8. no names of our own

This is the manuscript blog; Best read in sequence so start with 1 and work your way through. Enjoy!

When it comes to women being wrong, religion has a lot to answer for – above and beyond the embedded imagery that goes with Adam (who actually ATE the apple but was exonerated) and Eve, the temptress who ‘made him do it’. (A fundamental scapegoating pattern in the English language.)

There is also the overlay of religious practice that has reinforced this unequal relationship with its insistence on male authority, (the signature slogan of the Catholic Church): this belief in the male as the head of the household is also found in most other church practices. (A tradition that is rapidly being undermined as women are better educated, and where almost all women work and where 40% US wives earn more than their husbands – and the number is on the increase.

A Miss belongs to her father until he ‘gives her away’ to her husband. The then  become one — man and wife and that one becomes the husband!  There can be few more blatant announcements than this as she acknowledges the swap by taking his name along with the title Mrs.

Traditionally she has become the property of her husband – and vowed subservience, obedience, and his conjugal rights! There is no place for a Ms in such an arrangement.

Early records of this practice of woman as property indicate that for a period, women kept their first names (Mrs Mary Smith) but by the end of the 19th century the woman had lost her own name – and identity – entirely, and was called by her husband’s full name – eg Mrs John Smith.  And  – according to Jane Grey – Mrs John Smith was proud of her achievement. [1]

To be a Miss might show that you belonged to your father – but this was no great feat.  To be a Mrs, however, was quite an accomplishment. The lady got her man and she wanted the world to know of her success: ‘It was a badge of honour to carry a man’s name and to represent him’.

I’ve asked younger women today how they feel about taking a man’s name – and more than a few of them have said they did it for their husbands – or because their future mother in law asked them  ‘Isn’t our name good enough for you?’  Most who changed their name said they had done so in the interest of their future children: (presumably without reference to the divorce statistics.)[2]

Older women, particularly professional women, generally stated that they would not change their names and would not be called ‘Mrs’. Given the habits of the service industries, I think this is probably a vain hope.  It seems that in the domestic sphere women who aren’t married, or haven’t changed their name if they are, nonetheless are automatically referred to by their husband’s name and the title of Mrs.

(There is of course another side to this: when I make restaurant reservations for example, and give my name, and then turn up with my partner, he is almost always referred to as Mr Spender! I quite enjoy it ….. There are exceptions but most men who find themselves in this predicament can feel uncomfortable.)

Being a fair-minded person I have also asked a number of men (who assured me they believed in equality of the sexes) whether they would change their names on marriage – and they were gob-struck. Without exception they said they would never do that; ‘You’d turn into someone else’ they protested. ‘And think about all the effort it would take to change your credit card, get a new passport; and how would your friends keep track of you?’

How indeed! One of the greatest frustrations in studying women’s history is the routine disappearance of young women. One day they are there leading a protest, writing a pamphlet, making scientific discoveries, becoming leaders in the corporate world  – and then they just drop out of sight. They have become someone else entirely!

For men history is a record of their achievement; all the heroes and villains are men. For women, history is often a lesson in the absence of females in the past. You could be forgiven for believing that women have never made history.

The practice of taking away women’s names is yet one more systematic way of taking away their identity and removing them from the records. And it matters! Just ask the men!

While the same history can for men promote pride in their achievement – for women it can give rise to the question – has our sex never achieved anything of note? Men can strut – women are in the wrong and can only apologise for their invisibility and in the absence of evidence of achievement – hope to do better!

And this is a contributing factor to the way women come to under-report their skills and achievements.

Women’s reluctance to take the lead, assert their competence – all the things that Sheryl Sandberg so skilfully outlines — isn’t a product of women’s imagination! It’s a result of our language and meanings that create a reality in which women are reduced and restricted. And the only good thing about this is that we can change it. You can take back your name.

You have to know what you are doing however: there are plenty of traps on the way.

It has been suggested for example that English speakers could adopt the Spanish model where women don’t have to give up their names on marriage. But this is pretty deceptive. If I lived in Spain, I would have had my mother’s maiden name (Davis) and my father’s name Spender; dale davis spender. And if I married, I would become dale spender (fathers name) plus brown (husbands name). And guess what? The women’s line disappears. [3] Its not a solution – it’s a postponement.

