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.’
‘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%.)