In the name of the father…

Very recently I was married. It was 10 years in the making, and still I did it with some trepidation – not because I was afraid of what it would mean to be legally bound to my husband henceforth, but what it would mean to me as a feminist.

Indeed, many couples still choose to get married. I say ‘choose’, because now more than ever, marriage really is a choice. I also choose the word ‘still’ very carefully, because, I am told (recently by a Cheshire County Registrar), that the Marriage Act has not changed since 1948 – despite the Civil Partnership Act 2004, which introduced civil partnerships for same-sex couples.

I was completely in ignorance of this fact – assuming that the general status of marriage had received a well earned shake-up with the advent of said civil partnerships – and so was left feeling slightly foolish and a tad wronged when I skipped into the registry office with my soon-to-be husband looking for something new and shiny out of the marriage contract. And why shouldn’t I, I thought, explaining to the registrar my ideas about the business of relationship contracts. Indeed, feminism is about expanding choices and certainly not about pretending that old ‘choices’ are in fact choices at all and I wondered how many women had been in there before me pondering the equality of what they were about to do, finger poised on the pen.

But I was already committed and in faint rebellion, I wrote a formal letter of complaint about the marriage certification (amongst other things) – why ever did it ask for father’s status and not mother’s – bearing in mind that the equivilent for newly minted civil partnerships asks for both? No matter, the Marriage Act had not changed, but I had already changed my mind. I lurched under the sense that filling out that form was an act of submission to the cosh of an insidious patriarchy that just refuses to die; that even when I thought I was making decisions and choices based on what was best for me – I was just bending over for some.

I decided to tally up the instances in my own experience of friends’ marriages and name changes in my immediate circle

The act of committing one’s father’s name and occupation to the marriage certificate was just the tip of a proverbially big, old and smelly iceberg, that I was slightly naively seduced into adding my flag to, a relic of a society’s desires to categorise, label and let’s just say it ‘brand’ women according to their owner.

Worse was to come as the summer ‘marriage season’ set off and I found myself congratulating and celebrating quite a few weddings in which the bride had proudly announced that from her wedding day she would henceforth be known as ‘Mrs insert-husband’s-name-here’. I stopped and wondered – is it me – or is name branding not only stubborn, but re-gaining strength? With recent converts like Mr & Mrs Rooney and women such as Sarah Michelle Gellar changing her name well after her marriage and, of course, finding myself now regularly being addressed as ‘Mrs Monkhouse’ (despite continual and annoyed protestations) as well as some interesting and disturbing articles on The F-Word concerning women’s recent experiences, I’ve come to wonder if this tradition is not in danger of not only continuing but re-asserting itself as the de-facto norm.

Being of that age when many of my peers are choosing the same ‘married’ fate – I’ve only recently been witness first-hand to just how many otherwise independent and strong-minded women make that unlamented sacrifice, and how much opposition is suffered (the same kind I received) to keep one’s identity untainted. Hence my attempt to quantify it:

An unrepresentative but rather telling experiment!

As I do not have access to national statistics concerning name-changing (if anyone does – please send them to me and I’d be happy to analyse them), I decided to tally up the instances in my own experience of friends’ marriages and name changes in my immediate circle. Unfortunately I am human and therefore can’t be relied upon for generating a sufficiently ‘random’ sample. Enter Facebook! Facebook, as an external list, provides an independent ‘experimental space’*. If you would like to, we can compare experiences by following the simple experiment for yourself:

I looked at the list and simply counted each incidence of marriage in the last 15 years. I picked 15 years to limit it to my approximate peer-group with a margin either side, also a group which would have enjoyed more of the benefits of feminism than our mothers and aunts had. In short, I counted any friend on my Facebook (or couples jointly) as one data entry only if they married in the last 15 years.

Before counting them up I deduced that there were basically six options available to the couple which can most easily be illustrated with fictitious newlyweds: Mr Smith and Ms (Miss) Jones:


I had 22 incidences to work with (including myself!). Obviously, in doing this I should also note that there are other interesting ‘statistics’ that I didn’t count – such as the choice to marry or not, and the choice to adopt the various titles open to us, such as Miss, Mrs or Ms (another time perhaps!)

The results surprised me: 64% of those I counted as married within the last 15 years fell into the first category and only a quarter kept their own unchanged names. There was also one incidence of the wife changing her name to a joint name, while the husband kept his and one incidence of the husband and wife changing their names to a joint combination of their names (or 5% of each of those categories). In short – 75% of the women on my facebook friends list changed their identity on marriage compared to one (or 5%) of the men.

(I should also interject at this point: of the two married lesbian couples I know – not included in the above statistics – neither have changed anything.)

So what does this tell us? Well, as I noted in the footnote, this is far from statistically sound analysis and so can’t be used to apply to anyone else but my Facebook friends. However, what it is showing is the lingering power of the patriarchy in my life, now! Indeed, applying the logic that potential negative bias could be apparent due to this being a list of friends of a devout feminist – it is possible that the situation is in fact even more dire than this!

