Sneaky Sexism: What's in a (sur)name?

Sneaky Sexism: What's in a (sur)name?

Words: Laura Atherton

I got engaged in December. Yes, we’re very excited thanks. No, we haven’t set a date yet. When are we thinking? Probably a few weeks after we have saved up enough money to throw a good ‘do for family and friends. What will my name be? Well...

Since getting engaged, I have had endless discussions about what my name will be once we’re married. These are often prompted by comments such as, “you won’t be a Miss for much longer”, “you’ll be Mrs Walker soon”, “Soon to be Mrs...”, even from my female contemporaries. It is, of course, a significant question as the heterosexual tradition, even in the 21st Century, remains that the woman takes her husband’s surname. I admit, I had considered this dilemma when it wasn’t on the cards, and I remember arguing about name changes with my sisters. Back then I had been pro-changing, so that the family could all have the same surname. They countered this with wanting to keep our name because they see it as part of our identity. Of course there are many arguments for and against, however it’s only now that it’s imminent, it feels frustrating that many assume I will just discard my ‘maiden name’...

On that point, the phrase ‘Maiden name’ is the perfect example of sneaky sexism. It’s so biased that there is no opposite term for men. I even googled the question to check whether there was a male version, as I’ve never heard of any, and it said...

“Maiden name” is a woman’s surname prior to marrying and taking her partner’s surname. If we consider the case of a man who changed his surname to his partner’s, then we can see that “surname” is not an acceptable equivalent. His surname *is* his new married name.
— Google

Enlightening.

As well as grappling with the question of surnames, there is also the issue of title. Will we be Mr and Mrs as the tradition assumes? Well, I’d substituted Miss for Ms a few years ago as I found the distinction of marital status for women, but not for men, weird. However getting people to use Ms is quite difficult. For example, in December we received a friendly Christmas card from our estate agents, one month after we had completed buying our flat. Despite the fact that the whole process had taken six months and the property is half in my name, it was addressed to Mr and Mrs Walker - I ripped the card up.

This ‘title’ imbalance looms from an early age. I remember (and we still do) calling male teachers “Sir” and all female teachers “Miss” - can this be healthy? Men get given the titles of knights and barons, whereas women are all referred to by the same title that they have had since being a young girl. The subliminal messaging in this cannot be healthy for an ‘equal’ society. When you start to notice these things you see it sneaking in everywhere; in the drop down box on most websites where you fill in your data, Miss is the last option and Mr, the first. We women are even left behind in personal pronouns as the male version is the default to cover both. At the moment, I’m reading a non-fiction book where the author (male) alternates his use of personal pronouns when referring to how human psychology works. Scarily, hearing she/her within the text surprises me each time it comes up. Am I so used to everything being he or him or his that I am astonished to even read my gender used arbitrarily in a published text?

So, what’s my answer? My plan is that I will keep mine and take his surname. I will be double-barrelled. I want my children, if we have any, to have a name that represents both our families, especially so as my family value that sense of being a collective ‘us’ and that ‘us’ being symbolised in my dad’s family name (that being said, our collective family identity is most similar to his side, rather than my mum’s). And with my title? I will continue to use Ms. I think Miss and Mrs should be done away with at some point soon. I’m hoping that if I let enough people know beforehand that this is what I intend to do, it will hopefully mean that we won’t receive any ‘Mr & Mrs’ paraphernalia as gifts, seeing as Clintons don’t do a ‘Ms & Mr’ card. Yet.


 

 

 

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