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March 26, 2007 | by  | in Opinion |
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Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Watching Shortland Street last week, I heard Tania Jeffries remark that despite her hurried marriage, and lack of a big ceremony with all her family present, she was over the moon to be married, as all she had ever wanted “was to be Mrs Weston”.

To be honest, I was shocked. I thought it was common practice to keep your own name these days, especially since we’re supposedly living in the age of gender equality. However, there seems to be a trend towards the tradition of taking your husband’s name when you get married. I went to find out why.

Response Number One:
Woman: It’s romantic, nice, you know, showing that you love your husband.
Me: Well, presumably he loves you, but does he take your name?
Woman: No…
Me: Well, why not?

Response Number Two:
Woman: I don’t know, it’s tradition I guess.
Me: But what does that tradition represent?

The tradition of taking your husband’s name dates back to a time where marriage for women was an economic necessity.

Women had no legal rights whatsoever; they couldn’t vote, they couldn’t own property and very few were educated. The only way to survive was to get married. An unmarried woman would be considered a burden on the family, and at worst end up in prostitution. Hence the importance placed on charm, physical beauty and being sweet and docile. If you “succeeded” and got married, as your father walked you down the aisle and “gave you away”, you were transferred from your father’s house to your husband’s house. You were literally a piece of property that your husband could do what he liked with – control your reproductive and sexual life, beat you and take sole responsibility for ownership of children.

Since you had no identity of your own as you had become subsumed into your husband’s identity in marriage – naturally, you took his name.

The act of taking a man’s name absolutely symbolises this history, and very simply, I don’t want to buy into that. In Western countries, we live in an age where women are paid less than men, where the objectification of women’s bodies is fuel for capitalism’s fire, where domestic violence statistics continue to rise. There is just no way that this act is “meaningless”. Keep your own name, keep your identity.

Response Number Three: the unspoken response for why women change their name is to show the world that “Hey, I’ve got married”. It’s still considered an achievement to get married. We live in a world in which men’s apparent ‘commitment phobia’ (a load of bollocks if you ask me and just an excuse for women to put up with more and men to behave like bastards), means it’s still an achievement to ‘catch’ a man. Refer Tania Jeffries from the introduction of this article. The nurse marrying a rich doctor still holds social cachet.

It was never legally required to change your name, except in a few states in the US. When you change your name, there are legal forms to fill out, banks to be informed, telephone books need to be changed and the list goes on. However, when my mother got married in 1977, it was actually harder for her to keep her own name, than to change it because of the social expectation that she would change it. She, along with many other feminists, fought for her own last name, and for the prefix ‘Ms’ to be accepted, from constantly correcting people who introduced them as ‘Mrs…’, to crossing out ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ on forms, drawing a box, writing ‘Ms’ beside it and firmly ticking that box. It meant constantly correcting people who presumed she had the last name of her husband.

Now, it’s at least easier, and acceptable to keep your own name. So, why a return to this tradition? Why throw out the work of our mothers? Today, when two people marry, they make the decision together, and come together as equal partners. So, why should you take a man’s last name as your own? He does not take yours. It’s as simple as that. And that, my friends, is equality.

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About the Author ()

Well hello there. Eleanor was the Theatre Editor in 2007, now she writes the Women's Column and just generally minces about the Salient office. Eleanor is currently an Honours student in Theatre (with a touch of gender). She also has a BCA in Marketing but she tries to keep that on the d-low (embarrassing, because she loves academic integrity and also perpetuating the myth that she's a tad bohemian). If you've got a gender agenda, woo her by taking her a BYO Malaysian. She lies, if you show any interest at all she'll probably tackle you in the street and force you to write a column.

Comments (8)

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  1. Linda Thompson says:

    Right on Eleanor! Although I note you have your father’s surname). I’m 53 years old and first married in 1973. Since we were both journalists I had no intention of taking his name, especially as we worked together too. As soon as we were married, there was an assumption by some that I’d actually married another guy called Thompson in the office. It was fairly unusual then NOT to change your name, and I was interviewed by the NZ Herald along with several other women who were oddballs and chose to keep their names.
    Now I’m married for a second time, still haven;t changed my name (no-one can spell Christoffersen!). But what’s my daughter and all her 20-something friends planning to do, or have already done? Changed their names!
    My 79 year old step mother has just moved into a retirement village and says its taking her ages to realise she knows quite a few women there because their names have changed. What on earth did we fight for this to be considered normal for! And do any of these young things notice that NOWHERE on the marriage certificate is their “married name” – it’s only in their original name.

  2. Deborah says:

    Great column, Eleanor! You’ve made excellent points about the importance of equality in marriage and the symbolism of keeping your own name and, like you, I am really bothered by the enthusiasm with which young NZ women seem to be taking on their husband’s names, and the reasons why they are choosing to do it.

    I’ll date myself by the fact that I was at your parents’ wedding…. and confess that I did take my first husband’s name when I got married a year or two before them (at the tender age of 20). But I was also partly motivated by the fact that I thought (and still think) that his name was much nicer than my own.

    I’ve kept it in my second marriage and my second husband would like to take it, too, (because he prefers it to his own, too) but recognises that it’s still not realistic to do that in today’s society.