My name is imbued with all of my past accomplishments (and woes) and it’s my living legacy, no matter its origins

Perhaps you don’t think that a bit of name changing is dire at all and that I’m being dramatic. In fact, I have come across some quite strong and dare I say even reasonably well-constructed arguments offered for the dominating practice.

The first, and perhaps most subtle and devious, argument is in the origin of the name I fought to keep. For most women who go down the marriage route, the name they have prior to marriage is simply another man’s (their fathers’) anyway! Mind, saying that, isn’t swapping that for another man’s name merely compounding a past injustice – and reinforcing the notion that women’s names aren’t that important and subject to change anyway? I was given a name which I admit was my father’s. However, it is the name and identity I grew up and became self-aware with. My name is imbued with all of my past accomplishments (and woes) and it’s my living legacy, no matter its origins. In an academic environment, I work hard to produce and publish research that bares my name. My very sense of identity is tangled up with my name and is therefore something I wouldn’t give up without a very, very good reason. And I have to say, none of those I have been offered could be interpreted as being anywhere close.

The arguments

I wanted to know why such a large proportion of my chums changed their names on marriage – so I asked them. And without wanting to bore you with reams of “but this” and “erms” and “well I imagine”, I can categorise their offerings as follows:

  1. “Tradition”
  2. “It was expected and I just didn’t think about it”
  3. “I hated my ‘maiden’ name”
  4. “I want to have children and I want to have the same name as my children”
  5. “I want to give my children a sense of identity and heritage”

The first two reasons I’d postulate are very closely linked and a ready reminder to me, as a feminist that believes in fighting the insidious effects of the leaking tap of anti-feminism – the unnoticed, the unchallenged, the passively accepted, that I am justified in doing so. Yes, a women changing her name – or rather her identity – is a tradition (and therefore perhaps expected), but so was the rule of thumb and the notion that women couldn’t be raped by their husbands. In fact, so was slavery a tradition (which incidentally also involved a bit of name ‘branding’ of its own) and quite a few other things I think belong very firmly in the deep and disavowed past. And, of course, the thing about ‘traditions’ is that they don’t tend to survive unless they are of benefit to the power networks that continue to impose them. The benefit here is the creation of the ‘family unit’ under the unifying name of its head – the male. This is how man has passed his name down over the generations. This is ‘tradition’. But, before deconstructing this any further, I have to pause on the third reason (which to be honest was my favourite):

“I hated my maiden name.”

I did actually ask the chums in question if they ever considered themselves ‘maidens’ to start with. Neither of them ever struck me as maiden-ish before

I’m not sure I wholeheartedly believe that the two women in question (who I will not name for fear of further straining long-standing friendships) who responded in this way hated their name quite as much as they would have me believe. And of course just so happened to LOVE their husband’s name. I mean, what would be the odds that the one person they were marrying happened to have the name they wanted to change to – considering that the option to change their name previously existed at any time by deed poll? Further more, if it was simply that prior motivation to change the ‘hated’ name was not sufficient to break the inertia, but marriage provided a convenient point – then it would seem logical to deduce that unless name hating had distinctly feminine tendencies, that as many men would ‘hate’ their names and there would be an even distribution of name swapping. This did lead me to believe that this was conceivably more an excuse than an explanation. But perhaps I’m being harsh in considering that two lovely people would offer such a rationale on the basis of being the least offensive to the angry feminist asking annoying questions about the quaint and silly idea that they were somehow under the yoke of patriarchy.

I did actually ask the chums in question if they ever considered themselves ‘maidens’ to start with. Neither of them ever struck me as maiden-ish before. As two perfectly capable women with careers, aspirations and no pretence of virginity, female purity or of being a vessel in waiting, I was surprised at their self-classification. Again it was considered “something I’ve never really thought about”. Sigh.

What is particularly upsetting for me is that we shared the same feminist ideals as teens, and that they can now rationalise their ‘choices’ so very well.

This brings me to the last two reasons – which I do admit felt held the most compelling argument and left me thinking hard for some time. That is of children’s identity. The choice of both parents retaining their names, if the couple decides they want children, means that someone ends up not having the same surname as their children. I can understand the desire of both parents to share their children’s name. Of course I can – they’re your children! This proved very compelling for my name-changing chums and was the most often cited reason for the change. But again I asked – why you? Why was it the women who were expected to re-brand their identity entirely in the desire to create a family unit? Perhaps again – because it’s always been done that way. Marriage is set up to allow the woman to change her name on signature of the marriage contract (as pointed out by Eleanor Turner in her F-Word article A bride by any other name), but not for the man. The default option being the easiest of course, but if you want to ‘be stubborn’ you can, with great effort ‘make a stand’. Sigh. Isn’t so much of history influenced by the de-facto option?

