The Last Bastion of Sexism

On the drive home from the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting, I got into a casual conversation about marriage and last names. Most people in my generation find creative ways of combining each person’s last name. I entirely agree with this. Theologically, it is less than ideal—indeed, unacceptable—for the wife to simply take the husband’s last name. Names carry the weight of one’s identity, and the traditional patriarchal practice of having the wife conform to the identity of the husband fails to account for the fact that the husband, too, must take on a new identity in marriage. As the Scriptures make clear, the two will become one flesh. This new marital identity is an event of God’s presence and sanctifying power, in which something new is formed out of the old; marriage is an icon of the new creation.

Some people combine their last names; others hyphenate; others take on entirely new last names. The only two traditions I frown upon are when the wife takes the husband’s last name or when they each keep the same name. In both situations, the radical event of new creation, in which a new identity replaces the old identity, is lost or distorted. Both the husband and the wife should be transformed and caught up in this event.

Now it occurred to me in the course of this conversation that there remains at least one bastion of male privilege left in our country: the title, i.e., “Mister” and “Missus/Mistress.” Only the female has to change her title, from “Miss/Ms.” to “Mrs.” The male has no corresponding change. Why is there no change? Why is the female forced to indicate whether or not she is married, while the male need not disclose such information? Is there a latent endorsement of male freedom to act according to his desires, while the woman is forced to identify herself as either “available” or “taken”? Also, the word “Mister” is simply a weakened form of the word “Master” from which it is derived. Granted, the word has been expanded somewhat so that women can also be identified by the term “Master,” but our title system still identifies this word with the male partner in a marriage.

I will not even begin to address the issue of titles for homosexual couples. That is still too heated a subject to touch on in this country, especially within the church. In any case, I think it is at least worth pondering the titles we place in front of our names. I have yet to hear anyone offer a critique of its latent sexism. Any thoughts?

NB: Amy and I do not fit into the ideal. She ended up taking my name, not because of any tradition or principle, but simply because combining our names sounded ridiculous. Her maiden name (another sexist term, since there is no corresponding term for men; at least not yet) is “Fong” and my last name is “Congdon.” The different variations all sounded horrible: “Fong-Congdon,” “Congdon-Fong,” “FongCong,” you get the idea. Now we could have both taken completely different names, or I could have taken her name. On this point, I am open to criticism. Part of me still feels uncomfortable with her losing her last name. This past summer we almost changed it to make our names equally different, but she did not want to endure the hassle of altering all the different forms and ID. Something to think about, for sure.

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Anonymous said…
Call me a traditionalist (and I have no theological arguments to back this up - indeed, I accept your arguments as valid), but I am of the opinion that one of the two parties should take the name of the other. For centuries, family identity has been more important than individual identity, and even more important that the identify formed by a married couple setting out to make their own family. I think that hyphenated names, or newly constructed names, are simply silly, are generally aesthetically unpleasing, and in all other ways preposterous!

(Rhetorical flair should be read as tongue-in-cheek...)
Anonymous said…
My wife kept her last name because a) we both believe that for her to take my last name is sexist, and b) neither of us wanted to go through the paperwork involved in a name change. :)
byron smith said…
Re your second point about Miss/Mrs, isn't 'Ms' the common solution to this issue? While this brings some symmetry, it does lose the distinction between married and unmarried, which I think is important. I wonder whether adding another male title might have been better. The problem would then become whether the traditional 'mr' referred to the married or the unmarried.

And re your main point about changing surnames, I believe I have come up with an original solution that is simple, equitable, fun and adds some extra zing to weddings. Here's my idea: towards the end of the ceremony, the minister/celebrant would conduct an official coin toss to determine which of the two family names would be preserved. It would certainly give people something to talk about other than the bridesmaids' dresses!
Anonymous said…
or we could just drop the titles altogether
Anonymous said…
Your criticism is well put. My wife has taken my name partly because it seemed the simple solution and I was averse to the idea of combinations for aesthetic reasons among others. She's not entirely happy with this and we're considering different options, but hey...

