Changing your name to your husband’s is like flying the confederate flag.
Mad already? Me too. Let’s talk about coverture.
Eminent 18th-Century British jurist, William Blackstone, did a bunch of codifying and explaining of the laws of his time. And he said,
By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage… and consolidated into that of the husband…; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture.
And this little gem…
For this reason, a man cannot grant anything to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose her separate existence; and to covenant with her, would only to be to covenant with himself.
Let’s not forget…
In trials of any sort they are not allowed to be evidence for, or against, each other: partly because it is impossible their testimony should be indifferent, but principally because of the union of person.
Here’s the capper…
These are the chief legal effects of marriage during the coverture; … intended for her protection and benefit; so great a favorite is the female sex of the laws of England.
To recap, the law of coverture
- Subsumes a women’s identity into her husband’s.
- Eliminates her rights materially and legally.
- Is great, great, great!
Of course, the linguistic manifestation of the law of coverture is taking your husband’s name.
But, wait!—You say. All that coverture stuff’s over!
To be exact, the overturning of portions of the coverture law began in the U.S. around 1839 and coverture did not completely disappear in some states until the 1960s, but who’s counting?
The point is, slavery in this country is also over. So why did Georgia feel obliged to remove the confederate symbol from its state flag? It’s just a symbol. Really, the confederate flag has transformed into an emblem of the pride of the South.
If you remember back to 2003, that’s when everyone called bullshit. The confederate flag is so inextricably linked with the horror of slavery, it (finally) became socially unacceptable to fly it.
A key reason for this is, of course, that while slavery itself no longer exists, the horrors of its legacy do, from subtle racism to the killing of unarmed black men from Staten Island to Ferguson, MO. It is deeply wrong to fly the symbol of the confederacy in this context. It’s a never-forget kind of thing.
Injustices against women in this country also persist, economic, social, and physical. Broaden the context out to the world, and you have Malala and others like her, disfigured and killed for trying to go to school.
Yet we still fly the flag of coverture, the name-change of the legal erasure of a woman’s independent identity and her utter subjugation to the will of her husband. We do it both willingly and happily. In fact, we are leaping to do it.
The statistics are clear. Only 18% of women keep their own names, actually down from a peak of 23% sometime in the 90s. One survey shows 50% of Americans think women should be legally required to take their husband’s name.
Given that statistical context, it might be hard to believe there are other points of view. Like that of Greece, which enacted a law in 1983 requiring women to keep their birth names for life.
So why do American women continue the husband-name-taking practice?
Talking to women friends over the years, I note some common themes:
- There seems to be a romantic notion about changing your name when you get married, in the same giggly, girly kind of way you might have written Mrs. [Name of First Crush] in your 8th grade notebook.
- Another is the team concept. As in, “I want my husband and me to be a team.”
- There is also the children-confusion point. “It will be very confusing to people if I have a different last name from my children.”
- Next, a woman’s name is not a woman’s name after all. It’s, in fact, her father’s.
- Lastly, and unfortunately, many women feel outright pressured by their future husbands.
Let’s take them in order, skipping over the giggly-writing-in-notebook one.
- I think we can all agree being a team with one’s spouse is a laudable goal. If that’s truly the goal, then there’s no reason the “team” can’t take the woman’s name. In fact, I propose the county clerk just alternate the choice of names—the way we do with hurricanes.
- As for confusing, here’s what’s confusing: naming your children Apple or Wyoming. Also, you could give the progeny your last name and let people be confused about your husband.
- I concede the point about the father’s name and simply note that it’s likely, in a few generations, everyone will have forgotten about your father.
- The pressure from your soon-to-be spouse? That’s simple. DON’T MARRY HIM.
We’re done. Easy peasy.
Turns out, it’s the last name changing, and not the title “Mrs.” that’s the coverture association. For a long while, Mrs. could be used for any adult woman, the way the French shift from Mademoiselle to Madame. So, good news: Linguistically and historically you can call yourself Mrs. Maiden Name with no problem at all. The objectors to the introduction of Ms. in the 70s were right. It wasn’t necessary. Go you!
I simply can’t believe the number of women, my friends and acquaintances, who support pro-women causes, who call themselves feminists, who truly and deeply care about women and their rights, and who have taken their husbands’ names. I am absolutely gobsmacked.
In addition to being smacked by gobs, I am also beset by fears. First, of just writing this down, given the well-known trend of attacks against women writing online. Second, and most importantly, I am afraid of the inevitable hurt I will cause to feelings of the aforementioned wonderful women. I sorry, but it has to be said— If not for ourselves and our identities but for our daughters’.