Marginalised Voices: sexism’s in the name

By Nadia Leigh-Hewitson |

Patrilineality is family identity and naming convention derived from and recorded through patriarchal lineage. It’s traditional, Biblical, institutional and systemic sexism. So why is patrilineality still the normality for marital naming convention?

‘Traditionally’, a woman would take a man’s name. In modern history, marriage was heteronormative, and another pervasive extension of capitalist patriarchy into our personal lives. Double-barrelled or hyphenated surnames have long been exception to the convention. It’s a simple top trumps situation, capitalism beats the patriarchy. Money was the only thing that could overrule the naming convention, and even this wasn’t a departure from sexism but a compounding of it. In the 19th century American suffragist, Lucy Stone, campaigned to keep her own surname after marriage and retain her rights after being refused the right to vote without adding her husband’s last name to her signature.

Up until the mid-20th century ‘coverture’ had to be observed in marriage which is, brace yourself, a legal doctrine for the subsuming of a woman’s legal rights and obligations by those of her husband. Literally within the last century women were expected to not only lose their name and personal identity, but also their rights to own land, business, property and to enter a profession. Yup, once you’re married ladies you can’t become a lawyer or a teacher or an investment banker. Margot Canaday, activist and feminist author, describes coverture as “the legal subordination of women”.

| Gabrielle Rocha Rios/Unsplash

Maybe even more problematic is that women are still expected to change their title when they marry – there is no clearer indication that society thinks that we become the property of our partner. Men don’t even have the option to change their title, there is no twee little post-marriage option for the masculine. I, an unmarried 26-year-old woman, have always titled myself a ‘Ms’ rather than a ‘Miss’ because I am excessively grumpy at the idea that I should be identified relative to my romantic relationships.

My sister, Charli, took her husband’s name when they married, she went from being a Leigh-Hewitson to being a plain old Jones. “I didn’t want to be triple-barrelled” she laughs, “I wanted [my name] to be different, I think I was a bit bored of it. And I wanted something to link us. Something more solid than some promise we make to one another in front of everyone. I wanted something more solid than just the concept of marriage, something more tangible”. When I asked my brother-in-law why he didn’t change his name he shrugged, “I didn’t want or expect Charli to change her name though”.

Siobhan Tebbs-Wesley, a well-known poet, writer and musician, married her wife, Ada Oliveras Puigarnau, in 2019. There is no ‘traditional’naming convention for when two women marry. Siobhan and Ada chose to each keep their own names: “In the UK it’s very easy – you can just choose any combination of the two people’s surnames and write them on the wedding certificate, and then your name has, for all intents and purposes, officially changed”. They married in the UK but they live in Barcelona: “If we had come back to Spain with the same name, the legal system would assume we were siblings or something, and it would have been a nightmare to convince them to register us with our new names since bureaucracy is intense here, and deed polls are not a thing. Ideally, we would have liked to both come back as Tebbs-Oliveras.” In the Spanish speaking world, spouses usually keep their original surname, which is a composite of their parent’s surnames. For example, the parents of Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez were named Luisa Santiaga Márquez Iguarán and Gabriel Eligio García.

however, the conversation is still focused on how a woman should change her name, not if she should

In 2007, Michael Buday and Diana Bijon filed a discrimination lawsuit against the state of California, claiming that the obstacles facing a man who wanted to assume his wife’s last name violated the Equal Protection clause provided by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. As a result of the lawsuit, the Name Equality Act of 2007 was passed allowing either spouse to change their name through a marriage license.

It struck me that whilst I know lots of heteronormative couples who have double-barrelled or assumed a new invented name, I couldn’t think of any men in my circle who had taken their wife’s name outright – which is surprising since I surround myself with likeminded lefty feminists.

Modern approaches to marital naming include retaining the original name, name blending, combining both partner’s names into one, the invention of a new name entirely, and hyphenation. Its also become common for a woman to use her pre-marital name as her middle name, as in Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Kim Kardashian West. However, the conversation is still focused on how a woman should change her name, not if she should.

| Jon Tyson/Unsplash

Kay Wesley, WEP councillor for Congleton, chose a new name when she married: “My husband and I both felt a bit uncomfortable about me just taking his name. It kind of harks back to a time when women were treated like possessions, ‘given away’ by one man, father, to another, husband, on their wedding day. Having said that, we wanted to have the same family name for our family, so we picked a name from our ancestry that went well with our first names, and just changed our name by deed poll”. She feels that the law should be changed so that either or both parties can change their name when they get married to a new name of their choosing: “at the moment only one of the existing names, or a double-barrel is allowed, so you have to have a deed poll to do what we did”.

The world is changing, becoming more progressive in many ways, shaking off clunky archaic attitudes. Let’s lose this one too. 

This article is in our Opinions section. As such the views within are those of the contributor and do not represent an editorial stance.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Falmouth University, the University of Exeter or Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union.