Feminism, Marriage, And Freedom Of Choice: It’s A Name-Changer

People aren’t really asking, “Are you going to change your name?”; they're asking, “Are you going to change your name, or will you be making a statement?”.

At the age of twelve, I expected that by now my name would be Mrs Elizabeth Grint. Rupert and I would meet on the set of Harry Potter, either through me winning a competition or successfully auditioning for a role as Durmstrang student #57. I would talk about all the chocolate frog cards I’d collected, and our love would be immediate and eternal.

Surprisingly, that didn’t happen, and over the years my sights shifted. I went from Mrs Van Der Beek to Mrs DiCaprio, to Mrs Depp to Mrs Marsters. Even as life philosophies and pathways changed, those two ideas remained constant: that marriage was an inevitable part of life, and that I was only ever renting my name.

On the surface, these two assumptions seem fairly innocuous, but when the sheen of tradition is wiped away what is left is rather ugly. In a society that arbitrarily limits who can and can’t get married, assuming the inevitability of marriage is harmfully heteronormative. Marriage is seen as an accomplishment, and those who don’t ‘achieve’ it are then viewed as failures – women in particular. It’s ridiculous and outdated, but this attitude is why — as each year goes by — your Facebook newsfeed fills with ever more engagement announcements, wedding photos, and names you don’t recognise. It’s also the exact reason why relatives check in on your relationship status come Christmas time.

Six months out of Year 12, my mum bumped into a classmate’s mother. “How’s Elizabeth going?” she asked. “Has she got a boyfriend yet?”
Taken aback, my Mum cautiously replied, “…no?”

A look of concern crossed my classmate’s mother’s face. “It’s okay,” she responded, with the same soothing tone you’d adopt while sponging a febrile child’s forehead. “She will.”

Based on the level of concern it generates, not getting married is a slippery slope into spending all your time collecting cats, while cutting up back issues of TV Hits and making collages of your “wedding” to James van der Beek.

When I did actually get engaged, the questioning then shifted to whether or not I was going to change my name. My fiancé got asked this question exactly ZERO times, while I encountered it at almost every turn.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when a couple announces their engagement, there will be at least one person who celebrates the occasion by saying, “Congratulations future Mr and Mrs [Man’s Last Name]!”

Is This Even That Much Of A Problem?

When a couple decides to marry, there is still an underlying expectation that the woman will change her name to his. It points to a subconscious inequality that still exists.  It’s not so much that the woman becomes the man’s property, or that he claims ownership of her (although that is the historical context); instead, your name is a part of who you are, and giving it up is a sacrifice.

So why then is it that now, in a society that is seemingly making great strides towards gender equality, are women predominately still the ones who are tangibly giving something up when they get married?

The loss of identity and history that comes with giving up your last name is explored in a recent piece by Lou Heinrich for Kill Your Darlings #20. In it, Heinrich (nee Schebella) outlines her personal journey from feeling as though she made the decision of her own fruition, to her current stance that society rigs the deck. Expectations have been set up to the point where we don’t even question why a woman is taking a man’s name, or why the reverse is rare. When thinking back to ask herself why she made the choice she did, Heinrich explains, “I now know the reason is because everyone else takes their husband’s name.”

If we remove all historical context and societal pressures, then surely the natural response would be one of the following: couple hyphenates name, couple chooses entirely new last name, both people keep their original name, or man changes his name to the woman’s as often as she changes her name to his. But this doesn’t reflect reality.

Last month I put a question up on twitter as part of the #QuestionsForMen hashtag.

Over the next few days I received mixed responses. Women agreeing, and pointing to “tradition” as the driving factor behind it; and men telling me that it was either a non-issue (“1st world fem-complaint. Fail”), or that women have a choice (“Probably they choose not to. Just like women can and some do.”)

We Have Freedom Of Choice Though, Right?