However, I think WTM has hit on a really important point. the identity recorded in a surname is not an individual identity and all your solutions would seem to treat it as such. Surnames are family names and it has been, historically, at least partly about inclusion in a kinship group that one spouse takes the name of the other. Most cultures are patrinomial and patrilineal, but some are matrinomial and matrilineal. In either case the significance of the change is not merely about a new individual identity, but about membership in a kinship group. Hyphenated names don't accomplish this because they create a "new" family that is not really fully apart of either family.
Anonymous said…
I believe you are incorrect in saying most women are not taking the man's name in the present generation. The trend to hyphenating or not taking the man's name appears to have peaked in the late 80's/early 90's. The overwhelming majority 70-90% (depending on the study) still take the man's name.

Most cite the decline of feminism's relevance as the key reason and just 'old customs die hard'. It is really socially frowned upon in most places and makes dealing with the children's lives and last names a headache. Speaking from personal experience, we had an in-law hyphenate (1988) and it was seen by our family as a rejection of us and came off as a sort of condescending elitism. The assertion of identity part was missed entirely.

Other cultures have no family names just names, some use grandparent names. All of them are patriarchical. This whole naming business is rather superficial in the scheme of things unless one is in the mood to find oppression always lurking behind every custom as people were two decades ago:)

Anonymous said…
Good Lord! This post has given me yet another reason to thank God for my conservatism. Maybe it's the people I hang out with, but I don't know anyone who would not take the male surname. It's a sensible tradition and surely makes genealogies easier (what happens when two hyphenated names get married? chaos!). This must be what New England elites talk about over coffee. By the way, I'm 24 and a college grad from a state university.
Anonymous said…
"Theologically, it is less than ideal—indeed, unacceptable—for the wife to simply take the husband’s last name."

Doesn't that seem just a little too strong to you?

The point that you are trying to get at, i think, is that women are their own people, and that we ought to encourage women to develop their own agency. But, after all, might it not be the case that a woman want to take the name of her husband? If so, you calling her desire 'unacceptable' restricts her agency rather than promoting its development. The problem is analogous to women wanting to become homemakers rather than 'career' women. Most of the feminists writing on this topic seem to say that women would only want such a career because they have been so indoctrinated by patriarchy that they are incapable of knowing what they really want and that it is up to us, the enlightened progressives, to help them see that they ought to want something better for themselves.

The problem with this all is the infantilism it projects onto women who don't behave the way we (enlightened, progressives) want them to. It seems to me that this is just patriarchy in reverse since it still robs individual actual women from the right to make their own choices and do what they wish. The feminists (a huge generalization, i admit) restrict female agency to their idea of what women ought to want, a professional career, a hyphenated last name, etc. because of the conviction that this is in women's own best interested and that women who don't realize this ought to be educated into accepting it.

I prefer to allow women to decide what is in their own best interests. If some woman wants to take my last name, she is welcome to do so. If she wants to keep hers; I'm fine with that too. If she wants to hyphenate, more power to her. But she makes that call, not me. If she wants to put off having kids and become a lawyer, I'll support that. If she wants to be a mother as soon as possible, I'm on board with that too.
I agree with you, Shane. My original wording of that sentence was more clear. I said that it is unacceptable for a husband to force the wife to take his last name. I felt like that such a sentiment would be viewed as a "given" and so I decided to make it a little more broad (thus more polemical). That said, you're right, they have the right to choose, of course.
WTM and Miner,

I think the issue of "family identity" is an important one, though it seems to me that the whole point of marriage is that two people come together to form a new family identity. I suppose a case can certainly be made for continuity, but the question remains: Whose continuity? Whose family identity will be maintained?

Here I think Byron's proposal is as good as anything I have heard thus far: throw dice!

Is there a different proposal?
I tell you, this is messy. When Kate & I married, we both hyphenated our names. It was frustrating though to watch my name chopped up by credit cards as "Westmoreland-Wh" especially since the "White" part was my legacy. I began to wish that we had both simply kept our last names, but I wasn't about to go through all the legal hoops for a man to change his name in the state of Kentucky TWICE.

When our children were born, we reverted to patrilineal (not patriarchal) tags for them, Molly and Miriam White. It is easier for them at school and when they grow up they can make their own decisions. The Spanish solution gives surnames that take up half a page!

