A bride by any other name

01:46, Mar 08 2013
ALL IN A NAME: Marriage, it's a union of choice.

I was stunned. How could she be so outraged?

"But like I said, I'll be keeping my name professionally." I was trying to explain my position with enough cloth of reason that the shock might be wiped from her face.

"So what? You're still taking his name - you're still becoming 'his'. You're still saying 'I belong to you and your family, not me and mine."

Her eyes, black and hard, bored into mine. Thick brows above her dark, piercing gaze were drawn together tightly. The same rigidity clipped each surely worded syllable that issued from her uncompromising mouth.

I paused before replying. I could see we'd never agree. But I wanted to let her know I was considering, and had considered many times prior, her point:

Women who change their names through marriage are surrendering to patriarchy.


Oh really?

This is one of those Capital R Relationships questions, one that has mattered for ages, and matters especially now. It matters especially now because the whole idea of how marriage should be done is being redefined. We're at a point where we're asking ourselves, 'yes, but what does marriage actually mean'.

For some, marriage is an important tradition, done by the father, and the father's father, and the father's father before. The patrilineal aspect is important in this regard because, traditionally, marriages in that great, Western hegemony we call 'our world', have everything to do with kinship groups and bloodlines; the male bloodline to be exact. So women take on his name, join his family, bear his children, and succumb to life as his wife.

Succumb is one important word here. The other noteworthy aspect is the idea of ownership.

Do you have to accept both notions as intrinsic to marriage if you're getting hitched today? Today, women can own things, and women don't have to succumb. They can choose not to, of course, but that's a different matter, albeit one that relates to the very important idea of choice - not something women had access to traditionally (more on that later). The point is, the traditional understanding of marriage as a means of transferring goods from one man's family to another isn't the only traditional feature of marriage.

There are, for instances, the things you do at weddings - the entre to marriage - which are traditional. Granted, many of the motions gone through relate to the old transactional model (dad's 'giving away' of his maiden flesh for example), but there are other steps taken here which can accommodate broader meanings. That a wedding is witnessed speaks the ancient value we place on our community. Saying a few words about the person before you links to a legacy of public love-declaring and truth-making. And what better exercise in mutually satisfying, time-honoured equanimity is there than the kiss?

So it's possible to do weddings and marriage and still be traditional without bringing all the old baggage along for the ride. Indeed, there's no point in saying marriage is not traditional - the very basic idea of two people coming together for life, and having that union formally recognised and endorsed by their society is ancient. This is why we see arguments in support of gay marriage from people who believe in upholding traditions, the view being that it's preferable to have all people able to marry than risk having more people deciding not to.

Now pause - a question:

If two women were to marry - as so many have and so many want to but can't thanks to some pretty ridiculous legislation - what happens to their surnames?

We should not, for example, assume an ensuing double-barrelling. Nor should it be thought simply that there must be a more masculine woman in the duo, therefore the feminine one should adopt the standard of her new spouse. You also could not conclude that because these ladies had so thoroughly redefined the 'traditional' idea of marriage with their betrothal that the only natural next-step would be some kooky, cognomen portmanteau.

No. There is no one 'right' option, just as there should be no, one 'right' way of doing marriage, really, as it is pretty clear marriage - by and large - is individually interpreted. That's the great benefit of living in a world where freedom is supported and liberty a hallowed term. You have choices. Or you should, at least.

So, back to the question of name-taking.

I will take the name of the man I marry. I will do this not because I have to but because I choose to. That I have a choice is testament to the hard work of men and women who have fought for social equality over the centuries. Exercising that choice signifies my gratitude to that legacy in as much as my desire to attach myself to this person in myriad ways, and raise children with him who shall share our name. Certainly, I am also attached to my name; my name represents my work, my past, and my family, and so I shall continue using it for trade.

Indeed, if we were to take this whole 'taking his name is caving to patriarchy' argument seriously, should we not also recognise my name is my father's name, begat of his father, and his father before him, and so on. The notion that my husband-to-be should take my name to somehow reverse anti-women tradition is ludicrous for the same reason. We'd only be perpetuating another man's dynasty. It would be different if a new name were conjured, of course, along the lines of that aforementioned lesbian last-name mash-up (I should, at this juncture, raise the hyphen - an idea which is fair-enough but not-for-me-thanks).

And that's the point.

For me, taking his name is not all about him. It's about me, having the choice.

A choice that one day, soon, hopefully, will be available to everyone.


- Sydney Morning Herald