’ or ‘domestic partnerships’ were granted, where the relationship had legal validity, but not the full recognition of marriage.  So, denied the right to refer to their significant other as spouse, wife, or husband, ‘partner’ was a commonly used word amongst LGBTQ couples.

But when marriage equality was passed state by state (2012 in WA), and finally nation-wide earlier this year, LGBTQ couples could finally say “my husband and I are going on vacation,” “my spouse is still at work,” “I’m buying a house with my wife.” And though many still use the word ‘partner,’ many others use those hard-won words wife, husband, and spouse.    

On the flip side, people in heterosexual relationships have increasingly chosen to use the word partner instead of husband or wife.

064 by artvintage1800s.etsy.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

What is the reason for this change, if any, and what does it mean? Well, perhaps the reason for this change lies in the history that is enwrapped in the words “husband and wife.” For centuries, wives have literally been property of their husbands, something which is still the case in varying degrees around the world.  We’re not there yet in the US, either.  For example, in many states in the US, the definition of rape has some type of exclusion or restriction if you’re married to the rapist, “essentially codifying women as sexual objects” that belong to their husbands.  In Washington State, this was the case until 2013.  You read that right.  Two years ago.  There are countless other ways in which our heterosexual relationships aren't equal yet, such as shared household responsibilities, where women still do significantly more work on average.

So perhaps the word partner is an intentional reconfiguring of our relationships.  It allows for fluidity, for freedom.  It allows more space for men to be caretakers, it allows women to be breadwinners, it allows us to share responsibilities, and create our own meanings of what a romantic partnership looks like.  It doesn’t force us into little boxes, it allows us to define our own relationships.   The neutrality of it is refreshing.

Words are powerful. Perhaps more than anything else they are the prism through which we define the world we live in. For many centuries wives were owned by their husbands, they had no rights, they could not leave the marriage, they were, in short, anything but partners. And so perhaps today’s use of the word partner is a bid – both conscious and unconscious – to move towards something more equal, towards a true partnership.

What do you think?  Do you use the word partner?  Or not?  Share your thoughts with me in the comments below or on twitter @EqualiSea.