GENDER POLITICS

What’s in a name?

Jonathan Smith
Jono Smith

By Jonathan Smith

What value should one place on a name these days? A woman I know recently got married and hers was a story I have seen with many woman. She has her doctorate degree and holds a very powerful position at a major South African company; being in her mid-thirties she will probably go very far. After the wedding, everyone asked her what her new surname was. She was married; it was expected of her to take on her husband’s name.

It seems to be a common story these days; powerful women who have in some way fought for equality, who have power and have the brains and the skills to change the world, change their surnames when they marry.

I suppose marriage itself can be defined as either a sharing of two lives, a growing together of love of two people and a safe and secure place of realness. Marriage can be the ultimate celebration of commitment. Or marriage can be seen as the perpetuation of sexism, of roles that place one individual below another and of a lack of freedom between two people.

Marriage is an ancient patriarchal tradition, and it obviously carries practises and traditions within it that are sexist and need to change. Now the changing of a surname of a woman getting married points to the days when women were little more than property to be traded between their fathers and their future spouse. Thus a woman would move from the household (surname) of her father to continue being submissive under the protection and name of her husband. Her surname was never actually hers; it was an indication of whom she belonged to.

Society has changed greatly, and a lot of heterosexual marriages are between men and women who value and benefit from equality. These woman are often the primary ‘bread-winners’, and more than likely have an equal say in the decision being made in that relationship.

So why do so many women still change their surnames? And why does this practise, which is rooted in a patriarchal control system, continue almost unquestioned? In the movies we still see little girls dreaming of becoming “Mrs Jones” as they take on someone else name. In fact, part of the mythical ideal of a happy marriage seems to be for the women to gladly take on the name and delight in being called “Mrs John Jones” at her wedding ceremony.

When I got married, we were young and only starting our feminist journey. We never questioned this practise. So Candi has my surname. If we had gotten married six months later, she would have kept her name. Currently we are seriously considering whether we spend the time and effort in changing her name back to what it was because we believe in equality. And just because I am the man, it does not mean I am the leader, the head, the one to be identified.  But many people think we are being stupid.  It just a name they say.

So is there anything to be said for this continuing this tradition? Is it just that; a tradition that makes marriage complete, and makes it easy for your children to have one surname? And how are you challenging those around you to at least consider these aspects before they amrry and accept what has always been done.

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