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Marriage, maidens and mixed messages

Updated: May 27, 2022

This might be the point at which I lose quite a few friends. Maybe it’s the equivalent of a Facebook cull – you know the ones where people say ‘just culled a few hundred friends and if you’re reading this, you’re clearly one of the lucky ones!’ We all want to insert an eye roll emoji but quietly cull that person instead. Anyway, maybe this shared musing will be like that, only the hardy will stick with me. It’s about marriage. And tradition. And habits that I question their continued existence in the modern world. It will likely upset men and women; usually I aim for just one group at a time so this is a bold move. Here is the question that keeps bouncing around in my head: why-oh-why are women still changing their surnames to their male partners when they get married!?! I've heard lots of responses to this; because we want our kids and us to have the same name, because she doesn’t like her last name, because it’s tradition, because she wanted to become a ‘Mrs’ not a ‘Miss’ (see more on THAT ridiculousness later), because we were in love, because it’s really important that he carries on the family name and she doesn’t care, and this one, ‘how ridiculous, the baby needs one surname and if we keep hyphenating, our great great grandchildren are going to have EIGHTEEN surnames!’. Which kind of reminds me of the outraged response to gay marriage, that it would be a gateway to us marrying our pets – those fears were well worth expending energy on my friends, because the number of people walking hand in hoof down my street with well-dressed goats, their wedding rings glinting in the uninhibited New Zealand sun, well, it’s getting out of hand. Or hoof. I digress, but you get my point.

And look, I do understand these reasons, and the many others, individually and within the context of each family. But each reason could apply to men OR women. I’ve played red and black so I pretty much have a degree in statistics, which means I know that, all things being equal, both men and women would or wouldn’t change their names and it would all even out in the wash. But that doesn’t happen, why is it that barely any men change their names to become their female partner’s? Because dear reader, all things, despite our best efforts, are definitely still not equal. In fact, men are still often shamed, ribbed, castigated, shunned or beaten up for undertaking activities that are considered to be feminine or not 'manly' enough. Because underneath it all, things that are feminine are still considered to be lower in status. So for a man to take his wife’s name, he’d have to be willing to fend off criticism from his relatives, colleagues, friends, his own father, an incredulous Uncle Barry, and probably engage in combat with his own ego on the matter. Gender constructs suck for men too.

Some people might say we're subtly indicating a primary and secondary partner in terms of priority when we choose one name over another, especially when that choice reflects power dynamics in society. It buys into that anachronistic idea that men are the head of the household. Really it's women who are still doing more of the housework and more of the child rearing, so surely it should be women who are heads of the household and therefore the family takes their name? There must be some perks for having dishpan hands (yes, I do have a dishwasher, just roll with the imagery). In some circles it’s considered an act of feminism; the woman chooses, the man stays out of the decision-making and it's her feminist choice to change her name. Which is kind of cool but I always come back to the subconscious messaging we’re sending our sons and daughters, and the fact that we haven't shifted the dial that far on gender equality in recent decades. And considering, sorry but it’s true, half of marriages end in divorce, why would you want to go through the hassle of changing your name with seven hundred institutions TWICE in your life?! Especially seeing as we get married later in life these days and our names are firmly embedded with banks, insurance companies, clients, customers, friends and unnecessary boutique shopping outlets. Really, it was just much easier when women weren’t allowed to own property or vote, let alone have a Netflix account – if those rules still applied it would be a sheer relief to leave the password remembering to men. Bring back the patriarchy I say!

And I have a secondary question, one I fear risks putting people even more offside (sorry!); why are women who aren’t married giving their children their male partner’s surnames so that she, the mother, the only undisputable biological parent, the one who viscerally pushed the slippery handbag sized sack of human flesh through her vaginal canal or had it inelegantly yanked from her lower abdomen, SHE becomes the one who has a different name to her own children. Although there would be advantages when the kids are super embarrassing and you want nothing to do with them. Or you're trying to leave the country and start a new life without them, it's just so much simpler at the border.

You might think there are more important things to worry about. Don’t go worrying about your capacity to worry because you can certainly fit a lot in. I can worry about multiple things at once and often do; did I over-spice the marinade, rising sea levels, my son’s use of Spotify changing the algorithms so I hear rubbish songs like Pancake Robot, gender inequality, the cost of petrol…all of that in a nanosecond. See, totally possible. And why does this name changing business even matter anyway. Who really cares, yes it’s old fashioned but it doesn’t really have an impact, does it? I think it does. What message are we sending our girls and boys about identity and power and who matters most in the world. Sure, sure, marriage used to be the handing of a female chattel from father to husband but it’s the 21st century, NOBODY thinks like that anymore. Hopefully not in the Western world, however, we still, after generations of initiatives and summits and research papers and talking endlessly have not solved the issues of the gender pay gap, wildly disproportionate male suicide and incarceration, the fact that one in four women have suffered sexual assault in New Zealand, that six women are killed by men every hour around the world, many men are also killed by men hour by hour, men want to spend more time with their children but have old school ‘provider pressure’ and therefore unpaid domestic labour falls largely to women and men stay trapped in roles they don't want, which feeds into the gender pay gap and lack of women in influential roles and around and around in circles we go.

In some schools, kids still call teachers Miss or Sir. When I was teaching, women were Miss and men were Sir. Not even Mister. Sir?! Children usually have two boxes to tick for a title; Miss and Master – don’t get me started on why any of us, let alone children have any need for a title, surely a name suffices in 2022. Eye roll. My point however, is that ‘Miss’ is the title for a child. So female teachers are given the same title as a five year old girl. Male teachers are given ‘Sir’ which is a formal honorific address which semantically induces respect and a sense of authority. In one of the boys schools I work with now, male teachers are called Sir and female teachers are called Miss. Until they get married or hit a ‘certain age’ at which time they become Ma’am. I’m deeply curious about when the subconscious decision is made to call an unmarried female teacher Ma’am; you’d surely be booking in for some botox the first time that happened. Seriously, in some schools, female teachers have to call upon male teachers to discipline male students – is it any wonder when we set boys up to have greater respect for men, simply through the narrative we create with titles. And any companies reading this that still ask men and women to tick a box as to whether they are Mr or Mrs/Miss/Ms, it's time to give it up. You’ve usually already asked for our gender identity (hopefully with a gender diverse option); are old fashioned titles, taking up precious megabytes in your database, really worthwhile? Surely a name will do.

So, language matters. Tradition, whilst quaint, or romantic, or seemingly beautiful, can have an unwitting impact on issues that we still haven’t solved and that our kids will still be working on when they grow up. Most people reading this have already married and made this decision, so perhaps reading this does nothing but evoke frustration or annoyance. My hope is that on further reflection, you will be inspired to continue talking to your kids about complex topics such as those mentioned; about marriage and names, gender stereotypes, about navigating ambiguity, challenging norms, thinking critically, risking unpopularity in the name of social change, and being allies for one another. I also hope my son can choose whatever name works for him and his partner if he marries, without the overwhelming pressure men currently feel to fulfil masculine norms. The present generation of children are way cooler with diversity issues than we ever were, 8 year olds will probably solve the surname dilemma in an after school coding class. Oh we've left you climate change too; extra for experts. Good luck!

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