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Is Taking A Man's Name Still The Best Practise in a Gender Progressive Society?

Taking a husband’s name emerged from patriarchal history. So why do so many young western couples still follow the tradition?

“It is quite surprising... [so many women adopt the man’s name] since it comes from patriarchal history, from the idea that a woman, on marriage, became one of the man’s possessions,” says Simon Duncan, a professor in family life at the University of Bradford, UK, who has been researching the practice of male name-taking. He describes the tradition as “entrenched” in most English-speaking countries, even though the concept of “owning” wives was scrapped more than a century ago in Britain, and there is currently no legal requirement to take a man’s name.

Is this just a harmless tradition, or is there some sort of meaning leaking from those times to now - Simon Duncan

Much of western Europe also follows the same pattern (notable exceptions include Spain and Iceland, where women tend to keep their birth names when they marry, and Greece, which has made it a legal requirement for wives to retain their names for life since 1983).

Even in Norway, which is regularly ranked one of the top countries for gender equality and has a less overtly patriarchal history, the majority of married women still take their husband’s name. There, however, around half of name-takers keep their maiden name as a middle name, which functions as a secondary surname. 

“The question remains... is this just a harmless tradition, or is there some sort of meaning leaking from those times to now?” asks Duncan, who recently teamed up with academics at the University of Oslo and the University of the West of England to delve into the reasons for its persistence.  There are, of course, numerous personal reasons a woman might want to lose her maiden name, from disliking how it sounds, to wanting to disassociate herself from absent or abusive family members. But through an in-depth analysis of existing research, and detailed interviews with newly married and engaged couples in the UK and Norway, Duncan’s team identified two core motivators driving the tradition.

The first was the persistence of patriarchal power (whether that was obvious to the couples or not). The second, the ideal of the ‘good family’ – the sense that having the same name as your partner symbolises commitment, and ties you and any potential children together as a unit.

Lindsey Evans says she wants to change her name - and that the decision came from her

Some couples simply uncritically accepted the practice simply because it was conventional, while others actively embraced the idea of passing on male names. “Some men still insisted on it – the reproduction of that sort of patriarchal assumption from the past,” says Duncan.

“Some women go along with that or internalise that. So, we found people who say they are really looking forward to being a ‘Mrs’ and changing their identity to that of their husband.”  His team’s research paper suggests that women changing their names is, unsurprisingly, connected to the survival of other patriarchal traditions, such as fathers giving away brides and men being more likely to propose. These elements have, he says, come to form part of the optimum “marriage package” for many couples. 

Source: BBC Worklife


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