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What’s in a name?

By Manish Nandy

It is time to question an accepted social practice that is in fact quite unacceptable, and in our time more than repellent. Why is a woman expected to change her name when she marries?
Historically, the use of a single name for most people became confusing with the growth of population, and so grew the practice of adding a last name. The last name was based on trade, such as Smith or Taylor; on location, the village or town one came from; and on lineage, the chosen family name. In the ninth century, English common law developed the doctrine of coverture, which became standard practice in the western world: a woman at birth is ‘covered’ by her father and after marriage is ‘covered’ by her husband. The latter meant her legal identity merged with her husband’s. Perhaps submerged was the more appropriate term, because coverture implied that only the husband could vote, hold property or go to court.
This absurd legal fiction provides the basis for the widespread practice of a woman having to shed her name and take on the last name of her husband when she marries. The absurdity scales new heights now that women are marrying late and meanwhile acquiring academic degrees, professional qualifications and senior-level work experience in their own names. As the price of her wedded bliss, a woman must undergo the painful exercise of abandoning her identity, legally change all her licenses and certificates, and notify her employer, lawyer, doctor, and all other contacts. In an age of Google and LinkedIn, this represents a huge handicap and a staggering professional disadvantage.
Why should she have to do this? Forego the identity, history, and reputation she has developed over twenty or thirty years?
In many countries, there were invidious laws precluding women from getting a driver’s permit or voting right if they did not adopt their husbands’ name. In the latter half of the twentieth century, several such laws were repealed and married women were able to hold property in their name. Yet a small percentage of women, 20 per cent by a Google survey and a smaller one by other surveys, choose to retain their original name. Predictably, the older the brides, with higher educational and professional accomplishments, the greater the probability of their retaining their pristine name.
Names are important; everybody senses that. When anybody asks, “Who are you?” you respond with your name. Boys and girls get names equally when they are born, typically with their fathers’ surname. Boys retain theirs their entire life. Girls are expected to relinquish theirs after decades, along with their sense of identity and self-pride, the moment they get married. Given the enormous social pressure, this is falsely regarded as a matter of choice. It is even given a spurious romantic glow, as if the bride is somehow being magically folded into her husband’s personality and family. While boys will have just names, girls will be forced to carry the dual burden of a maiden name and a married name.
The sexist bias of the naming convention becomes obvious when one considers the reasons why people change names. I know of people who have changed their names because they considered the names ugly or old-fashioned. I also know of two who changed their names to repudiate their link with abusive parents. As more transgender people come out of the closet, they understandably alter their names. Despite my misgiving, my wife changed her last name, because she said few of her friends or classmates could correctly spell or pronounce her complicated Nordic surname. But I don’t know of a single husband who changed his name at the time of his wedding, the sole exception being a colleague who, along with his wife, chose to get their surnames hyphenated. Now that same-sex weddings are more common, to their credit I do not hear of any names being changed.
The naming convention at a wedding is plainly not a matter of free choice. It is simply a matter of power play. Hamilton, Geist and Powell’s 2011 study, cited in Gender and Society, shows 50 per cent of Americans think adoption of the husband’s name should be mandatory for wives. In sharp contrast is a Hallet survey in Huffington Post showing 33 per cent of Americans believe husbands should not be allowed to take their wives’ name. From a sampling of friends and acquaintances, the Indian opinion is not hard to surmise.
When names are not changed after marriage, it is to be expected that when people meet the bride for the first time they will address her as Mrs. X, using the husband’s last name, or when they meet the husband initially may say Mr. Y, using the wife’s last name. That hardly qualifies as a great social disaster, and foreseeably such errors will be less common in a short period.
Then there is the odious but ever-present prospect of divorce. Given its soaring rates in major cities, the idea that women must change their names every time they take a new partner, like ZsaZsa Gabor or Elizabeth Taylor, is farcical. They should do what Gabor and Taylor did and retain their names instead of changing them after their rotating-door spouses.
The recalcitrants’ blowback is even easier to surmise if one broaches the theme of children’s name. Even where the wife has been allowed to retain her name, it would be nothing short of sacrilegious to suggest that the children should carry her last name instead of the husband’s. The wife, who carries the baby, is its primary caregiver in its childhood and adolescence, and bears the overwhelming share of all responsibility for rearing the child, at the cost of her education, career and often health, is not permitted to pass her name to the child. In the entire family, the mother is the only person with a different last name, the goose among the swans.
As a practical matter, there are simple solutions: the children can have their parents’ last names hyphenated or use one as a middle name. These are not common practice now, but it will change with time. How well a family’s members blend, how much they feel a part of the same entity has little to do with what last names they use.
What last name the children will have is a question that can wait. What cannot wait is a decided strike for equality, in the form of women retaining their name after marriage. A hyphenated name just doesn’t hack it, especially if the husband’s surname is the last item in the hyphenated name. It is time to let go of a perverse sexist relic of a social practice and start living in the twenty-first century.