One year ago next month, I was lucky enough to marry the most wonderful woman and am immensely proud that every day I live and breathe I am able to call her my wife (her good fortune with regard to ending up with me remains questionable). Over these eleven months of wedded bliss, we’ve been asked a lot of your typical newlywed questions, ranging from the banal…
Q. “So how’s married life?”
A. “Well, as we’d been living together in FILTHY CARNAL SIN for four years before the big day it’s actually exactly the same as de facto life, but it sounds less sinister and we had a hell of a party that cost us most of our lifesavings – hey, let’s look at the photos!”
…to the predictable…
Q. “So when are the kids coming?”
A. Actually, I don’t have an answer for this because I’ve never needed one – it’s a question asked exclusively of my wife. I’m not sure whether the implication is that a) she (i.e. all women) is so desperate to breed it’s all she can think about, or b) I simply get no say in the matter. Both are borderline offensive.
But, dear readers, do you know what we rarely get asked? Whether or not my wife will change her surname to mine. As far as I can tell, the reason we’re not asked this is because it is almost universally assumed that she will or, more accurately, already has – and in fact probably rushed ecstatically to do so somewhere between kissing the bride and consummating the union. It wasn’t just that everyone assumes that her surname is mine – which in itself is presumptuous, if understandable – but that so much subsequent post-wedding correspondence was addressed simply to Mr and Mrs My Full Name. Apparently not only did my wife lose her surname in the nuptials, but in the eyes of a lot of people she lost her first name too.
It got me thinking about the continuing – nay, growing – phenomenon of women changing their surname name to that of their husbands. Tell a modern woman that she can’t vote, get a job or own property and you will quite rightly be chastised, laughed at, slapped around the head or most likely a combination of all of three. Yet the overwhelming majority of western women (various sources for the UK, USA and Australia have the number at between 80 and 90% and climbing) continue to happily embrace the tradition of giving up the surname they’ve grown up with in favour of a man’s as soon as they’ve walked down the aisle. A tradition – as most of us know – which arose around the distinctly un-feminist concept of passing “ownership” of the woman from her father to her husband when she got married.
My wife hasn’t taken my name, and we are both content with that. Her family name (and yes, I acknowledge the semi-irony of the fact that family names are invariably paternal) is very important to her – her father passed away some years ago and she doesn’t want to lose the name she has grown up with. Personally, as someone who has generally viewed the Bridal Name Change (BNC) as a particularly archaic patriarchal remnant, I have never put any pressure or expectation on her to change her name to mine. However, such is the social expectation which seems to accompany the BNC, that when in discussion my darling wife ‘fesses up to the fact that she – gasp! – is keeping her maiden name, she now tends to do so in a near-apologetic tone, such is the judgement that seems to emanate from those listening (Does she not truly love me? Is she really a committed wife? Am I not man enough to take control of the situation?). Not that this bothers me, I’ve been generally of the opinion that people will get used to the wild craziness of our choice and learn to deal. I always considered my position strengthened by the fact that I have no intention of changing my name as a man, so if I were a woman I wouldn’t change it either.
But then, that’s all too easy for me to say isn’t it? I’m NOT a woman. I haven’t been socialised for as long as I can remember to dream of my perfect white wedding to my perfect Mr Right, and to believe that one of the most romantic, affirming and feminine things I will ever do is to prove myself a proud and devoted wife by changing my name to Mrs Right. Smugly proclaiming that I wouldn’t do something that I’ve never been asked, told or expected to do in the first place is about as meaningful as announcing that I’m removing myself from contention to be Scarlett Johansson’s personal masseur. It became clear to me that, while I’m not going to stop having an opinion, I may also be in possession of one too many Y chromosomes to hold the pre-eminent perspective on this. And so it was to my female friends and colleagues that I reached out for their thoughts.
As I’ve now reached the quite ridiculous age of 34, I’m a relative latecomer to the party among my friends to engage in that dated-but-immensely-fun tradition of dressing up and saying “I do” (and the clichés are all true – it really was the best day of my life), so I was able to watch and learn from those who had already gone through it. Of those already married, all but two took the decision to undergo the BNC – and it’s fair to say that one of those two dissenters was somewhat unexpected to me – while a glance through the extended families of my wife and I indicates that there are no Keepers of the Maiden Name to be found there either.
The selection of women I spoke to who are not yet married (and these encompass the full spectrum from single to attached to engaged) is these days a smaller sample but does contain a number of the females dearest to me in the world. Among these women was a more even balance between those who would choose to undergo the BNC and those would choose to keep their own names, although the slight majority would still take the option of becoming Mrs Him.
Those women who think as I do and would keep their own names were pretty consistent about the reasons for it – a sense of identity, their own independence, and railing (as I do) against such an outdated tradition of male dominance. When it came to the question of why – in an era of unprecedented female empowerment and independence – the women who would change are still choosing to maintain this tradition, the answers were varied but generally settled on a couple of key themes, and often went beyond simple convenience of future paperwork and personal admin. A lot of them were genuinely proud and excited to have engaged (or intend to) in such a traditional wifely act, and felt that it showed their commitment to their husband and to the institution – I variously heard or read a great many statements from female friends along the lines of “I can’t wait to be Mrs HisName!” and such like. Children were another big selling point, insofar as a position common to many women was the need to have the same surname as their children. Interestingly, the idea that the children might take their mother’s surname (should she decide to keep it) was never an option – every woman accepted without question that the children would have dad’s name and she would have to change. The idea of projecting commitment and unity was also raised repeatedly.
In the end, many women simply don’t consider it a big deal – from a feminist perspective at least. Perhaps it is simply the case that in amongst progress over issues like equal pay, equal rights, sexual liberation and social advancement, the gender politics of the BNC just don’t matter. If I was feeling particularly cheeky, I might also note that social expectation works on both genders – and that the amount of money us blokes are expected to spend on the rocks that go on your finger entitles us to naming rights. But only if I was feeling particularly cheeky.
In the end, like most things it really is a matter of personal choice – and I wouldn’t dream of trying to take that away from anyone. So ladies (and gents), make your choice, take his name or don’t, and be happy with your decision.
Just don’t go projecting it on my wife and me. Please.