I was beginning to understand, by this point, that the choices of these far from beshackled or oppressed women were choices influenced by a highly nuanced set of rewards and constraints.

The solution?

At first it seemed obvious: Mr Smith and Ms Jones could keep their names and then simply name their children ‘Smith-Jones’. This, I am assured, is a relatively simple process and (in terms of heritability of names at least) pretty much depicts the Spanish way, where the mother and father’s names are incorporated into their children’s.

But of course – it’s not as simple as that when you leap forward a generation. My name, (in common with many Spanish names), is already double-barrelled. Of course, simply adding names cannot be effected infinitum so this is dealt with by handing down just one name each – and you’ve probably already guessed which name from each goes on – yep – the ‘male’ name. Let me illustrate this with an example: My surname ‘Phythian-Adams’ became so when a few generations back a man called ‘Adams’ married a woman from a family with higher status than his and he joined their names. Therefore the feminine part of my name would be ‘Phythian’ and masculine ‘Adams’. If I were to marry one of the fictitious Jones-Smith offspring – the masculine part of the name ‘Smith’ and the masculine part of my name ‘Adams’ would be passed down and they would become ‘Adams-Smith’.

Rather than confusing the family tree, my proposal would not only preserve the precious male name, but actually make it clearer by adding the female linage (much like certain DNA markers used to trace genetic heritage)

This, therefore, only solves the problem for one generation – and then we’re back to de-facto maleness. Of course this would ensure the preservation of the last reason given for the female name change (number five in our list) – as pointed out by Eleanor Turner – of the desire to ‘root’ the family and ensure that, via passing down the male name, the family tree could be traced and sense of heritage and stability gained. I’m not sure this is such a compelling argument in itself, but this system at least pays some lip-service to the right of a woman to her name whilst preserving the precious family tree.

However, I was sure that there was some further compromise possible… So here, I offer for discussion our (that is myself and my husband’s) chosen solution:

Let’s just imagine that my husband and I have two children – a boy and a girl – and the girl in turn has children with a Jones-Smith offspring. I myself am a Phythian-Adams. We both kept our names on marriage and will call our children: ‘Phythian-Monkhouse’ – because as a woman I choose to pass down the female part of my name and as a man he will pass the masculine part of his. On having children with a Smith-Jones offspring, my daughter and he would then name their children ‘Phythian-Jones’ using the same ‘rules’. This is entirely heritable, entirely equitable, males passing to males and females to females – and in fact rather than confusing the family tree, this proposal would not only preserve the precious male name, but actually make it clearer by adding the female linage (much like certain DNA markers used to trace genetic heritage). No-one must change their name and everyone shares a name with their children, who in turn share one name with both parents. Siblings keep the same name, but then depending on gender pass on differing names to their respective children.

An illustrated family-tree example:


It is only apparent how well adapted the system is when comparing to the ‘traditional’ one which demands continued sacrifice in the form of identity re-branding from the female line:


So, having explained the system (of which we felt rightly proud) to a few friends, expecting an exalted hail of “how clever” and “fantastic solution”, I was instead confronted with open mouths and comments like “Seems a bit complicated” and “Is it worth it?”

I can tell you that however shocked I was with the passive acceptance of female re-branding, I was more shocked by the idea that a women’s identity was esteemed to be of so little value that a bit of extra thought was considered ‘hardly worth it’.

“Really?” was my retort. “How many traditions of patriarchy are complicated, if not utterly convoluted – changing one’s name on marriage for instance!?”

But my partner and I have committed to the system, and the proliferation of such to our children at least. To be frank… or perhaps even to be francis… I think it’s worth it. Put simply, we can start a new tradition, one which values equally the parties bound to it. I would be very interested to hear people’s thoughts and experiences on the issue – as well as their own Facebook friends’ statistics, although I shall do so in the ‘brace’ position, considering the level of hostility the issue continues to raise.


Please note that I have used my Facebook friends list as a convenient proxy for an independent sample. As an experimental researcher by trade I am immediately aware that it does not provide a scientifically rigorous independent sample. Two reasons immediately jump out at me:

(1) That the list would be a biased representation of people I’ve met in that it is populated by the chums I’ve chosen to keep in touch with (i.e. more likely to be those who would share my feminist views and hence less likely to change their name)

(2) That the list would be unrepresentative of the society of which I complain about as it likely over represents those women receiving the same sort of education and influence as myself (an ardent feminist) which in turn could be accused of some more negative bias.

There are likely many more, however, in lieu of some actual unbiased and fully representative data – I’m happy to use this as proxy – especially since this is the kind of proxy is directly relevant to my everyday life – and whoever else repeats it.

Sarah Louisa Phythian-Adams is a graduate of economics, MBA and part qualified actuary, who recently gave up running her own business in creative IT consultancy to research for a PhD in the dismal science… and who is also becoming increasingly aware that it all sounds a bit pretentious having never set out for it to be that way