Working on the last stage of my thesis has largely enforced radio silence, but I had to get this out. I invite you to consider the following images as you read:
One of my personal hot-button issues is that of womenʼs names. I passionately believe that the current system, in which women are named as adjuncts to the men in their life (typically first their father, then their husband or series of husbands), is deeply flawed, not least of which because it reinforces a rigid idea of what a woman or femininity can be. This is most commonly seen in married women, who bear the brunt of the idea that to be a ʻproperʼ family requires sharing oneʼs husbandʼs name. It also directly negatively impacts those who choose not to marry, who do not fit heteronormative or monogamous models, or who do not fit the gender binary system on which the name issue depends.
It’s a huge issue, and the longer I consider it, the larger and more important it gets. This post is merely to introduce one aspect, as I see it.
I recently received an invitation to a baby shower, entreating me to come and support ‘NewMom and NewBaby (HusbandsName)’. However, NewMom’s surname is her own – she specifically chose not to change it to her husband’s. They’ve been married for a few years now and the person who sent out the invitation is a close relative of hers. Whatever prompted the decision to represent the new mother this way, it was a conscious one.
One might say that this is a minor point, that at the end of the day it doesn’t matter, that the mother still knows who she is.
It’s not a minor point. This is not how this person identifies herself. By representing her this way, the inviter is enforcing the expectation that a proper wife takes the name of her husband. Whether intended to be or not, this invitation is an unsubtle rebuke for bucking tradition. It is loaded with judgments against her as a wife, and as the new mother of a child with a surname that differs from her own.
The tombstone above dates from the 19th century. Katherine, the woman named there, is explicitly nothing more than a wife, a being with no identity and no worth beyond her relationship to her husband. She does not rate any biographical details beyond her first name and wifehood, nor even a monument of her own. The details of her life and history are a cypher, regarded as of no consequence.
Over a century later, we are not so far past this construction of womanhood as we like to think. Women are still expected to change their names on marriage. As the invitation I received clearly shows, they are still shamed if they dare to do otherwise.
This insistence has profound and sweeping consequences. A married woman’s own family’s history and any personal achievements accrued under her name before marriage are swept away by the assumption of another’s name. They become discardable, of no consequence to anyone, a mere footnote to her life.
By expecting a woman to assume her husband’s name, or by introducing her as such regardless of what she goes by, the overwhelming message is that the only thing anyone really needs to know about her is that she is a man’s wife. Doing so in the context of a new child further brings in notions of legitimacy, using the fact of the child to shame the mother into conformity.
I find that utterly reprehensible.
Stannard, Una. Mrs Man. San Francisco: Germain Books, 1977.