I am now married for over 2 months now, to a certain Mr Countrymunkle. But I am not Mrs Countrymunkle, oh no, I am still Ms Bean. In this modern age, now that we are in the 21st Century I don’t need feel the need to define myself as someone’s chattel.
I was asked many times what my new surname would be and in many ways I felt defensive, as if I had to justify keeping my own name – which I have had for over 40yrs. And my attitude was and still is – why should society expect me, the woman, to change her name & identity, defining myself as a “wife” immediately, whilst my husband can still carry on his merry little way with no one the wiser as to what his identity is, unless he discloses that he is in fact married.
So I have been pondering this issue. Why does society expect women to give up their birth name? I found an interesting article on BBC Magazine where the author, Sophie Coulombeau, asks the same question. Having done a year studying British Social History, myself, in university and discussing the concept of marriage in the various social strata, I always believed that the “custom” of the woman changing her name is due to a feudal concept of the woman becoming the property of the man. And my assumptions/beliefs seem to jive with this article, in particular this passage:
British hereditary surnames are only about 1,000 years old. Imported by the French around the time of the Norman Conquest, they stabilised throughout much of English society by the 14th Century .. Married women .. were perceived to have no surname at all, since the Normans had also brought with them the doctrine of coverture, the legal principle that, upon marriage, a woman became her husband’s possession. Her state of namelessness reflected this. In the words of one court in 1340, “when a woman took a husband, she lost every surname except ‘wife of'”.
But, around the turn of the 15th Century, the French doctrine of coverture received a unique English twist. There was another interpretation of coverture available, based on scriptural ideas, which focused not on the husband’s power over his wife but on the unity that marriage gave them.
In the words of the English jurist Henry de Bracton, they became “a single person, because they are one flesh and one blood”. As this idea gained ground, so did the clerical habit of designating a married woman by her husband’s surname. The married woman had formerly been a vassal with no surname at all, but now, in theory, she came to share the surname of her husband as a symbol of their legal and spiritual unity.
However, if there was one person in a marriage, that person was the husband. Married women still could not hold property, vote, or go to law. Legally, at the point of marriage they ceased to exist.
By the early 17th Century, the custom of the woman adopting her husband’s surname was sufficiently entrenched in England that the antiquarian William Camden could write: “Women with us, at their marriage, do change their surnames, and pass into their husbands names, and justly. For they are no more twain, but one flesh.”
Crucially, the custom was also specific to England. Camden noted with disapproval: “And yet in France and the Netherlands, the better sort of women will still retain their own name with their husbands… But I fear husbands will not like this note, for that some of their dames may be ambitiously over-pert and too forward to imitate it.”
I also remember from my studies, that there were several societies that were matrilineal – not matrilineal, not matriarchal. The Egyptians had this concept – the right to rule was through the female line – so if you wanted to be pharaoh you had to marry the Princess; and this is how we get the whole sorry story of brother marrying sister in Egypt, to keep it all in the family.
As well, in several societies a child automatically gets the mother’s surname – so if unmarried the child will automatically get whatever the mother’s surname is unless specifically told otherwise. So this whole giving up one’s name is possibly an extension of needing to “imprint” the husband’s surname on his children – to label them as “his” first and foremost.
Anywho, I ramble on. I, myself, do not feel the need nor desire to give up my identity. I have held my name for this many decades, it is part of who I am. My husband is British and I am the product of two Lithuanian Immigrants, who went through many hardships (running from the Red Army, living under Communist Rule, nearly being sent to a Siberian Gulag). I am proud of my own heritage – and no disrespect to my husband and his family, but I am deeply proud of my heritage, and I feel that a bit of it will die a little if all of a sudden I take on his surname.
Now, if both of us changed our surnames to something completely different I would welcome that – as both of would be making the change in our identities.