Heterosexual Marriage: Why Do Women ‘Take On’ Men’s Surnames When They Marry? By Cheryl Roberts

12 Dec

I haven’t done any research or checked a literature review of research or analysis about marriage and surnames. It astounds me, in this era of accumulation of women’s rights following much struggle and battles, how women so willingly trade in their surname, seemingly implying, in my opinion, the authority, power and superiority of the male person in this relationship.

As this is my blog, written in my personal style with my personal thoughts and opinions, it gives me a good space to put it out there how I feel and see marriage and the ‘taking on of the man’s surname’. And, to also throw out some ideas and maybe, just maybe, get more convo on this.

Fortunately, I have not as yet succumbed to marriage: I’m not saying I won’t ever get married. Should I want to enter into a married relationship, I already know that my surname will be retained and I won’t add another person’s surname. That’s because I am me and do not want to be an extension or add on of another person. And neither would I want the person I’m marrying, to take on, or add my surname.

This idea of retaining my name, if and when I got married, as my exclusive and personal domain dates back to when I was a teenage girl, about 19 years old, living in my family home in Durban and when I was beginning to develop a strong and positive self-identity of myself. Although I was a student at the then University of Natal, it had nothing to do with feminist and women’s studies, as I wasn’t reading these courses.

I had just, on my own self-identification and respect, developed a different view of surnames and name change when married.

It was because I was a teenage sports girl that I fell in love with my name. As I participated in and performed in sport, I loved reading my name in the newspapers, hearing it being celebrated and called out at championships and school awards and events. It was my name, owned by myself. It was my identity and ownership.

I couldn’t understand why I would have to change my surname when I married ‘one day’ as I was socialized to believe every girl would grow up and do in her lifetime.

Somehow I always said and knew that ‘when I married’. I would not change my surname: it would be retained by me for myself.

Back in the day, whoever and whenever someone around me – in the neighbourhood, sport, or family – got married, the bride immediately took on the husband’s surname and gave up hers.

Through my teenage eyes I felt like I would be giving up myself, becoming another person, and being attached to that person, if I had to do this in marriage. These thoughts weren’t arrived at thru a feminist lens: but via my mind and heart of already believing in the person and woman that was me, albeit I was a young adult woman.

It was this name change about marriage that made marriage unattractive to me. I began to dislike the idea that I would have to take on another person’s surname. However, I must say that name change isn’t the reason I haven’t succumbed to marriage.

It was when I attended University of Natal in the mid- 80’s and, thru my interaction with feminist and social justice activist, Shamim Meer, that I realized that women could be married and not ‘take on’ their husband’s surname. Shamim, the daughter of my mentor, Professor Fatima Meer, was married but had not changed her name.

Today, in heterosexual marriages, why do women still take on their husband’s surname as if they are forced to do so?

Over recent years, in some instances, women entering into marriage, retain their surname but add their husband’s surname. And of course, you do know that the men retain their surname.

Then the children arrive in heterosexual marriages and are given the father’s surname, but no part of the mother’s name. And I can’t understand how feminists and women who do not support patriarchy, allow their children to assume the father’s name and not the woman’s. And why do women, who have the foresight not to change their surname, allow the children to be named after the man? Why, in heterosexual marriages, are children not given the woman’s surname, instead of the father’s.

Then there is the case of the woman who has birthed outside of wedlock, and doesn’t care a damm about the father’s surname, but names the child with her surname.

Most teenage girls and women, who have little or no tertiary education and who have not heard about feminism and patriarchy, and have a child outside of marriage, don’t dare give the child their father’s surname. For these women, the child’s surname is about the right to the child. If the father wasn’t there and ain’t going to be around, he just ain’t going to get his surname carrying on through her child, say most unmarried mothers. And I say big up to them for giving thumbs down to patriarchy and male superiority!

There are several instances of feminists in South Africa who have not taken on their husband’s surname but have allowed their children to be given it. Is this not endorsing and succumbing to patriarchy because the feminist, anti-patriarchy woman goes along with patriarchy by giving the child the man’s surname. Yet the child, outside of marriage is socialized to know the power and authority of a woman’s lineage and name and not to assume that men only have this.

I know love makes us do some crazy things, but losing your surname and becoming a ‘Mrs’ is surely about giving away your own survival, your personal being, the woman that you are and want to be. Is giving up your surname being done to show the man how much you love him? Is love everything and enough to forsake your name for his? Or is it about continuing male domination and power in marriage? Should society not consider banning name change at marriage? Or should it be left with religious and cultural traditions to continue the lineage of patriarchal domination?

Increasingly women are also retaining their surname but adding the man’s surname but the man doesn’t do any adding on. Seemingly women are becoming aware of their power and not just signing onto another name. This awareness of whose name must change and why it should happen, is certainly out there amongst women.

But are women not conspiring and being complicit in the preservation of male authority within the family and society by willingly, and without consideration, taking on the man’s surname as the main domain?


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