The leftward and other blatherings of Span (now with Snaps!)

Thursday, April 26, 2007


Over on What We Said Emily has written about the thought processes behind women changing, or not changing, their names when they marry.

I have to say this is one custom I sincerely hopes dies a death as civil unions become more prevalent and the old marital traditions, based on the transfer of ownership of the bride, fade into the past.

I've heard a lot of arguments about why women should change their names over the years. They generally boil down to the concept that you want to have the same last name as your husband, and your children, so you change your surname to match his.* For some the rationale for this seems to be that you can't be a "family" if any of the members in it have different last names from the others.

To that I say phooey.

I remember pretty clearly when I first met some kids who had a different last name from their mum. I was about nine and the family in question were a brother and sister plus mother. I never got the reason, or don't remember, why Dad wasn't around, but I tell you what, different names made absolutely no difference, they were most certainly a family. I recall fondly the times spent camping with them, and the obvious love and affection that was peppered with the usual familial fighting. I suspect Mum felt the judgement on her for having her "own" name, but she was a strong woman who I admired, and I'm sure she was more than up to the challenge.

I guess from a young age whenever I thought about this idea that all the family members had to have matching monikers I remembered this multi-named unit and thought otherwise.

And I also thought of my own relations too. I knew that if I married and took my husband's name my parents and my sibling would still be part of my family, despite the break in naming monotony. When my sister wed and changed her name we were all still related, weren't we?

For that matter if I ran into someone else with the same surname, who I had never met before in my life and wasn't related to at all, would that make us instantly family? After all, we have that oh-so-crucial relation-creating bond - the same "family" name on our birth certificates.

For me families are defined by other, much more important things that are shared - love, history, and an obligation to spend money on each other at the major religious festival of your society's dominant culture. Familial bonds are formed through blood or chosen unions, but names do not need to play a part in that. They can if you want, but I don't think people should feel that they are somehow less a part of a family if they don't all share a surname.

I know some readers think I'm seeing anti-women bogeys all around these days**, but surely this is beyond arguing with? It's a tradition based on women as chattels and marriages as property transactions. One of the few remaining vestiges of the bad origins of marriage is this changing of names, signfying the changing of ownership.

If we want to make marriage something that isn't about subjugating women to men then we need to change these traditions. Women need to only change their name if they want to, and men (and their families) need to stop pressuring women to come into their fold.

And all you other people out there, you can kindly desist from casting aspersions on XXers who keep their names and sniggering behind the backs of the XYers who marry them.


*I think I have heard once, ever, of the couple considering the man changing his name to hers, although I believe it may be gaining popularity in California.
** As if I wasn't before!! ;-)

(Pic Via)


Fi said...

I agree, there isn't actually any really good reason to adopt your husband's name - except recognition. If I married someone rich & famous and wanted to get some milage out of it, then I may consider changing my name. It doesn't make you any more a happy family if you all have the same name, plus changing your name on official documents is a pain in the neck, especially now you can't endorse your passport with your married name, but have to pay for a new one.

The thing that really annoys me is getting mail (from people who know I haven't changed my name) addressed to Mr & Mrs J Bloggs - hello my name hasn't been reduced to Mrs just because I got married...

stef said...

Changing names, not changing names doesn't really make a difference. When a couple marries in Asia, the wife often keeps her name but there's a whole bunch of sucky stuff that comes with being married off.

I agree that women need only change their name if THEY want to but the same could be said for reproduction, taking time off to have babies, doing housework etc.

tze ming said...

When a couple marries in Asia, the wife often keeps her name but there's a whole bunch of sucky stuff that comes with being married off., some people in Asia get married without being 'married off'... but perhaps that was just an awkward syntactical construction.

Keeping our own names is pretty standard for women of our generation, politics and education I would think Span, and our partners would never be stupid enough to object. But what about the next step? Which is: being able to pass on our surnames to our children without an extended episode of haggling and stupid double-barrel options, which, for a lot of us, just would end up sounding ridiculous. The only truly egalitarian and rational choice would be to have two children and each one gets one of the parents' surnames. Or if you're only having one, flip a coin.

welly_girl said...

I think this is a really good post and I agree with everything you say.

When, or if I get married I will be choosing to take my husbands last name, i think it is part of my christian values (which are by no means devout), in the same way I want to get "married" not have a civil union.

