The Name of the Game

Can you be a 'Mrs' and a feminist at the same time? Mrs Angela Everitt explores.

, 19 October 2003

It seems that becoming the ‘Mrs’ is currently in vogue. In a recent survey in America by publishing giant Conde Nast, 83 per cent of first time brides in their twenties planned to take their husband’s name. And if you subscribe to the notion of the celebrity trendsetter, then the fact that A-listers Madonna and Victoria Beckham took the plunge is an indicator of changing times – as is independently successful women like the Chancellor’s wife Sarah Brown or the editor of Cosmopolitan Lorraine Candy ditching their maiden names. The main reason, it seems, for wanting to change names is expediency – joint bank accounts, having the same name as the kids. But are we thinking about it enough? Is changing our name really just a harmless nod to tradition or are we just choosing to ignore the wider implications? Can you be a ‘Mrs’ and a feminist at the same time?

For those involved in the women’s movement of the seventies, it was a no-brainer[pulloutbox]

For those involved in the women’s movement of the seventies, it was a no-brainer. It wouldn’t have been thinkable to take on a man’s name – too many echoes of ownership and antiquated Victorian values. In the nineteenth century, a woman was not only expected to take her husband’s name but to give over everything she owned to him as well. Married Victorian women were not allowed to posses money or property and a husband could even veto items bequeathed in his wife’s will, even down to her jewellery. It wasn’t until 1935 that married women obtained the same rights over property as single women. Before the women’s liberation movement gained recognition, a married woman who wanted to keep her own name would have a fight on her hands. Helena Normanton, for example, the second woman in this country to become a barrister in 1922, won the right to travel on a passport issued under her maiden name even though she was married – but only after a legal fight.

If taking a man’s name after marriage means turning our nose up at years of women’s struggle, then there’s an argument that buying into the institution at all is at odds with being a feminist. Ideally, getting married is a declaration of love and commitment form two people embarking on an equal partnership. And there’s a lot to be said for the security that a marriage offers – while many twenty first century couples are proving that you don’t need a legally binding ceremony to obtain a stable relationship, the frustrating reality remains that a common law wife isn’t legally entitled to a property she may have lived in for thirty years if she hasn’t made an equal financial contribution.

[pulloutbox]If a woman wants to take her husband’s name after marriage, that’s her prerogative

For me, if the last thirty odd years of feminism have been about anything, it’s been to combat society’s view of women as second class citizens. So if a woman wants to take her husband’s name after marriage, that’s her prerogative and she shouldn’t be at a disadvantage if she’s done so. I was shocked (maybe naively) to learn recently that an employer will think twice before hiring a married woman. A friend had been to see an employment consultant for tips on how to write a winning covering letter, how to perform in interviews, etc. Almost in passing, he mentioned that when filling in an application form, a woman should never title herself ‘Mrs’ as an employer will assume that she’s got children already and not be 100% committed to work. Alternatively, if she doesn’t have children it will only be a matter of time before she does, inconveniencing the company with maternity leave. Ideally a female candidate would not be married or in a relationship at all, as a male employer will always (however subconsciously) pick the woman who he thinks will be sexually available to him. A married man, by the way, is looked upon favourably, as an employer will assume he’s reliable. Is this really where we’re at? Are employers only paying lip service to equality while imagining our lips engaged in an entirely different kind of service?

The workplace is still the main area where women face discrimination – from equal pay to – so it seems for married women – getting hired in the first place. I’m not sure what the answer is, save from doing what we’ve been doing for the past thirty years: challenging perceptions of what we’re capable of. It’s a slow process, but the drip, drip effect has worked on a lot of young men. That’s possibly why well informed, modern young women are still walking down the aisle – they want the security, but know that their mate will not expect them to be the little woman at home.

However, even though we’ve come so far, there’s still work to do. Which is why this married woman can certainly be a ‘Mrs’ and a feminist at the same time – not a second class citizen.

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