A wife was her husband’s property
Marriage as an institution was born from a practice designed to entrench women’s subordination, bypassing us on like chattel from one man (the father) to another (the husband). And name-changing was for a long time a key symbol indicating that a married woman was her husband’s property.
When British hereditary surnames were introduced about 1,000 years ago (brought to our shores during the Norman Conquest), married women were initially stripped of their surname altogether as they simply became the “wife of”.
Then the idea of marriage as a legal and spiritual union came into play in the 15th century and, as couples became “one”, they became the man, naturally, and women began adopting their husband’s surname. This tradition persisted for centuries, all while women remained unable to hold property, vote, or practise law.
Legally, upon getting married, women ceased to exist. By the 18th century, prominent feminist pioneers, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, were beginning to challenge this custom of marital surname change, which, by the 19th century, had spread to British colonies and ex-colonies.
A legal tug-of-war continued over the centuries as activists fought to retain their last names following marriage and secure the right for women to have real estate deeds, passports, and bank accounts issued in the names they chose – rights first secured in the UK by way of the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882.
Fast-forward to 2021 and women in heteronormative relationships are, at least in law, equal to their husbands and are not required to change their last name. And yet, the majority of the time, they do. Where the legal requirement has been lifted, social norms persist.
“So what does it matter?” friends ask when I broach the topic over dinner (hypothetically, where I’m concerned since I’m about as far off from getting married right now as I am from becoming an Olympic swimmer).
“You inherited your last name from your father – a man! What does it matter if you switch his last name for your partner’s?” one friend asks.
This is beside the point. While my last name may have been inherited from my father (and I’m all for shaking up the patrilineal surname going forwards, obviously), it’s still the name with which I’ve identified throughout my life. It remains a cornerstone of my identity.
I resent the assumption that it is always the woman who must agonise over whether to change her last name or not, while there is little to no expectation her future husband will consider changing his. Every time we pose the question to a woman and not to her fiancé (I’m guilty of this too), the status quo of male primacy is reinforced. Another small and insidious nudge is made towards the bigger problem of patriarchy.