More than 80 per cent of Australian women take their husband’s name when they marry. Each to their own, but this one has always puzzled me.
Many argue that women should take their husband’s name because it’s tradition. And, as is the case with successful traditions, further questioning is discouraged. They are their own self-sufficient justification.
Peek a bit further and this tradition is based on the idea that upon marriage, women become the property of their husband. Taking his name is like him putting a label on you, covering your own name, to tell every other man who you belong to.
We seem happy to dispense with other marriage “traditions”, like marital rape and wives being forced out of the workforce when they marry.
You might say that the difference is that these other traditions directly hurt women. And that’s true, but the loss of a name can also be the first step to losing your identity. Changing your name might be regarded as symbolic — but never underestimate the importance of symbols.
Others will say that it’s practical. That a family should all have the same surname for administrative and identification purposes. I could buy that argument if blokes took their wife’s name for the sake of practicality.
And if you really want to know about administrative nightmares, have a chat to women who took their husband’s name and then tried to change it back after the divorce.
But now a researcher from the University of Nevada may have found an answer to the question of why even women who identify as feminists will participate in a practice that is undeniably grounded in sexism.
Rachael Robnett surveyed 355 people in the US and UK about their attitudes towards marital name changing and found that a name is not just a name. It’s an indication of the man’s power, status and masculinity.
“When a woman chooses not to take her husband’s surname after marriage, people perceive her husband as being higher in traits related to femininity and lower in traits related to masculinity. He is also perceived as having less power in the relationship,” writes Robnett.
In a culture where one of the worst things a man can be is feminine, this research may explain why some men feel so strongly about their wife taking their name.
We’re not just taking about a few letters in the alphabet. No sir, it’s nothing short of a test of his manliness.
I’ve met such men. They tell me that they’d never marry a woman who would refuse to take their name. These men tell me that a woman refusing to take their name would be an insult or evidence that she did not really love him — or love him enough.
What these men overlook is that their gain in social power — or at least the perception of power — is their bride’s loss. Despite this, the majority of women in Australia still make this choice because maintaining men’s perceived masculinity and status is so normalised that it’s taken for granted.
I’d read enough gender studies literature to be determined to maintain my own name when I got married, but giving my children my husband’s name, and essentially maintaining that patriarchal tradition, was a blind spot for me. It didn’t even occur to me until years later when the ink was well and truly dried on the birth certificates that my decision was motivated by internalised misogyny.
If these research findings are true and men lose some perceived power and status when their wife maintains her name, it is a good thing. Men relinquishing some of the power that they have historically held within the institution of marriage may go a little way to compensating for the rest of the power inequality in our society.
If nothing else, the surname test is a great way to find out if your future husband is going to view you as a person or a possession — before you both say “I do”.
If he can’t bring himself to forgo the power of allowing his future partner to keep her own name, then what other marital traditions is he going to cling to? Do you want to make a life-long promise to someone who feels entitled to have more power than you?