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Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Eleanor Bishop



Watching Shortland Street last week, I heard Tania Jeffries remark that despite her hurried marriage, and lack of a big ceremony with all her family present, she was over the moon to be married, as all she had ever wanted “was to be Mrs Weston”.
To be honest, I was shocked. I thought it was common practice to keep your own name these days, especially since we’re supposedly living in the age of gender equality. However, there seems to be a trend towards the tradition of taking your husband’s name when you get married. I went to find out why.
Response Number One:
Woman: It’s romantic, nice, you know, showing that you love your husband.
Me: Well, presumably he loves you, but does he take your name?
Woman: No…
Me: Well, why not?
Response Number Two:
Woman: I don’t know, it’s tradition I guess.
Me: But what does that tradition represent?
The tradition of taking your husband’s name dates back to a time where marriage for women was an economic necessity.
Women had no legal rights whatsoever; they couldn’t vote, they couldn’t own property and very few were educated. The only way to survive was to get married. An unmarried woman would be considered a burden on the family, and at worst end up in prostitution. Hence the importance placed on charm, physical beauty and being sweet and docile. If you “succeeded” and got married, as your father walked you down the aisle and “gave you away”, you were transferred from your father’s house to your husband’s house. You were literally a piece of property that your husband could do what he liked with – control your reproductive and sexual life, beat you and take sole responsibility for ownership of children.
Since you had no identity of your own as you had become subsumed into your husband’s identity in marriage – naturally, you took his name.
The act of taking a man’s name absolutely symbolises this history, and very simply, I don’t want to buy into that. In Western countries, we live in an age where women are paid less than men, where the objectification of women’s bodies is fuel for capitalism’s fire, where domestic violence statistics continue to rise. There is just no way that this act is “meaningless”. Keep your own name, keep your identity.
Response Number Three: the unspoken response for why women change their name is to show the world that “Hey, I’ve got married”. It’s still considered an achievement to get married. We live in a world in which men’s apparent ‘commitment phobia’ (a load of bollocks if you ask me and just an excuse for women to put up with more and men to behave like bastards), means it’s still an achievement to ‘catch’ a man. Refer Tania Jeffries from the introduction of this article. The nurse marrying a rich doctor still holds social cachet.
It was never legally required to change your name, except in a few states in the US. When you change your name, there are legal forms to fill out, banks to be informed, telephone books need to be changed and the list goes on. However, when my mother got married in 1977, it was actually harder for her to keep her own name, than to change it because of the social expectation that she would change it. She, along with many other feminists, fought for her own last name, and for the prefix ‘Ms’ to be accepted, from constantly correcting people who introduced them as ‘Mrs…’, to crossing out ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ on forms, drawing a box, writing ‘Ms’ beside it and firmly ticking that box. It meant constantly correcting people who presumed she had the last name of her husband.
Now, it’s at least easier, and acceptable to keep your own name. So, why a return to this tradition? Why throw out the work of our mothers? Today, when two people marry, they make the decision together, and come together as equal partners. So, why should you take a man’s last name as your own? He does not take yours. It’s as simple as that. And that, my friends, is equality.