Monday, April 01, 2013

Marriage, Surnames, Legitimacy & Gender

When I got married for the first time, I did not seriously consider changing my surname. My ex complained about it beforehand, but when the time came I think he congratulated himself for being so modern.  There was one person in my circle of acquaintance who had a problem with it, complained to my mother and insisted on address me as Mrs Ex's Surname from there on in. This annoyed me, but we weren't close. Meanwhile, everything was straightforward - much more straightforward than if I'd changed it. I didn't have to change my name with any companies or institutions. I sometimes didn't bother correcting strangers who addressed me as Mrs Ex's Surname but then, I didn't always bother before we were married, same as I don't bother correcting every time I'm called Miss or Mrs instead of my preferred Ms. There are only so many hours in the day.

I'm sure other people, in other communities, experience far more hassle than I did or maybe feel more offended at the misnaming. Personally, I have had far more trouble maintaining a consistent title - with one bank account, I had Ms on my debit card, Mrs on my cheque book and Miss on my bank statements!

This marriage is completely different - I feel like I need to say that a lot, not as a defense (the first one doesn't count; this is the real thing.) but because I think folk need to be aware of the fact that these things can be so completely and utterly different that it's hard to use the same words to describe them; love, romance, even marriage. Abused and otherwise miserably partnered people often feel that any given person will always have the same kind of relationships, with roughly the same dynamics, and the same kind of problems. Abused and otherwise miserably partnered people often buy into the fairly widespread cultural meme that Love Hurts and folk - especially men and women - can never have both passion and peace with one another. This is not so.

However, this has nothing to do with the fact that the surname thing is looking very different this time.  It's not because I am more in love (I am perhaps in love for the first time) or more committed (I was very committed, but this time I am certain*). It's about other things which have nothing to do with the quality or strength of this marriage, but matter a lot to us. They include:
  1. It's something we're talking about together. The whole subject is completely different when two people who are getting married ask the question, "What shall we do about our names? Shall we share one? What shall we call ourselves?"  Frankly, I swung back and forth about what I should do until the conversation became about our choice. This changes everything. 
  2. Stephen's family have welcomed me in and offered me all manner of unconditional things I have never had before.  I feel a tremendous closeness and affiliation with them.  There's a part of me that really likes the idea of sharing a name with them, almost like taking the name of an adopted family. 
  3. At this point in my life, I am known by very many names; The Goldfish, Deborah, Deb, Ms Kelly, D H Kelly, Auntie Deborah, Agent Bum Bum, Love, Sweetheart and all manner of more personal petnames and nicknames (in English, Welsh and Latin). Changing the name I am known by in some contexts would not be the same as changing my identity. In fact, it provides the possibility of another identity.  I like being all these people.  It actually feels like an opportunity to have another name, another identity to do things with. 
(1) isn't a reason to change names, but a starting point from which everything is on the table. But see what (2) and (3) have in common? Immensely personal. To do with us, our families, where we are in life.

Here's another personal thing. I would never consider changing the name that I write under.  Even though I have little published work out there, I like being D H Kelly.  It is a good name for a book spine.  Even as a child, I wrote stories with by D H Kelly under the titles.  However, given that I am working towards a career where this name is associated with a body of work, I quite like the idea of having another name for other things I want to do in my life. Often living with two surnames in use is presented as a compromise, but I think that's only because it's something men nearly never do. Having spare names can be useful.

There are folk who think that a woman changing her name upon marriage is necessarily making an unfeminist decision (all stats US - I'm sure keeping names is both far more common and acceptable in the UK, unless I roll with an extraordinary crowd).  This really bugs me, for several reasons:

For one thing, feminism is not about individual women and the personal decisions they make - personal decisions that some women will necessarily find easier and more desirable than others.  Feminism is all about removing social and political pressure, so that women (and others) have a real choice.  Naturally, women who make certain choices set a good example to others (it is possible to do this another way, even if the world suggests otherwise), but the choices themselves are personal, complicated by personal circumstance, and so haven't got much to do with a social and political movement. Women shouldn't have to apologise to our sisters for the personal choices we make around identity - in fact, feminism is all about relieving such a burden.

Most same-gender married couples I know have a shared surname. They presumably arrived at that through mutual discussion, weighing up their options, the individual feelings and any professional factors around the names they had. This is how it should be done.  Every couple, upon marrying or having a child should have a conversation which begins "What shall we do about names?"  It could be a very short conversation, it could be an ongoing discussion over a periods of months.

But  even if we all did this, unless we do away with the custom of familial surnames altogether, around half the couples who share a surname would share a husband's surname and around half of all children would take their name from a father. Sharing a husband's name is not wrong; the problem is that women feel under pressure to do so and couples often don't consider the other options.

Meanwhile, the reasons that there isn't a completely free choice relate to two far bigger, far more problematic aspects of sexism which we need to address head-on.

The first is about legitimacy.  As demonstrated by my own experience, some relationships are stronger, more committed and generate more love, happiness and creativity than others.  Some are utterly miserable and still others are dangerously awful.  However, we cannot see into people's hearts and there are very few external signs which might indicate what kind of relationship two people might be having.