(There is an extraordinary lack of logic here; if you were really trying to keep track of the family line you would have gone along with the mother’s name; she provided the only guarantee of parenthood prior to DNA The practice of taking the father’s name never amounted to much more than window dressing.

Today when fatherhood can be genetically determined a number of early research studies associated with genes have had to be abandoned because so many of the ‘legitimate’ children were not the genetic offspring of the designated father.)

It might be a bit more circuitous but in the end the Spanish model is essentially no different; it just takes a little longer. Men misname themselves by owning all the ‘sur’ names (or sire names) – while women have none.

Have you ever wondered why on social occasions, media events, public meetings –women are so often addressed by their first names and men by their sire-names? I can document that this happens routinely and although I can’t prove why – I certainly think I can see the links: Women don’t really have names of their own, other than their ‘Christian’ ones!!!!

During the 1970s and 80s it was not unusual for women to make a stand and decide that they would no longer be known by a sire name. To name a few = Debra Adelaide (Grandmother’s name as a second name); Elizabeth Sarah (her mother’s name as last name) and Margaret Sandra (just ditched the sire name).

Evidently there is a bit of a fuss in Islamic societies too about names and who belongs to whom, as some women adopt the western model and drop their father’s name to take up that of their husband’s. Again, there are religious grounds for insisting that this is not the way to do it; patriarchy reigns supreme. ‘Allah has cursed the one who claims to belong to anyone other than his father’. [4]

In France it is illegal to transmit the mothers birth name to the child. Think about this. Men own all the sur-names and women have none – only their fathers and their husbands. What a scam.

Even when there is no legal requirement for women to change their name and title on marriage (as in Australia or France or the UK for example) many continue to do so. According to various popular magazines and blogs, some women still want to parade their marital status: Madonna, for example, the symbol of women’s independence, announced to the world one day that she was now ‘Mrs Guy Ritchie’! (For a while.)

In a few countries there are signs that things are changing. In Denmark for example, its’ about 50/50, with half the women keeping their birth names – which in time will become a matrilineal record. But 85 % of women in European countries still swap their father’s names for their husband’s. [5]

I’m not sure why Ms lost its mojo. There was a lot of opposition to it when it started to be used – but that doesn’t account for its relative demise. Lucy Mangan, who writes for The Guardian in London declared that in her youth she was as fervent as any feminist about adopting Ms; ‘All the men were Mr whether or not they were married,’ she wrote; ‘Why shouldn’t the women have the same privacy?’ And I would add –independence! (February 21 2005).

But she no longer feels so strongly about its use. She believes women are using Miss and Mrs to make positive choices. [6]

Some women want to be Mrs because – like Harriet Martineau  – they think they are more respected than they are as Miss; one teacher in a tough school believed that the boys saw her less as a target and more as a mother figure when she told them she was married. She believed the parents took her more seriously as well. (Not a practice I have seen suggested in professional literature on classroom discipline.)

I despair when I see such rationalisations – that you need to be the property of a man to convince parents of your authority!

At the same time there are women who want to be known as Miss because ‘I’m looking for a boyfriend and I want to advertise that I am single’.

These are means by which women are caught up in maintaining the existing social arrangements, but after all the research that has been done – I can’t play these games any more.

What comes first? The dependence of women in relation to men that then becomes embedded in the language? Or the meanings in the language as they are presented in the dictionary and which continue to shape our inequality?

I think there is enough research and evidence to accept that meanings have almost exclusively been made by men, because they were in the position to make them! And that women now have sufficient public oxygen and a strong power base from which we can start to make our own meanings – that define our  independence and confidence.

If we are to use titles at all, we could begin by choosing taking our own names and reclaiming Ms.




  1. says

    I changed my name by choice, I took my mother’s first name as my surname because I argued we know whose womb but not whose sperm (not without tests anyway) – I’m matrilineal. People questioned why I did not take my mother’s ‘maiden’ name but that name also belongs to a man. The “de” merely means “of”, therefore, Kate of Jude; I am my mother’s daughter. I’m not sure if it is the best answer but one that suits me. However in changing my name, the old Kate (Heslin), pugilist-agitator disappeared from public view and subsequently the change has made it difficult for old friends to reconnect.

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