  3. Roger Steele says:

    Good on you, Eleanor, for raising the topic. Young women who wimp out on this one may be unaware of the issues at stake and how hard brave women fought a generation or more ago for the equality they now enjoy. And they’re unaware how easily it’s lost. But I’d like to challenge guys who go along with their wife changing her name – what sort of chauvinists are they, who think their name is the one for both of them? How up themselves! Don’t go along with it, guys – don’t encourage your wife to be wimp and sell other women out. Are you a man or a doormat-maker; are you marrying a woman or a doormat?

  4. Surely there are bigger things to worry about, Eleanor. If you want to keep your name, keep it. Don’t go around trashing those who choose to do otherwise.

    The actual importance of this issue was tellingly exposed by one of the comments above. Deborah admits that she took her first husband’s name because “his name was much nicer than my own”. Right on! Score one for the feminists!!

    No woman shoud be railroaded into taking her husband’s name, but, equally, no woman should be chastised for freely choosing to take it, as a sign of fidelity and partnership in marriage.

    Good on you for keeping up the feminist charge, Eleanor, but pick your battles. There are much bigger things for woman like yourself to worry about.

  5. Eleanor Bishop says:

    Thanks for your comment John (and thank you of course to the supporters). You’re right, there probably are bigger issues in the grand scheme of things. I’m not talking trash about those who decide to change their name. I just wanted to make others aware of some of the history and the reasons surrounding their issues. So they don’t just pick up from pop culture that ‘that’s what you do nowadays’ and not think twice about it. Surely, its better for people to be aware of why women fought to keep their own names, so if they decide to change their own name, they’re at least making an informed choice?

    In regards to ‘bigger things’, keep a look out for my columns in the future, I hope the issues I’ll tackle next will be ‘big’ enough for you.

    P.S Linda Thompson – Thanks for your support. I do have my father’s last name. I think my parents decided double-barelled names were a slight nightmare. However, one of my middle names is ‘Dixon’ – my mother’s surname. I love it, it means I carry her name throughout my life also.

  6. raf says:

    This issue a real conundrum and one my wife and i have discussed many times before. She kept her maiden name but the real issue was what name should our children have and this is where the real problem lies. Double barelled names are just about digestible but the next generation will be faced with naming chaos. We talked about making up a new name in similar fashion to how horses used to be named though that’s gone out the window also.

    My wife now has taken my surname because she didn’t want her step father’s surname anymore and didn’t identify with her father’s surname either. So what to do? Take the best name, toss for it…i’m open to suggestions but as long as we have children they need to have a surname from somewhere…..one, mixed up or new.

    In conclusion, it’s actually a very complicated issue which we don’t seem to have a good answer to just yet.

  7. Rachel says:

    Some interesting points Eleanor, but I have to say I entirely disagree with you. I married a few months ago and changed my name. I see this not as an object of oppression or losing my identity, or even submitting my identity in favour of my husband’s. Instead I see it as a beautiful and powerful symbol of the ‘oneness’ we are aiming to achieve in our marriage. One whole person plus one whole person equals one marriage unit. Ironically, instead of ‘wimping out’ on this issue, as someone judged it to be, it takes a lot of courage to make this choice. Here is why.

    Women of this generation, whether we want it or not, are branded as oppressed if we make a choice that seems even the slightest bit traditional, or even in favour of lifting up the strengths and value men have, as well as those of women. When I stated in university that I would be a stay at home mother, because that is what I value, people looked at me like I had all of a sudden transmutated into the very object of male oppression. Please. I am not oppressed, I am not a victim, and I’m really tired of being told by pseudo-feminists that because I’m a woman I will inherently be a victim unless I take all measures I can to be as independent from men as possible. Though I’m newly married, I can see how that attitude would very quickly become a death-knell to how great marriage really can be when two people value their goals in marriage and the betterment of each other over pursuing individual gains.

    Here’s what we are working to set up. Not a 50-50, equal, I’ll do this if you do that, performance based relationship, but both my husband and I giving each other and our marriage 100% of ourselves, no matter what. I took my husband’s name as a symbol of that. I often hear my husband say he would die to save my life, if that’s what it came down to. Wow. It is so freeing to be loved like that – the opposite of what a lot of feminists propogate. How would you appreciate someone saying “I’ll take half a bullet for you”? Or even better, “You are just as capable as I am, so I’ll stand here and do nothing while you fight for your own life.”

    Some people have remarked on the younger generation turning back to tradition as if that’s a bad thing. To be honest, I think it’s because this generation has experienced the fallout of the 50-50 marriage, the my-husband-is-my-potential-enemy attitude. Divorce rates skyrocketed under this, and more unhappy marriages were born through the selfish attitudes of the “it’s about me” mentality. Call us crazy, but we don’t want that. We want real relationships, not perfectly etched out contracts that exist only as long as you both feel like it.

    Our grandmothers fought to give us a choice, and I do not underestimate that. I am grateful for that. But you have given us the choice – now let us make it for ourselves.

  8. jan says:

    should my husband and I sign Mr.AND Mrs. or Mr. OR Mrs. on all of our assets? Such as payments from our rental property, stocks and bonds etc.

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