At last, marriage is becoming more progressive – at least where women are concerned.
According to new data, the number of women choosing to include their birth names alongside their spouse’s surname after getting married is rising. The Deed Poll Office, a law firm that specializes in name changes, has released statistics showing that requests from newlyweds to keep their maiden names alongside their spouse’s surname (rather than change it completely) rose by 30 per cent between 2020 and 2021.
Finally, it seems, women are catching up – and in my opinion, it couldn’t have come soon enough. After all, it’s 2022: no woman should be giving up her own identity for that of her husband. We are not chattel.
And I’m speaking from experience, because I went through the heteronormative rituals of marriage, just like so many of my friends and peers. When I got married in 2009, I changed my last name to my husband’s on my official records – on my passport, with the GP surgery. But it never felt right. It never felt like “me”. And how could it? I’d had my yam, my identity, for 30 years. Yet overnight, I was expected to become someone else.
It made no real sense at all: I was already a part of my (then) husband’s family, so why did I need to give up the name that had carried me since birth? And so, I put it right (or, as I see it: righted a wrong). I changed my name back by deed poll for the paltry sum of £36 – and immediately felt like “me” again. I would urge every woman to do the same.
Our identities are paramount – so why do women give them up so easily? I don’t have any simple or ubiquitous answers, but I can tell you what I think, after 10 years of reflection since I was married. I believe I was, like so many others, entirely caught up in the concept of “tradition”; swept away by the Disney-peddled ideal of love and “becoming one” that is drummed into little girls practically from birth.
We hear songs about it, read books about it; see it echoed in fairytales like Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. We are taught to aspire to be swept off our feet by a Prince Charming; to give up our individual identities for the sake of the family. Little girls are conditioned to internalize that giving yourself to a man – to a husband – means “romance”; when it’s actually nothing of the sort.
Marriage, in fact, was never meant to be about love and giddy, dizzy strength of feeling, of finding a “soulmate”. The original meaning of marriage was possession. Marriage was designed to give women economic security; to pass on the responsibility for the woman from the father to the husband.
I support every woman’s right to make a personal choice about whether or not they marry – but I strongly believe no woman should ever take her husband’s name. It’s an outdated tradition that needs to stop; because it only serves to reinforce damaging gender stereotypes.
Just look at what happens with our kids when we ascribe them strict societal roles: Lego’s worrying analysis of nearly 7,000 parents and children aged 6-14 in the UK, US, China, Japan, Poland, the Czech Republic and Russia revealed that while girls were growing in confidence and eager to explore a wide range of activities, the same was not true of boys – in fact, 71 per cent of boys feared they would be made fun of if they played with what they described as “girls’ toys” .
And, in 2019, the Fawcett Society published research that showed the lifelong impact of gender stereotypes in early childhood, including notable effects on both career choices and personal relationships. One study also found girls were five times more likely to be encouraged to try dancing or dressing-up than boys when it came to play, and three times more likely to be encouraged to try baking, while boys were encouraged to do sports or Stem ( science, technology, engineering and mathematics) activities.
It’s more important than ever that we think about what we’re modeling our kids. After all, misogyny harms both men and women – and marriage is rooted in misogyny.
Don’t believe me? Just look at the history of it. In this country, on getting married, women gained a home and (in some cases) relative wealth, but lost the right to an identity. Their husbands became their legal guardians, “until death us do part”. That’s the legacy that led to women shedding their names – so why are we still insisting on perpetuating it in today’s supposedly progressive and enlightened society?
When I ask friends their reasons for wanting to change their names, they say they want the same last name as their kids; or they want to be seen as a “united front” or “family unit”. I get that – but it still makes me uneasy, because it’s just another way in which women are expected to let go of their own identity to merge with that of their spouse, just as mothers were expected to let go of their right to be named on their children’s marriage certificates (until a change thankfully occurred in 2021).
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There are those who do keep their name, of course, and those who come up with a welcome new arrangement, such as the couple on Twitter who “swapped” surnames; or the couple I know who took each other’s names so they were both hyphenated. Elsewhere, such as in the Netherlands, you are asked which name you want to use. In Sweden, women traditionally keep their given family name. Dawn O’Porter is perhaps the most famous example of a unique take on convention: she added the “O” when she married Chris O’Dowd.
I celebrate those who are trying to subvert tradition, such as Lewis Hamilton – the seven-time world champion announced in March that he was changing his name to honor his mother’s surname: Larbalestier. He said he made the decision partly “because I do n’t really fully understand the whole idea of why, when people get married, the woman loses her name de ella”. If only all Britons were so progressive.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, then think about the question posed by Shakespeare in one of the most romantic plays of all time, romeo and juliet: “What’s in a name?” I would argue – quite a lot, actually.
We may have made some progress with these encouraging statistics about women choosing to double-barrel or retain their own names, plus the addition of mothers’ names to official documentation, but we shouldn’t have to wait for outdated, patriarchal customs to become the exception, rather than the norm.
Change needs to be societal, and it needs to be instinctive. It’s on women, now, to say “I don’t”.