Span said...

Fi - I know your pain in terms of the Mr & Mrs Bloggs thing. I feel very odd when people ring up and ask for Mrs Span, I feel like telling them my mother doesn't live here! Oddly, in my work I am always referred to as Ms, I don't think anyone has ever called me Mrs.

As you know from past conversations ( :-) ), I think it's good that we have the choice, but I'm being more strident here than I have in the past because I think that actually the "choice" is heavily constricted, and for many women, even amongst my peers, really it's an idea they can flirt with but not commit to, because of the judgement it would unleash.

Span said...

Stef said:
I agree that women need only change their name if THEY want to but the same could be said for reproduction, taking time off to have babies, doing housework etc.

Yep, I have no problem with any of that! In fact I've ranted on all of that here before I think. Maybe not the housework. But I'm sure I can rectify that in the near future!

Span said...

tze ming - good to see you around!

I agree about children's names, and I think one of the main barriers to success in this area could be the grandparents - the pressure and expectations they may hold can bend the best intentions of the parents I suspect. But I really like your idea of alternating or coin tossing, and I'm keen to put my money where my mouth is on that, have been for quite some time now. Luckily I know a woman whose parents did this several decades ago, so I have a good example to point to in my arguing.

Span said...

w_g - I'm curious, and I'm not asking this to be nasty, I am genuinely just trying to understand. Why do your christian values encourage you to change to your husband's name, particularly if they are not that devout?

I know some christian couples who have changed, others who have not, and I'd like to know why you think your religious values would be upheld by not keeping your own name?

welly_girl said...

It might not actually be my christian values, but something in me says that when I get married I want to have my husband last name.
Its stupid that I can't explain why, but I do, maybe its the traditionalist in me.

Sorry for just rambling, but it has certainly made me think why I do want to take me husbands name.

Lucyna said...

I use both names. When I was working as a consultant for a government department that ran the JP system (over in Oz), it was explained to me that when a woman marries, she automatically gains the right to use her husband's name. She just needs the marriage certificate as proof. So what that in effect means, is that women can use either name. Which is what I've done.

My passport is in my maiden name, and most other things now are in my married name. It took me a long time to get used to the idea of using my married name, but it got easier with having children. The next time my passport comes up for renewal, I will put it into my married name so that when we travel, it will be more obvious that I am my children's mother (which is more important to me than what name I use).

I get where you are coming from - but, it's a tradition, this taking on of your husband's name. Traditions aren't bad. And it makes it easier for kids to know what to call you.

All this calling parents by their first names that children now do is really annoying. They need to know your name in order to greet you, while as in the past you'd just be called Mrs Child's Surname, and that was it. So, if they don't know your name, they can't greet you properly, which is helping the gradual slide into rudeness that society is experiencing.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the post span. as both christian and feminist i seem to constantly have battles with friends about this issue. im 23 and have had many friends already get married, and all of them changed their names. it was a right of passage for them, part of being married and being a new family. i understand that part - belonging in a new family of your own. but the feminist in me screams out "why cant the new family take your name?" ive since come to the conclusion i will keep my own name. i know this will draw criticism/strange looks from the christian friends (who already think this feminist stuff is strange as it is), but i am who i am - my name identifies me and im not planning on changing that when i get married.

Anonymous said...

Whew anonymous, that must be real intense with parts of you screaming and all. Take a deep breath then consider why cannot your friends be given the "right to choose" without your tacit or implied disapproval or permission.

I find it strangely arrogant that a "feminist" would wish to impose her agenda on other women but then I couldn't ever understand why feminists oppose beauty pageants or stay-at-home wives and mothers either. After all the participants get to make their own choices of participation unless you subscribe to the quaint old fashiooned notion that some are born more equal (the rulers) than others (the masses) and therefore have a divine right to direct the actions of the masses for their own good and protection.

Span said...

DavidW, if only women could be given the right to make their own choices without anyone's tacit or implied disapproval or permission! Sadly, that is far from the case, and most of the pressure when it comes to name-changing is in favour of change, rather than agin it. I'm not sure how me putting my views out there is applying all that much pressure, really. I'm pretty sure last time I checked that my blog was considerably less powerful or influential than say the Catholic Church...

