Surnames and gender inequality

Michelle did not take my family name when we got married, instead she kept her original surname.  We get questions about this only occasionally now that the wedding has past, but last summer we had more than a few conversations about the why behind the decision.  Obviously it isn’t a common decision, so we weren’t surprised at all to receive some initial push back, which can be expected with any choice that is non-conformist in nature.

Our Western tradition of name structure is simply that, a tradition.  As with any tradition it is unique to a certain culture and a certain time and it’s really fascinating to dig deeper into how other cultures deal with names.  Some put the surname first.  Most pass down a patrilineal surname but some cultures are matrilineal including many Native American cultures.  In Iceland they don’t even use family names.

When it comes down to it, a name is just a name right?  Sharing heritage and membership within a family group happens regardless of name.

And following the dominant cultural tradition simply for traditions-sake is LAME.  Especially when our Western tradition is inextricably linked to the subjugation of women and to gender inequality.

In the scope of history, it wasn’t all that long ago that our nation had just finished a systematic genocide and was still enslaving an entire race, not to speak of addressing women’s rights.  My point is that tradition is far from infallible and a poor excuse for any defenseless action.

Going as far back as medieval Europe, English Common Law and the Salic Law provided that all property held by the wife at the time of marriage became a possession of her husband and males alone were eligible to inherit land.

Moving forward to the 19th century, this legal doctrine was referred to as coverture.  Coverture basically provided for two status of women: “single” woman and “covered” woman.  Sir William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769) explains coverture:

“By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything; and is therefore called in our law -french a feme-covert; is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture.”

In “A People’s History of the United States,” Howard Zinn points out a mind-numbing quotation of 1600s English law while writing about the oppression of women in his chapter entitled The Intimately Oppressed:

But all women were burdened with ideas carried over from England with the colonists, influenced by Christian teachings. English law was summarized in a document of 1632 entitled “The Lawes Resolutions of Womens Rights”:

In this consolidation which we call wedlock is a locking together. It is true, that man and wife are one person, but understand in what manner. When a small brooke or little river incorporateth with Rhodanus, Humber, or the Thames, the poor rivulet looseth her name…. A woman as soon as she is married, is called covert . . . that is, “veiled”; as it were,clouded and overshadowed; she hath lost her streame. I may more truly, farre away, say to a married woman, Her new self is her superior; her companion, her master. . .

How disturbingly abhorrent and disgusting is that??

In the next few paragraphs of the book, Zinn then detailed how men in those times had such power over the women in a legal situation that they had the right to

‘punish and chastise the wife but not inflict permanent injury or death.’

Also, that

‘besides absolute possession of his wife’s personal property and a life estate in her lands, the husband took any other income that might be hers.  He collected wages earned by her labor. . .’

He even discussed how it was a crime for a woman to have a child out of wedlock while the men took no punishment at all for their role in that.  Ridiculous!

Even if you try to justify and drum up a reason for changing names upon marriage based on spiritual roots, Christianity or the Bible, the argument just falls completely flat.  I mean in the Bible women were viewed as property and men could take multiple wives!  Plus, when looking at all of these historical English laws, it wouldn’t be too much of  jump to conclude that they had been taking the Bible’s metaphor of “one flesh” a little bit too literally.

After all of my research, the issue of a woman taking the man’s name upon marriage just seemed to be a leftover remnant of a completely backwards way of thinking regarding gender equality.  To me, it represents a history of subjection and marginalization and I was not okay with that.  I mean, call me extreme but I shudder every time I see a letter addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Mans-Full-Name.  It bothers me.

To give my wife credit, she was the first to bring the subject up after engagement and in the end it was her decision and not mine to make. (Although, I might have been advocating pretty hard to influence her final decision, and I was supporting her 100%.)

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7 Responses to Surnames and gender inequality

  1. jolie says:

    You already know I love this topic. I, too, shudder when people write Mr. and Mrs. Sean An*rom. In fact, I specifically asked Terry not to announce us as such when he presented us as newlyweds. Whenever I write cards or letters to married couples, I specifically write Mrs. and Mr. Wife Name Husband Name Last Name just to make people think a little. Why should it matter whose name comes first?

