Thursday, 11 March 2010

What's in a name?

Weddings traditions are sexist and outdated, so can a feminist still get married keeping her principles and surname intact?

In the Church of England’s traditional marriage vows, the groom promises “to love and cherish” his wife, while the bride promises to “love, cherish, and obey” her husband. When my mother married my father in 1980, a modern service, which omitted the word ‘obey’ from the vows, had just been introduced. However, the vicar refused their request for this service because he claimed that, “When a wife does not submit to her husband it causes conflict in a marriage”.

As an independent woman who believed her relationship was based on equality, my mother was determined not to make a promise she could not keep, but unable to find another vicar a week before the wedding, she decided to mumble ‘olé’ instead of ‘obey’ during the ceremony. “When it came to the day though, I was so nervous that I think I said obey after all”, she explains. “In the end, I realised that ‘obey’ was just a word, and the only important thing was that we were getting married.”

Is it just a word though, or does it signify the patriarchal values which are deeply entrenched in marriage and which women need to stand up against? Twenty-nine years after my mother and father married, the Church of England now offers couples a choice between the traditional and modern vows, but aside from this, little progress has been made in eradicating sexist wedding rituals.

For example, the tradition of the father giving away the bride has its roots in the centuries-old belief that women were the property of their father, and thus marriage is a transferral of property from father to husband. Moreover, the white dress signifies the sexist idea that women must be chaste but men can sleep with who they choose.

Therefore, while I would like to get married one day, patriarchal traditions such as these clash horribly with my feminist values. One of the biggest dilemmas I would face if I were to get married would be whether to take my husband’s surname, keep my own or compromise by double-barrelling our names.

Over the past 30 years, the number of women who keep their maiden name when they marry has increased, but overall these women are still in the minority. A survey in 2007 found that more than a third of single women plan to keep their maiden name. However, intention is not the same as action, and the poll by Debenham’s Wedding Gift Service also revealed that only seven per cent of married women refused to take their husband’s surname, while 51 per cent of men would be extremely offended if their wife did not take their family name, and a third of men said they would demand their fiancé to take their name.

The comments posted underneath a news story on this survey shed a worrying light on why there is a discrepancy between the number of women who want to keep their maiden name, and the number of those who actually do. “Any man who marries a woman who thinks like that is asking for trouble,” wrote Richard Lines from Somerset, betraying the fact that some men still see their name as a form of ownership in marriage. Furthermore, Carolyn Jackson from the Isle of Man explained: “I didn’t want to change my surname when I got married. I was quite shocked at the response from my fiancé – either I change my name or we don’t get married. I gave in and did change my name.”

Personally, I would seriously re-consider marrying a man who thought he could bully me into something I didn’t want to do. That aside, why is it that so many men would be extremely offended if their wife did not want to take their name? Men that I asked answered that it would go against tradition, and would send out the message to the world that their fiancé was not proud to be their wife.

“If my fiance flat out refused to take my surname, I would be really quite offended,” said Ben Snowdon, a 22-year-old student. “It depends what reason she gave; if she gave the reason of wanting to keep her identity, then I would understand that, but taking your husband’s name when you marry is about demonstrating your union to the world as much as it is about identity.”

This is an important point, and many agree that sharing the same name is crucial to a husband and wife’s sense of unity, especially when children are involved. However, why should it be the husband’s name which is shared? A double-barrelled surname would achieve this end just as well, as would, dare I say it, the wife’s surname. Indeed, most men that I spoke to were left stumped for an answer when I asked how they would feel if they were expected to give up their name, their family history and identity.

Like so many other out-dated traditions, perhaps it is time that this one changed. A hundred years ago, when women married young and were denied the right to a career, keeping one’s maiden name was not an issue. However, today the average age for a woman’s first marriage is 29.8, according to the Office of National Statistics, and by this time many women have established a working reputation which they do not want to dismantle by changing their name.

For example, the MP Ruth Kelly still practices under her maiden name, while Courteney Cox returned to her maiden name after originally changing it to Courteney Cox Arquette when she married. Cox says she made the decision after her father died and she did not want the name to be lost. This highlights another important issue; many women do not want their family name to die out, particularly if it is special to them

However, as my mother came to realise, the most important thing about marriage is the celebration of a couple’s love and union. And surely if those two people love each other they should be able to come to a compromise, whether that is deciding to double-barrel their surnames or choosing to omit certain traditions from the ceremony which they feel are outdated. I am confident that when I get married my fiancé and I will do what feels right for us. I just hope his surname has less than three syllables.

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