The feminists I know don't oppose stay at home wives or mothers. Personally I think if women stay at home they often end up ceding their economic independence, and I fervently wish this wasn't the case.

To summarise - making an argument for keeping your own name does not equal imposing that decision on other women.

Ghet said...

None of the women I know here who are in permanent relationships with kids, married or not, have taken their partner's name, and they've all given their children their partner's surname rather than their own. So far as I'm aware, not one of them has been pressured into doing otherwise. My best friend uses both names, one when she's teaching, and the other for the rest of her life.

The only person to mention name-changing when I got married was my husband's mother, and I think she was a little upset by the degree of astonishment I displayed at the idea - it genuinely hadn't crossed my mind.

I don't accept people calling me 'Mrs Partnersname', not just because it's not my name, but also because we're not married, by conscious choice. I find the assumption really irritating.

Span said...

Lucyna, I'm not convinced traditions aren't bad, (if that isn't too many double negatives in one sentence). I can think of quite a few traditions that are particularly bad for women and play into ideas that XXers are inferior. Female genital mutilation for a start, and smooshing wedding cake into each others faces for a trivial finish.

I guess I just don't see the point of the tradition of name changing by women, except in that it remembers the old days when the change signified the ownership of the property changing from father to husband. What are the upsides of this tradition? For women I mean.

Why do our children have to have our names at all, really. My recollection of being a kid was that I often didn't know the last names of my friends anyway, so I used to call them Mrs Andrew's Mum and so on, at least before intermediate age. Shouldn't we be introduced to kids anyway, giving us a chance to let them know what to call us? I just don't find that argument very compelling, but I'm open to hearing more.

Span said...

Anon at 1.58pm, thanks for your comment. It's interesting that changing your name seems to be seen by some as the christian thing to do. I can think of a couple of married Anglican vicars that I know, and they have different last names! The woman in that relationship is a strong feminist, and although I don't share her faith I have a great deal of respect for her, and for her views on many subjects.

Anyone who knows me at all didn't bat an eyelid at me keeping my name, it was never on the agenda. And yet there are still some people (not many) who address mail to Mr & Mrs Nickname Pending. People who cold call on the phone ask for Mrs Span, which isn't quite so annoying.

I think these assumptions are part of the subtle pressure some women feel to change. Not one person has yet called my partner Mr Span, except once or twice as a joke. I think that speaks volumes.

Span said...

Sorry, I didn't fully finish my comment at 9.10pm. At the risk of over-commenting on my own post, the last sentence of the first paragraph should read:

"Female genital mutilation for a start, menstruating women are dirty and unlucky for a second, women must cover themselves entirely for a third, when the husband dies the wife should burn on his pyre for a fourth and smooshing wedding cake into each others faces for a trivial finish. You'll note these are not all Christian traditions, I hope."

Sofiya said...

I have to say, it really annoys me when people use the travelling with kids thing as the excuse for a woman changing her name. I don't get it -- you'd go through all the annoyance and rigmarole of changing her name so as not to offend the ostensible sexist sensibilities of some immigration officer who will look at your passport for, oh, maybe 30 seconds? Immigration officers see passports from all over the world, including countries where it isn't the norm for women to change their names upon marriage. Changing your name to impress airport personnel strikes me as... just dumb. Not to mention factually inaccurate - my mother has a different last name from mine (I have my father's last name) and we travelled a lot when I was a child, and there was never once any question about whose kid I was.

Cactus Kate said...

The worst is when you have a dirty weekend in hotel or spa with a married man and they announce you as Mr and Mrs xxxx. Assuming you are the wife.

It can though speed up the duration of the relationship based on how sick it makes you feel when they announce it.

I am all for people choosing, however laugh whenever I see my sister in law and the highly stupid name she has. You would think she's take our family name on the basis it sounds a whole lot less stupid.

Ms Klake said...

I agree with you completely. However I would have one very good reason for changing my surname, I hate it. So I would change it (so long as their name wasn't more hideous than mine).

However, when I was married I did not like being called Mrs XXXXX. But I think it was more to do with the 'Mrs' part.
And I did change back to my maiden name after the separation. So if there was a next time I'd probably wait before formally adopting hubby V.2's name.

Lucyna said...

Sofiya, I'm not using travelling with children as an "excuse". I've already changed my name on all sorts of identification. I've been married for 13 years now, and don't want to use a separate name from my children. I don't want to feel like an outsider in my own family, like I'm somehow keeping myself separate. Hence the gradual changing over to the family name over the last few years.