Yet in our culture, we raise romantic partnerships above all other relationships; we see lasting romantic love as something both necessary and sufficient for happiness, particularly for women.  Then we set about judging whether or not someone's relationship is legitimate according to very specific and ever-changing criteria. For some couples - for example, those where one partner is coming through the immigration process - the subjective legitimacy of their relationship is a very serious matter. For other couples, legitimacy is an on-going issue among family and friends. Some examples for criteria would include:
  • Whether or not a couple live together (even when they have work in different locations). 
  • Whether or not a couple are married (and when this happened, how this happened)
  • Whether or not a couple have children together (especially if they have children by other people)
  • Whether or not a couple consists of a man and a woman (preferably straight and cis gender)
  • Whether or not a couple are monogamous (or at least seem monogamous)
  • Whether or not a couple are well-suited in superficial terms (same background, culture, age, disability status, earnings bracket etc..)
And so on and so forth.  I have heard folk cast doubt on the strength and potential longevity of a second marriage because the second wife wasn't as pretty as the first.  People are odd.

For some folk, marriage itself is about making a relationship legitimate - it is about a public declaration and celebration of a commitment.  Some people choose not to marry because they feel affronted by the idea that they need to prove their love in a public way. When it comes to personal choices, we do what feels right, which is so complex and personal it could never be neatly analysed by anyone on the outside.  Some non-religious people feel the need to marry in church; this may be about their parents or community, ideas about a proper wedding from childhood or for reasons they don't fully understand. This is absolutely fine.  I would only criticise someone (e.g. the Catholic Church) who claims that marriages outside church are less legitimate**.

And this is exactly where the pressure on couples to share the husband's name comes from; it's something that, for some people, renders other people's marriages legitimate or not. I'm sure that, despite the general grooviness of our social and family circle, some people would see Stephen and I sharing a surname (mine or his) as a sign of my greater commitment to this marriage. And that's a problem. But not one we can personally solve with any choice we make.

The other issue is about gender and relationships.  As with so many more significant lifestyle choices - being partnered, getting married, having children, the distribution of domestic work and childcare - we talk about this stuff as if women are making unilateral decisions.  We talk about a woman choosing to keep her name or take that of her husband, as opposed to a couple choosing to keep their own names etc., in the same way we talk about women choosing to marry, choosing to have children, choosing to stay at home or go to work etc.. In reality, whilst individuals have a personal veto (and we're still fighting for all women to have such a veto), when it comes to relationships, reproductive choices, childcare and paid work, we're often talking about a completely free choice that nobody has.

Romantic relationships involve many factors of complex chance and at least two ready-formed people whose life circumstances will be as muddled and messy as everyone else's. Women don't just make this stuff happen. Neither do men. But we live in a culture where these subjects are spoken about in these terms;  relationships and children are women's responsibility. Women must make the right decisions. Women must look after their men and their children, whilst resisting the loss of their own identity (which to some means a professional identity, and others means a youthful, sexually available identity). When a couple takes the wife's name on marriage, I should imagine that the wife, rather that the husband is the target of any criticism - how could it have been his idea?  Whilst we expect men to pursue sex, they are treated as weirdly powerful yet passive entities in long-term romantic relationships.

The name thing is a rather small matter - not many people get to learn our surnames, let alone how we acquired them - but any argument for or against a particular course of action on the part of women plays into this model. If we want to change the historic bias towards patronymic surnames, we need to stop talking about a woman's decision at marriage and start talking about couples and the pressures they face.

* Quite honestly, when I married my ex, I didn't expect it to last. Part of my motivation to get married was to have legal protection, because he frequently threatened to leave and take everything. Yes, this was an utterly stupid reason to marry - one of many utterly stupid reasons involved. But I just wanted to make things better and failed to even entertain the (now) obvious strategy for doing so.

** One odd aspect of the Catholic Church's rules against divorce is that previous marriages outside the Catholic Church don't count - if you previously married in a registry office or a synagogue, you may have this marriage discounted and remarry in the Church (it's not as simple as that, but it is possible). It is as if nobody who didn't marry in the Catholic Church is married at all.  However, I am yet to meet a Catholic who actually sees it that way. Meanwhile, I know Catholics who were abandoned or abused by spouses who can never marry again within their faith, without a lucky lightning bolt taking out their exes. 


Never That Easy said...

Well, Agent Bum Bum (which name I am heartily interested in the origin of), you make so many valid points. I particularly appreciate the part about the value of having different identities in different spaces. (For obvious reasons.) I haven't had to make these decisions for myself, but it is pretty clear to me that it is a personal decision and that people need to figure out how to keep their judgments out of other people's business.

Matthew Smith said...

I'm actually quite mystified that the tradition of women changing their names on marriage has persisted and is so common even among women with very modern lives, careers etc. My Mum and her older sister (who married in the same ceremony in 1972) both took their husbands' names, but the next marriage wasn't until the 1980s and I was surprised that all except one took their husbands' names even though they had been living together for years before that. I'm not really sure it matters that their original name was a man's surname; it was their surname and had been for 20 or even 30 years or even longer.

I know some have very good reasons to change their name, and marriage is as good a reason as any (I know one lady who particularly wanted to get rid of her father's name). My brother-in-law has quite an exotic-sounding name -- a lot more exotic than Smith. But my aunts all came from a big Irish family with five girls and one boy; only one of the girls married an Irishman, and they were all given very English first names (because their mother wanted them to get on in England and be seen as English, although she was a very strict Catholic), so you wouldn't know the Irish origins of most of them now.

To be honest, I think it's a case that as women have more choices (all the women I refer to have quite strong careers), things that might previously been seen as signs of subservience are now seen as mere symbols, or as part of the romantic aspect of marriage.

I'm glad you're in love enough to consider changing your name, though. It's common for women to keep their old name for professional purposes when they take their husband's surname on marriage (Nina Bawden, for example, was Nina Kark in real life, although Bawden was actually her first husband's name).