Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Should marriage still involve changing a woman’s surname?

Changing your maiden surname after marriage may sound like an inconsequential rite of passage from Bachelorette to wife, but it is actually a big deal.

Dr Poloko Ntshwarang, senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana feels the surname change is “the strongest gendered social norm that is enforced and expected”. She captures the magnitude of this big step when she explained that:  “The pressure is huge. This is  It often comes down to weighing the inconvenience of changing a surname versus keeping it for some women. Some say it would be too complicated to change their professional or social media identity. Others say it is too difficult to have a name that’s different from the one for the rest of their family, or fear the prospect of divorce. The defense of the name change is something like, “We want our family to share a name” or “His last name was better”. Men rarely define themselves relationally and men don’t tend to change their names, or even let the thought cross their mind. Men, too, seem to realize that changing one’s name has personal and professional consequences.”

Long-standing tradition dictates that after marriage, a woman should give up her birth name and take on her husband’s last name. Children also frequently take their father’s last name, carrying the tradition on into the next generation.

Once upon a time it was considered custom for women to take their husband’s name after marrying. These days, more women are choosing to keep their maiden names. This change in women’s identity, by taking a husband’s name, has emerged from patriarchal history where wives had no surname except “wife of X”. More often, male pre-eminence in names has always been taken for granted. It is deemed as tradition – “it is traditional and conventional” or “the right thing to do”. For some women, taking the husband’s name is not only assumed and unquestioned, it is eagerly awaited. The expectation that women adopt their husband’s surname at marriage is rooted in patriarchal marital traditions. Historically, it represents the transfer of women’s subservience from father to husband, the subjugation of women’s identities to those of men.

Although the norm that women take their husband’s last name at marriage may be weakening, it remains prevalent.  Highly educated, career-oriented women with non-traditional gender ideology are most likely to select a non-traditional surname (by retaining their own name unchanged or hyphenating their own and their husband’s names.) Societal expectations that nuclear families share one last name, coupled with the invisibility of the option that the husband change his name, place many women in a moral dilemma in which they feel they must choose between self and family. Women are expected to be communal, sacrificing their individual interests to the well-being of the collective family. Retaining their birth surname is seen as individualistic, selfish, and antagonistic to the family unity. For many couples, the possibility of the husband changing his name is an invisible option, placing the burden of surname change entirely upon women.

Dr Sophie Moagi, clinical psychologist says, “Today marriages are typically based on love instead of economics. Even conservative couples who still believe a husband should be the head of the household have more egalitarian marriages than previous generations, and are less likely than their parents or grandparents to see things like domestic violence as a private matter or a normal part family life. Unfortunately, despite all of these gains, the marital name change remains. Even the small number of women who do keep their names after marriage tend to give their children the husband’s name. At best there’s hyphenation.”

Many couples follow patriarchal marital traditions simply because they are traditional. Rituals such as giving away the bride may be given new meaning – (honouring the bride’s relationship with her father) or may be followed by default. Likewise, many couples take women’s surname change for granted, following tradition without discussion or consideration. Women’s surname change remains a conspicuous reminder that women’s identities are changed by marriage, whereas men’s identities remain largely the same. When a newly married couple is announced at a wedding reception as “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith,” the woman’s name and individuality are subsumed. Certainly, many women make this choice happily, but for others, the choice is agonizing.


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