Span, I agree that there are traditions in all sorts of cultures that would be better not kept. I don't think swapping over to the husband's name is in any way on level with those sorts of traditions at all. I can certainly understand women keeping their own names (as I have done for many years), but, as my understanding of marriage has changed and grown, so has my feelings about my name and what to use changed.

I see marriage as two becoming one, and as the man is the natural protector (or ought to be, I know some women marry girlie-men), it makes sense for the family to take on his name.

Deborah said...

A man as a natural protector! And marriage as two becoming one!!!

I have been married for 17 years now, and we have three children. I am as educated, qualified and well-paid as he is. It's a relationship of equals, not some conglomerate whole in which one of us dominates the other.

I can't see any good reason to change your name on marriage, but if that's your choice, that's fine by me. But dressing it up as some sort of 'natural' thing seems to take the choice away. If it's 'natural, then there's no choice about it.

Oh, and I have never, ever had any difficulty in travelling with children who have a different family name from my own.

Sofiya said...

"I've been married for 13 years now, and don't want to use a separate name from my children. I don't want to feel like an outsider in my own family, like I'm somehow keeping myself separate."

So why not give the children your name? There's no law saying children have to have their father's name. Also, not having the same name as your kids doesn't make you an outsider in your family - my mother has a different name from me, my brother and my father, and she certainly doesn't feel like an outsider.

I don't have kids yet, but when I do, if I'm giving birth to them, damn it, they're getting my name.

Span said...

Um, yeah, what Deborah and Sofiya said, sorry I'm still trying to get over the man being my natural protector thingy. My partner does protect me sometimes, and sometimes I protect him right back. I'm not quite sure why social constructs such as "man protects, woman gets protected" are really all that natural. And even if they are, we can change them if we want, surely.

One other thing I wanted to say earlier but forgot - not liking your own name doesn't mean you have to wait until you get married to change it if you like his better. You can change your name any damn time you like. I had a friend when I was young who had an unfortunate last name and as soon as she and her brother were adults they both changed to something similar but better, and their dad did it at the same time too. I have another friend who decided to change her name as soon as she was legally able for reasons I still don't quite understand, and she did so. No marriage necessary.

Deborah said...

I don't have kids yet, but when I do, if I'm giving birth to them, damn it, they're getting my name.

Yes. I agree. We didn't (they have their father's family name), but it was for personal reasons other than, "it's traditional." There is no good reason for children to have their father's family name rather than their mother's family name, other than tradition.

One of my aunties and her partner gave their children her family name. The children don't seem to have suffered any adverse consequences from that.

Lucyna said...

Tradition (from Wikipedia):

Tradition is a knowledge system (a means of transferring knowledge). Economists Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell explain that tradition is an economically efficient way to transfer and obtain knowledge of all kinds. Sowell, for example, notes that decision-making consumes time (a valuable resource), and cultural traditions offer a rich, low-cost, consensually authenticated way to economize on the resources required to make decisions independently.[1] Chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi argues that the importance of tradition stems precisely from the fact that we know more than we can articulate, and that we amass and communicate valuable knowledge through tradition, often without conscious awareness of all the factors that influenced the development of traditions.

I could argue that the tradition of taking on the husband and father's name as the family name creates, 1: an easily identifiable unit; 2: no arguments as to the name, therefore no powerplay involved as to whose name gains dominance; and 3: a subconscious acceptance of what marriage is.

The third is something we as a society are losing. People do not marry as much anymore, and therefore do not undertake to commit to each other. Relationships are not seen as permanent - if someone is not happy, that is seen as a reason to leave (as if the other exists solely for their happiness only, therefore becomes more of an object rather than a person).

Maybe individuals do not suffer when wives do not take on their husbands names, but as a whole, society suffers as families break down. The ability for families to stay together is breaking down over the generations, and children raised in broken families are at more risk of psychological and physical harm than intact families.

Fatherless children in particular are at the most risk. If you look at people in prison and in trouble with the law - most of those people have not come from stable, married families.

The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. And many women are currently doing a very poor job, because it's becoming all about them, and not about the next generation, and not about what we should be passing on.

There ya go, rant over.

Lucyna said...

