A Bride by Any Other Name

When Eleanor Turner announced that she would not be changing her name after walking down the aisle, and instead her new husband would take on her surname, reactions ranged from shock to annoyance. She considers why breaking with tradition provokes such strong feelings

, 2 May 2007

There are a great many things that make us who we are, and for me one important element is my name. My sisters and I were all named after Queens of England: Alexandra, Eleanor and Victoria, and it was instilled in me from a very early age that my name meant something. My namesake was a proud, powerful woman who lived into a ripe old age and broke all the usual rules of court. A formidable opponent, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine is still quoted in academic texts as setting the standard in courtly love and scholars write about her with respect and occasionally awe. Growing up in the late 20th Century, it was nice for my adolescent self to retain a smug sense of self-righteousness that of all the children in my class, I was the one with the ass-kicking namesake, and to aspire to do it justice in the modern world.

My surname tells a similar tale and thanks to the dedication of my parents and grandparents, it can be traced back to its Welsh and even Scottish roots centuries ago. A fairly common name, Turner, but it still has its history and I’m proud of it. Aside from anything else, it’s the name I’ve had since I was born and it’s also the name my husband has now adopted. When we have them, our children will also take my name, and I hope at least some of our grandchildren will too. Does it surprise you then, that I’m a young woman whose beautifully complete family tree does not contain any other examples of husbands taking their wives’ names? No, probably not.

At the end of the autumn term last year, I prepared to say my goodbyes to the staff at school for almost a month. I was leaving to get married and have a well-earned break for a honeymoon spent snuggled up in a cosy hotel room with my new husband. A short speech was made by the deputy head and I went up to the front of the room to collect the gift the staff had collected for me. As I stood there, the deputy head asked me: “So, what will we call you next term?” I answered: “The same as this term. He’s taking my name.” The staff started whooping and I gave them the thumbs up, feeling confident and proud. I then looked at the deputy head again and she looked dismayed, almost as though I’d broken a code. I was soon to find out that a lot of women of all generations felt the same as she did.

The reactions I’ve had to the decision my husband and I jointly made have been varied and interesting, but always surprising. My sister got married a few months before me and while her husband kept his name, she also kept hers and became a Ms. The most eye-blinking reaction came from our mother, who upon being informed of her daughters’ separate-yet-similar decisions, told us we were being selfish, as this would mess up the family tree down the line. Our aunt also told us that it was better to stick to traditional setups as this causes less confusion for other people, including children. My husband’s mother even went as far as to be cross with me – after all, she’d had to adopt the Schmitt family name, so why couldn’t I?

The whole system promotes inequality – men have to jump through hoops to change their names after marriage, but if you’re a woman, welcome to the band wagon!

My husband is the eldest of four healthy, virile and heterosexual sons who will all, no doubt, marry and produce litters of offspring with their wives. I am the middle child of three daughters, one of whom is mentally disabled and will never marry. My in-laws’ name will therefore no doubt continue into the 21st Century, whereas mine is less assured. My husband and I discussed our future married name thoughtfully and frequently, and came to the following conclusions: a) four sons vs. three daughters, b) he likes my name, I’m not so keen on his, c) we want one family name and d) we’re a partnership and will make joint decisions that are right for our marriage.

My personal argument? It’s my name, my choice. My children can do whatever they like with their names, as long as any decision they make is a mature and consensual one made with their partner. Marriage is a partnership. It is a binding decision to spend the rest of your life with one person and share everything with them. The foundation block of this is becoming one unit with one surname and I really don’t see what the problem is. My husband and I share everything – housework, wages, financial obligations… even the driving. For there to be an automatic assumption, therefore, that I should give up something purely because it’s tradition both saddens and frustrates me. Why should I?

Now, it’s all well and good saying a name is changing, but the practicalities of carrying out such a task are more complex, particularly if you’re male. If I had become Mrs Schmitt, all I’d have to do is send off my marriage certificate to the passport office, credit card people, the bank and mortgage lenders and the change would be immediate. If, however, you’re a man and becoming Mr Turner, you have to change it by deed poll. This costs money and a considerable amount of time. Even though we’ve been married for three months, because my husband is American his name is still officially Schmitt. The whole system promotes inequality – men have to jump through hoops to change their names after marriage, but if you’re a woman, welcome to the band wagon! You’ll notice that there are no spaces for ‘master name’ in place of ‘maiden’ on these forms so I’m proposing a blanket rule. One generic term for men and women called ‘previous name’ under that all important Personal Details section, and the opportunity for all agencies and institutions to allow men to change their details and marriage status as easily as women.

Some people seem to take it as a personal insult, almost as though I am saying that the decision they made to follow an outdated tradition was the wrong one

One argument against couples reaching mutual decisions about their family name is that society is traditionally a patriarchy, and names and property are carried down the male line. I’d like to challenge this. Ever since women won the hard-fought fight to be allowed to vote, divorce and keep their own property, male-heir dynasties should have been outlawed. So what if family trees become more difficult to trace? If that’s the argument perhaps we should all convert to having our mothers’ names. We did literally come from their bodies, after all. Are we more their property than our fathers’?

There do exist some matriarchies in the world, and academics will always find and quote from some remote African tribe where the men lead solitary, roaming lives and the women look after the babies. It makes more sense to have a matriarch in charge and to take the female line’s name as the fathers are off doing their thing and very rarely around. Now, aside from the very obvious issues one may have with this setup (Why are the women bringing up their babies by themselves? Don’t children need two parents? Oh, don’t get me started on the effect absent fathers has on the teenagers at my school), the fact is, in the vast majority of the various and colourful societies of this world, patriarchy is the norm, and so is the expectation that women will conform to its traditions. After making my announcement at school, I had so many visits from both male and female staff asking me how I had ‘convinced’ my husband to take my name and how both his and my parents felt about it. It says a lot that my colleagues were more interested in the effect my ‘manipulation’ had on the men in my life than congratulating me and my partner for treading a path less trod.

I think that the decision Mike and I made, and the name we had read out to us in our church wedding, has really offended some of the people I’ve spoken to. Some people seem to take it as a personal insult, almost as though I am saying that the decision they made to follow an outdated tradition was the wrong one. A part of me wonders if there is actually an underlying jealousy about, as people (namely women) wish they’d thought of it first. Another part of me is hoping that I am challenging people’s beliefs and however small an effect it may be having; at least it’s having one. And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Small changes lead to big ones, and if I can convince one other young woman to simply talk to her partner about their future married name rather than comply with tradition, it’ll be a job well done.

Eleanor Turner is currently attempting to decide her master’s degree programme and slowly opening her eyes to the inequalities of the world, one feminist author at a time.

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