    Obviously I took Sean’s name, partly because of social pressure (damn) but a large part was also due to this issue of children. I do like the idea of having a “family” name and having the same name as both my husband and children. Although I’m fine with people who DO want to use hyphenated names, the idea didn’t seem appealing to me. Ideally (in my mind) we could create a new name, or it would be normal for both parties and all children involved to take both names.

    I love the respect you have for Michelle wanting to keep her name! It says a lot and it’s something most men cannot do.

    • Lance says:

      I like that you asked Terry not to do that. I think in our ceremony it was something like, “For the first time as a married couple… Lance and Michelle.” It seemed kind of awkward during rehearsal, but it really wasn’t weird at all during the wedding (in my mind).

      I totally understand where you are coming from in the case of hyphenated names for the (potential?) children. But for me, I loved the idea of them, and it’s definitely way more aesthetically pleasing with our particular names.

  2. Hope Naomi says:

    um, lance, i love this post SO MUCH. i’m not anywhere near marriage, but it is important to me that i do not take on my husband’s name for the very reasons you listed. people usually roll their eyes at me when i say i won’t be taking a man’s last name (…one christian guy even “joked” that he would never marry me because of it.) so i’m used to standing alone on this issue. thanks for being aware of and taking action against such a distasteful tradition. you and michelle rock!

  3. NBH says:

    Thanks for the post. I couldn’t agree with it more, and for this reason, I kept my last name when I got married.

    To the poster above, who wanted a “shared” name – this is certainly a worthy reason to share a name, but why must it be the man’s name? At first my now-partner (I also dislike the historical gendered implications of the titles “husband” and “wife”) stated this as a reason as well (for me to change my name), and said he wanted a shared name. I said that if it was important to him, then we could combine our names somehow and come up with a shared name. I pointed out that I would have to go through a certain type of identity loss and reformation and that if we were supposed to be a team starting off a new life together, then why would I undergo that alone? Once he saw the logic, he was kind of shocked that he had thought otherwise, and agreed with me.

    We have our own last names – which we both love – and have been married for several years now. At some point we may decide to informally combine our names – or we might not – either way, we will do whatever we do TOGETHER.

  4. sara says:

    Thank You for this post I completely agree with you,

    I grew up in a society based on gender inequality. It is considered a blessing to have sons but it was normal to get any girls. So you can already assume where they would stand on the issue of changing the wifes last name. It is unheard of where I live for a women to keep her last name, a tradition I will soon break when I get married in a month. Once my fiance and I left for a weekend trip to Lebanon and of course the first order of buisness was a roll call of names where we attest to our presence with a simple ” here” . I go out of my way to turn off my music and take out my headphones so i can hear my name be called, you know to answer . We begin with mr. Abdullah, not me, the mr. Ahmed, ok still not me, mr. Rashid., mr., mr, mr ,mr ….. Even my fiance gets some recognition at this time , now Im a little curious where my name is on this list. My mind doesnt comprehend until he’s completly finished that the roll call only consists of the names of the male tourists . This bothered the intensity out of me, that this man was actually worried to offend the males by naming thier daughters, wifes , sisters etc. I did give them a piece of my mind before the trip had started and when it was time for the roll call again i made sure he called everyones name including mine.

  5. Pingback: i never wanted to be a feminist. | Far from what I once was…

  6. a friend of hope's! says:

    I found your blog through Hope’s, and I’m so glad I clicked her link! This is really beautifully written, and it’s so refreshing to see a younger adult male who can understand why this is a big deal for many women.

    Because Jolie also wrote it, did you, in your research and readings, come across the history of “Mrs.”? I actually try to avoid using it, just because I think it’s unfair that a woman is automatically marked as either married or single by Miss or Mrs., while men can you use Mr. no matter what. I just use “Ms.” and call it a day, but did you find anything regarding that?

    Thanks again for this! You and your wife sound like great people!

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