The issue of women changing their names when they married resurfaced in 2014 when Amal Alamuddin decided to add George Clooney’s surname to hers when she married him. There are questions of professional and personal identity at stake, as well as the troubling history that changing a woman’s name was an act of coverture, where a wife’s legal identity was subsumed under her husband’s. Even if current day name-changes no longer mean a loss of legal status, these are the roots of the social convention.
Lou Heinrich has a beautiful piece over at Kill Your Darlings about how she changed her name when she got married at 22, largely out of naivety, and how she now regrets it. For her, names are rooted in family identity:
It fit oddly, like a too-tight boot, Heinrich with its short sharp letters and quick harsh sound, a painting of his family that holds tight to its serious and blunt Germanic roots. Such a contrast to the flowing curls of Schebella (which I always wrote in cursive), the name I grew up with, with its soft, warm consonants and loose end.
I changed my name when I got married too, when I was still trying to work out what I thought of feminism before I started identifying as a feminist. I didn’t have a strong attachment to ‘Lockery’ as a name in itself, and though I thought ‘Davis’ was definitely more generic, it didn’t bring many more connotations than that. What did matter to me was a sense that Arthur and I were starting something new, a oneness that I think it is appropriate to use an identifiable marker for, like a last name.
In the Facebook comments on Lou’s thread, Tim Hein, the minister who conducted their marriage ceremony says just this.
The basis of unity upon which I married you and your husband in the service that day was not the authority of his masculinity, or the patriarchal strands of our society, but rather drawn from the words of Jesus Christ himself who said, amongst other things, that in marriage, you both came together to form one flesh. … This ‘one flesh’ is complementary, and equal. Like a violin and bow, or lock and key. It does not imply ‘sameness’ but it does imply that you are no longer as you were. Your identity is now part of something greater than yourself.
Tim argues that “an exclusive ‘one flesh’ should rightly be reflected in a myriad of symbolic and tangible ways through your married life together.” Having the same name is a reasonable way to do this, where keeping one’s own name may be “a token act of individuality at the centre of a union which is all about unity.” He doesn’t particularly mind whether you take the wife’s name as some friends of ours did, or the husband’s name, a new name, or a combination.
But I took Arthur’s name. I don’t think we even discussed him taking my name, at least not seriously. I was happy to take his name, and to be identified by it. Partly it was social convention, but it also came from a belief in his headship of me and our family. I think I conceived of that headship differently at the time, but what I’ve come to recognise is that that headship has nothing to do with me losing my identity; in fact, it’s about giving me the space to flourish. It has nothing to do with him ‘owning’ me in a way I do not own him, because we belong to each other. It has everything to do with him being the head of our family, which means he is the first to love, the first to serve, the first to give his rights up, the first to look to my wellbeing.
Does this notion of the husband having this particular role have its roots in patriarchal structures? Of course it does! The New Testament’s instructions to families are using cultural models of the time. They take the household codes, a familiar patriarchal pattern, but then they turn them on their heads.
The cultural expectation is that you will be the leader? OK, be the servant leader.
Everyone expects you to be in charge? Take that as being in charge of your wife’s well being.
The law sees your wife subsumed under your identity? Good then, care for her as you would your most precious possession, your own body.
I’m constantly fascinated that these instructions don’t chuck out cultural constructs so much as they do subvert and transform them. To bring it to the issue before us today:
You’re getting married and she’s taking your name? Let it then be a daily reminder to you of your grave and holy responsibility to love her.
Many would accuse the New Testament writers of not going far enough with their instructions about marriage. Why simply subvert patriarchy when you have the opportunity to overthrow the whole thing? That question is one that can only be asked from our vantage point of history. The things that generations have taken to be self-evident are now up for grabs, and perhaps rightly so. But for me, sharing one name continues to be a beacon of unity, togetherness and belonging to one another. And sharing his name, becomes not about putting myself aside, but experiencing the individual flourishing that oneness provides.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.