The conundrum of married surnames…

24 Aug

Within the past few weeks, a few Facebook friends have gotten married; within a week’s time, both of these women had changed their Fb profile names to their husbands’ names. This got me to thinking about the age-old question…or at least one that I’ve asked myself and my marrying friends several times: why change your name to that of your new husband’s?

The question itself seems to evoke a rather vociferous response–“why can’t I?”, “it’s my choice?”, “does it really matter?’

But yes, it does matter. And if it is a productive, happy, progressive decision, shouldn’t its justification be able to be provided free of defensiveness or anger? There are few times where the question has been able to be asked without fear of a retributive, defensive response, i.e. I have a problem because I am asking.

It’s a simple question, and it’s one that should be able to be asked without having to justify it, or defend its simplicity. However, at this point in our culture, it seems that to ask it is to question the very point of marriage itself.

But in my opinion, if one is to change one’s name after 20, 30, 40 years of having it, one should be able to explain and/or justify why one is changing it. Further, to respond with the old cultural justification of “it’s just what one does,” does not really work. 100, 200, 50 years ago it was just what one does; but now, it doesn’t really have to be.

Looking at the institution of marriage, considering its rituals, its requirements: to change one’s name was to become the wife, the property, the legal betrothed of one’s husband. Such a decision was based on the historical and cultural rituals and laws of marriage: a woman became the property of her husband. As a wife she was unable to vote, own property, make decisions of her own accord: she literally, figuratively, legally, and culturally belonged to the man she was married to.

Times have changed…but why haven’t the cultural residue of marriage also changed?

Why is a grown woman, with a lifetime of choices, friends, properties, and individualities seen as more transitive than that of the man she marries? Why is it reactionary, angry, and conversation-stopping to inquire of your friend as to why she would choose to change her name? How is it that in 2011 such an anachronistic practice is still considered normal, usual, and loving? And, if it is so normal, why can’t it even merely be questioned?

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