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The marriage is happy, the husband fantastic. But the word "wife" remains itchy and ill fitting. When my husband's work took us to a foreign country for a year, his colleagues tried to make sense of my presence. Neither employee nor local, I was an appendage, and experienced a shrinking each time I was branded as such. "Oh, you're the wife," the colleagues would say, followed by a smile of tolerance, even kindness, but never excitement. "Wife" eclipsed all of my other identities: Writer! Runner! Mother! Parking-ticket fighter! No further investigation was required: Wife was my beginning and end, alpha and omega.

But I am, apparently, alone in my discomfort; the word has been de-stigmatized. TV is packed with Real Housewives and The (ironically titled) Good Wife. In politics, Olivia Chow is the left-behind wife while evangelical GOP hopeful Michele Bachmann subscribes to "submissive" wife dogma. Pop culture is panting with "wifelust" – but can a modern woman really be a wife?

In her book The Meaning of Wife, Anne Kingston writes: "For centuries, the role of wife served as the ultimate female control mechanism." The 18th-century legal doctrine of "coverture" essentially suspended the legal existence of a woman during marriage. A single woman was a "feme sole," a woman alone, with her own rights and legal status; after marriage, she became a "feme covert," her legal rights subsumed by her husband's.

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But even after married women regained legal status, the connotation of coverture never entirely vanished. As many overtaxed women have joked, "I need a wife," meaning a domestic sherpa and personal assistant who is also a hellcat between the sheets. As a child of 1970s feminists, I never had the goal of becoming a wife, but, as a child of the divorce era, I was curious about marriage and pulled toward monogamy. That whole free-and-easy, fish-without-a-bicycle thing isn't so persuasive when you spend your adolescence watching friends trucking between custody arrangements Mondays, Wednesdays and alternate weekends.

And so the nineties heralded the return of the big, fat wedding and I watched my peers reworking the word "wife" within their own relationships. Their marriages invoked some of the best aspects of a union – loyalty and support, emotional merging, selflessness – and tossed out what didn't work (as one new wife told me, "He'll never get my ATM PIN"). This was all quite nice, but I could get it common-law, and didn't become a wife until the kids were born, and work visas required it.

Now, when the word "wife" is summoned in certain circles, it's not a paean to equal partnership, but a nostalgic shout-out to the most archaic definition. "My husband said, 'Now you need to go and get a post-doctorate degree in tax law,' " Bachmann said in 2006. "Tax law? I hate taxes. Why should I go into something like that? But the Lord says, be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands." She has since backpedalled like a Shriner clown, but laying claim to non-threatening subservient wifeliness is politically strategic. You know that if Sarah Palin is self-labelling as a "current housewife," then it's become shorthand for that noose-tight definition of "family values."

The obscenity is that both Palin and Bachmann are working women, with lives and statuses that may include home and marriage, but aren't limited to them. In the public milieu, playing the part of "wife" has become a piece of popular theatre.

The most gruesome production is the Real Housewives franchise, whose title suggests women beholden to their husband's wealth while the shows are about a bunch of high-heeled ids exercising their freedoms to the hilt. Of course, freedom appears to mean launching low-fat avocado dips and dropping disco singles while tossing wine in each other's faces. Still, these are no angels of the hearth.

Post-Hillary Clinton, political wives are shedding the role of supportive accoutrement; just ask Maria Shriver. When Olivia Chow stated that she would not seek to lead the NDP, she decisively cleaved her achievements from the wife identity, one she gracefully handled in the wake of her husband's death. "That's not my role," she said of the party leadership. And after a life of public service, "wife" is hardly the defining role of her life either.

But I know one woman, a former colleague, who throws the word "wife" around with admirable aplomb. She formally married her girlfriend in Toronto when gay marriage became legal in 2004. In a recent e-mail, my friend embraced what is newly hers: "[I like] telling someone I am married and have a wife and seeing them wrap their brains around it for a minute," she wrote. "For what it's worth, I think it can help to change the language around marriage and ultimately perhaps even change how the word is viewed by the women who want nothing to do with it. Once the definition is blown open, there are so many possibilities."

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