One more thing. I've been thinking about this for a number of years now. I remember a woman on a site I used to hang out at moaning about how society doesn't value mothers. Which set me off into a huge rant about if we don't value ourselves, and see what we are doing as important, then how on earth is society going to value us?

This conversation is very reminiscent of that, in that, there is this underlying belief in here that women don't have value if they don't keep their own name.

What a load of crap.

As if women are the most important thing in the world, and what we do, ie: create life and raise families, is insignificant.

Most women seem to want to somehow become men, as if that is going to give us the value we crave. That is what devalues women, this infernal quest for balls, this defeminisation that seems to be required in order to be seen as anything good.

Men are far better protectors than women are - that is a biological fact. Women are the last defence if anyone gets past the men, and yes, we are capable of defending as well, but we need viciousness where men have natural strength.

Taking on the man's name is a symbolic reminder of a man's duty. Men certainly need reminders - and if they are not given them, will quite happily let the women do everything. I don't know about you girls, but I'm happy to send my husband out in front to investigate very strange noise inside the house with me as backup, rather than pushing him aside and insisting on going first.

Sofiya said...

Show me where anyone said that women who change their names don't have underlying value. As I recall, I said that I think it's a poor decision, not that they're valueless people.

So OK, I get it, you made the "traditional" decision about your name, and although the reasons you give for it are patriarchal, it's your decision (and you can thank a feminist that you got to make decisions at all). That's no reason to accuse women who feel different of wanting to defeminize themselves, devalue marriage, etc etc. "Subconscious acceptance of what marriage is" - give me a break. Subconscious acceptance of what patriarchal marriage is, maybe.

Deborah said...

That's a nice analysis of tradition you found on Wiki, lucyna. But, just because something is traditional doesn't make it good in itself. Tradition used to have it that hitting your wife was accepatable. Tradition used to have it that once a woman married, she signed over all rights to sexual integrity, and so rape within marriage was not rape at all. Tradition used to have it that women did not, as a rule, get university education. Traditions are always up for revision. As it turns out, there are plenty of traditions worth preserving, like ensuring that workers get the weekend off, but that is to ensure that people are entitled to a rest (i.e. they are not slaves at their employer's beck and call all the time) not for reasons of tradition alone.

As for the implication that women who don't change their names are responsible for the breakdown of marriage and families in our society - that's pretty far fetched. You will need to come up with some hard evidence showing that marriages where the partners use different names break down more readily than marriages where the partners use the same name before you could make that call.

As a thorough going feminist, who values choice, I take the Voltaire position on this. I don't particularly care for your choice, but it is your choice, not mine, and I respect your right to make it. And bear in mind, just as my choice is only meaningful in the context of your choice, your choice is only possible and meaningful in the context of mine.

Emily said...

Hmmm...I guess I live in a pretty enlightened area. I don't have any friends at all who felt pressured to change their names when they got married. And I'd probably say at this point, I probably know more women who are within ten years of my age who chose not to change their names than who chose to do so (many in my church, so I don't see this as a "Christian" or "non-Christian" thing).

As far as changing names for travel purposes, because of the childrens' names, maybe it's not a big deal if you're traveling around in Western countries, but when you're traveling or living in places where women still have far fewer rights, it does make a big difference. I have a friend who kept her unmarried name until she and her husband moved to Jacarda. They refused to recognize her in the schools as the mother of her two sons, and she felt she HAD to change her name. I think it's always important to take a world view of such things, and to adjust accordingly, rather than to assume anything.

Span said...

Thanks everyone for commenting - it's been very interesting to follow this debate back and forth.

Ultimately I do think it's good that women can choose whether to keep their names or not. But I feel that for some the choice part is pretty nominal - and for women in that situation it isn't assumed they will keep their names.

I don't have less respect for my friends who have changed their names, or who want to. But I'll readily admit I don't entirely understand their reasons, which is part of why I've found this discussion useful - some women who have or intend to change their names to their husband's have offered their reasons up for us all. If anyone else wants to I'd be really glad to read it.

I've also been aware through out this discussion of how it leaves out homosexual relationships. I'm not an expert, but I've yet to hear of a gay, lesbian, or something else entirely, relationship where one partner has changed their surname to match the other's, even when they have children. Is that the experience of others or are my friends the weirdos? ;-)