But it isn't easy. I don't prescribe any one solution for any couple.
Anonymous said…
Hey DW,

Being well-rooted in the feminist movement, this is a topic I have thought about quite a bit. As far as I can tell, there is no ideal solution. Hyphens are messy. Taking the family name of one person and not the other doesn't do justice to the change that marriage creates in both people (although I will note that one of my brothers took his wife's last name -- an option that, I think, you would find nearly as troubling as a wife taking her husband's last name). Creating a new last name doesn't recognise the ways in which the bride and groom have had their identity (at least partially) shaped by their respective families.

So what to do? Of the options, I always thought creating a new name was the best, although I thought taking the wife's last name was a close second. However, as I am going to be married in the near future, I have discovered (to my surprise) that my fiancee (also a feminist) is actually quite excited by the idea of taking my last name. Dear me. As I have struggled with that idea, I have become comfortable with it. So I'm not sure where that leaves me.

Given that none of the options are ideal, perhaps the most we can ask is that each couple (fully aware of the issues and the history), wrestle through these things prayerfully.
Abu Daoud said…
Hmm, how about the old-fashioned tradition from Spain and Latin America, here is a woman's full name:

María [given name, including middle name if any] Martinez [Father's family name] Yzaguirre [Mother's family name] de Olivarez [the preposition "de" along with the husband's father's family name]

So try it:

Yanet Boterón Ángeles de Meyer
Sarah Perlmutter Kandinsky de Martinez
(and yes we get names like that back in TX!)

That is a lot older nad even more liberated and feminist than your proposition because it preserves the matronym of the bride as well as the patronym.

Of course here in the Middle East, none of this would ever fly.
timcoe said…
I'd like to echo dan -- David, you suggested you'd have liked it if you had taken your wife's name rather than her taking yours. Other than the fact that this has a gratifying smugness re: patriarchy (and patrilineage), how does this in any way relate to your topic of your-identity-shouldn't-be-subsumed-by-another?
Tim: I don't understand the reason for your (unnecessary) criticism, nor do I really understand your point. I never said that I would have liked to talk her name instead; I said that I was (and am) sad to lose her family's name. There is no smugness there. I am honestly sad to not have her name preserved, and if it weren't for the hassle, I think the Spanish solution is nearly perfect. I never said that I would subsume my identity to hers, nor would I ever want her to subsume her identity under mine. So I think you misunderstood what I was saying.

Furthermore, this has everything to do with one's identity. I am shaped by my wife just as she is shaped by me. Maybe I am missing something here, but this all seems rather obvious.
byron smith said…
Doesn't the Spanish solution just postpone the issue a generation?

Likewise, if both keep surnames, then the issue is postponed until the marriage produces issue: whose name do the children get?
timcoe said…
David, you said:

Now we could have both taken completely different names, or I could have taken her name. On this point, I am open to criticism.

Right, I know I said that, but I did not say that taking her name is something I wanted or want to do. I was just listing other options that I could have pursued. I could have taken her name, or we both could have taken a different name, etc. I am open to criticism because some may think that I just towed the patriarchal line by having her take my name, rather than the other way around or something else.
Anonymous said…
Your fighting evolution here.

michael jensen said…
Well, tradition: what's wrong with tradition?

What about the verious Scandanavian and Slavic options?

I have lovely friends who chose a mutually acceptable thrid name: Lorien, from the Lord of teh Rings. Cool huh?
Anonymous said…
dude you're a dick head

Who is this directed toward, and why?
Anonymous said…
you - cause you are!
psychodougie said…
i know of two men who both took their wife's name, for completely opposite names. the first because his was too Aussie, hers was more exotic. the second because his was too foreign and hers more Aussie!
go figure!

but theologically, i'm surprised noone's yet mentioned 1Pet3:6, Sarah being held up as an example of godliness, as she calls her hubbie Lord.

i'm more worried, primitive and patriarchal as this may sound, about being the last in my line, ie my surname in this branch of the tree dies out with me if I don't pass it on!
psychodougie said…
ehh, i mean opposite reasons. sorry