One man sent me a barrage of messages over two days, and in between telling me it was not an issue and demanding a solution, told me that his wife chose to change her name: he didn’t ask her to, so surely that was proof enough. He then deleted his account.

He was right. No one stands around brandishing a variety of cats and dog-eared copies of Dawson’s Creek magazine, while holding a hot glue gun to a recently-engaged woman’s head, telling them to change their names “or else”. But decisions aren’t just made in a moment or in a vacuum – they come at the end of a long chain of experiences and expectations.

The day after our wedding, we started cataloguing the cards we’d received so we could start sending thank you notes. More than a smattering were addressed to Mr and Mrs Husband’s last name. As we come up on our one year anniversary, my collection of mail addressed to someone with a name that isn’t mine continues to grow. When I finally asked one of my friends why they were addressing letters to me this way — despite my name remaining ‘Flux’ on social media and in my work — they were surprised.

“Doesn’t your name just change automatically?”

Women aren’t all born loving pink, or dolls, or Ryan Gosling, just as boys aren’t all born loving blue, or trucks, or lifting weights whilst intensely making eye contact with a Jean Claude Van Damme poster. We grow up with gentle societal expectations slowly boring their way into our subconsciousness.

Tracey Spicer touched on this in her October Hoopla piece ‘Dear Mrs Clooney’, in which she decries Amal Clooney’s decision to drop her own name in favour of her husband’s. I don’t agree with her that name changing is still akin to becoming property of the husband, in general she makes a strong point. Sure, in the public consciousness we still haven’t quite moved past the idea that relationships equal possession (as evidenced by “I have a boyfriend” being one of the most effective ways to ward off unwanted advances), we have come a long way from seeing daughters as something to be sold off to the highest bidder. I certainly didn’t come with a dowry (unless you count my unnecessarily bulky collection of Buffy DVDs).

Marriage, for the most part, is seen less these days as a necessity for women’s survival, and more as a symbol of long-term partnership. And some women genuinely want to change their name; perhaps they have a bad relationship with their family, or maybe they had parents with the same sense of humour as Vladimir Nabokov (Humbert Humbert? Really?). But feminism has achieved so much over the generations – so why is name changing still such a one way street? And, if it is purely situational, why don’t we see more men making this same decision?

Of all the people who contacted me to try and “fix” my opinion, none of them were able to answer why this happens — outside of what basically amounted to “just ‘cos”. The simple answer is: because society tells women that it’s just what we do. I was told that if I didn’t change my last name, it would be confusing, it would be complicated for children, and that we wouldn’t look like a family unit. Sure, that’s fine — but why then did no one say the same thing to my fiancé? The reasons women are given to justify changing our names are seemingly endless, yet when they are held up to even the slightest scrutiny, they are rapidly demolished — as in this piece by Clementine Ford.

People aren’t really asking, “Are you going to change your name or not?” They’re asking, “Are you going to change your name, or will you be making a statement?”. Sticking with what you’ve got is seen as going against the grain; and, that being the case, you are never really making a choice in a fair playing field. You’ll always be swimming upstream, no matter how many mixed metaphors you use.

So What’s The Solution?

So while it may be difficult to hear over the tears of Harry Potter’s best sidekick as he wallows over the lost opportunity to become Mr Rupert Flux, the goal here isn’t to get all men to change their last name to their wife’s. Instead, it’s about removing the unnecessary expectation from women that they should automatically just go with what society has been telling them to do their whole lives. It should be a real choice. We need to restructure how we view this whole scenario. Don’t ask: will you be changing your name? Ask, “Whose name will you be going with?”

For women, becoming Mrs Man’s Last Name is the path of least resistance. Much like Sweden’s organ donation system, right now it’s an opt out scenario; by default you WILL be changing your name, unless you can come up with a good reason not to. Accio equality!

Elizabeth is the editor of Voiceworks, and has been published in Film Ink, Metro, The Punch, and Lip Magazine. She tweets terrible puns @ElizabethFlux.

Feature image via Getty.