Society

Why Do So Many Women Still Change Their Last Name When They Marry?

From name-changing to myth-telling, when we fail to question the status quo we perpetuate and reinforce centuries-old assumptions about gender roles

By Emma-Louise Boynton

13 June 2021
W

hen Carrie Symonds, former Conservative party press officer, recently married the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, she decided to change her last name, emerging from the modest ceremony a new woman: Carrie Johnson. Mrs Johnson is not unique in her decision – a 2016 survey found that 90% of women in Britain take their husband’s name. But still, my heart dropped momentarily as I read the news.

In 2021, I find it hard to fathom how any woman could not feel the weight of history sit heavy on her shoulders as she decides to shake off a piece of her own identity and replace it with a piece of her husband’s.

Women have fought and died for the rights we now have the privilege of taking for granted – the right to vote, get an education, own property, to name but a few – and with a long way yet to go before we reach gender parity, do we not owe it to the women who came before us, and to the women who will come after us, to continue challenging the male-centricity of the status quo?

That means challenging the ideas and assumptions that continue to bake in misogynistic power structures into our everyday lives.

Changing one’s last name may seem innocuous enough, but these small, symbolic gestures towards the dominance of men, these reminders as to the prioritization of their rights and powers and identity over ours, add up. They accumulate like lots of thin threads to compose a larger tapestry in which men remain the primary colour.

Changing one’s last name may seem innocuous enough, but these small, symbolic gestures towards the dominance of men, these reminders as to the prioritization of their rights and powers and identity over ours, add up.

A wife was her husband’s property

Marriage as an institution was born from a practice designed to entrench women’s subordination, bypassing us on like chattel from one man (the father) to another (the husband). And name-changing was for a long time a key symbol indicating that a married woman was her husband’s property.

When British hereditary surnames were introduced about 1,000 years ago (brought to our shores during the Norman Conquest), married women were initially stripped of their surname altogether as they simply became the “wife of”.

Then the idea of marriage as a legal and spiritual union came into play in the 15th century and, as couples became “one”, they became the man, naturally, and women began adopting their husband’s surname. This tradition persisted for centuries, all while women remained unable to hold property, vote, or practise law.

Legally, upon getting married, women ceased to exist. By the 18th century, prominent feminist pioneers, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, were beginning to challenge this custom of marital surname change, which, by the 19th century, had spread to British colonies and ex-colonies.

A legal tug-of-war continued over the centuries as activists fought to retain their last names following marriage and secure the right for women to have real estate deeds, passports, and bank accounts issued in the names they chose – rights first secured in the UK by way of the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882.

Fast-forward to 2021 and women in heteronormative relationships are, at least in law, equal to their husbands and are not required to change their last name. And yet, the majority of the time, they do. Where the legal requirement has been lifted, social norms persist.

“So what does it matter?” friends ask when I broach the topic over dinner (hypothetically, where I’m concerned since I’m about as far off from getting married right now as I am from becoming an Olympic swimmer).

“You inherited your last name from your father – a man! What does it matter if you switch his last name for your partner’s?” one friend asks.

This is beside the point. While my last name may have been inherited from my father (and I’m all for shaking up the patrilineal surname going forwards, obviously), it’s still the name with which I’ve identified throughout my life. It remains a cornerstone of my identity.

I resent the assumption that it is always the woman who must agonise over whether to change her last name or not, while there is little to no expectation her future husband will consider changing his. Every time we pose the question to a woman and not to her fiancé (I’m guilty of this too), the status quo of male primacy is reinforced. Another small and insidious nudge is made towards the bigger problem of patriarchy.

Gender roles in Greek mythology

In a new book, Pandora’s Jar, author and classicist Natalie Haynes (whom I recently interviewed for The Stack) demonstrates the power of challenging assumptions around gender roles as they are presented in Greek mythology. In it, she sets out to explore the female narratives that are historically overlooked or sidelined in some of the most well-known Greek stories, which to this day continue to inform and influence popular culture.

“Modern tellers of Greek myth have usually been men,” she says. “And have routinely shown little interest in telling women’s narratives… when they do, these women are often painted as monstrous, vengeful or just plain evil… [but they often] have more nuanced stories than generations of retellings might indicate.”

Translations, Haynes argues, are not value-neutral. Rather, they reflect the biases of the times in which they are written. Hence, we see reflected and perpetuated by these stories such age-old tropes as “woman as a monster” presented, for example, in the Medusa myth.

Medusa’s story has long been used as an allegory to show what befalls a beautiful woman who becomes boastful of her good looks – she is punished.

In the popular rendition of the story, Medusa is turned into a monster by the Goddess Athena, who curses her with snakes for hair and a deadly gaze that can turn anyone who looks upon her to stone. In contemporary representations, this duality of beautiful-woman-turned-monster is reflected in a sexualised depiction of the snake-riddled Medusa. She is desirous yet deadly (think Rihanna on the cover of GQ in 2013).

Yet in Haynes’ retelling of the Medusa myth, we find that she was a victim of rape by the god Poseidon, who had been attracted by her good looks, and that she was given snakes for hair as punishment for having been attacked.

Medusa, Haynes points out, is the literal antecedent to the metaphorical monstering of rape victims we see today in a culture of victim-blaming. Her story is one among many given a new perspective and, subsequently, a whole new meaning, in Haynes’ book.

Insidious ways misogyny continues

When we fail to question traditions, to upturn assumptions and to probe the narratives that populate our cultural imagination and get taken as the status quo, we overlook the myriad, insidious ways in which misogyny continues to be routinised into our day-to-day lives.

Undoing millennia of structural male dominance requires that we continue to unpick, thread by thread, every strand of patriarchy, however insignificant each strand may on its own appear.

Deciding not to change your last name when you get married (or making up a new, shared name, perhaps… I have some fun ideas should you need suggestions)and posing the name-changing question to both partners, equally, when a couple gets engaged, is one small way of beginning that unpicking.

Probing the reductive female tropes that have become lodged in our cultural consciousness through the (re)telling of stories from a singular, typically male perspective, à la the Medusa myth, and asking what alternative perspectives might be available, is another.

The Short Stack

When a woman changes her surname to her husband’s, she perpetuates the myth that she “belongs” to him and ignores hard-fought battles to gain the right to keep her name.

By Emma-Louise Boynton

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