Last year a controversial tweet about women changing their last name went zooming around the internet:”Mr. Wrong will compromise your purity and then disappear. Mr. Right will protect your purity and then change your last name.” Those who are of the religious persuasion that believes a woman needs ‘coverture’ from a man may not have seen any problem with that tweet, but for the rest of us it was one more reminder of the lowly legal, moral, and ethical standing under which so many religions and codes of law once upon a time placed women.
If you live in the United States coverture is a long-standing legal practice that is part of the colonial heritage. Catherine Allgor, Ph.D, writing for the National Women’s History Museum explains what coverture meant in practice.
Coverture held that no female person had a legal identity. At birth, a female baby was covered by her father’s identity, and then, when she married, by her husband’s. The husband and wife became one–and that one was the husband. As a symbol of this subsuming of identity, women took the last names of their husbands. They were “feme coverts,” covered women. Because they did not legally exist, married women could not make contracts or be sued, so they could not own or work in businesses. Married women owned nothing, not even the clothes on their backs. They had no rights to their children, so that if a wife divorced or left a husband, she would not see her children again.
In practice coverture was not as strict de jure was written, i.e., although the law dictated that a woman could not own a certain type of business or practice a certain profession there were those women who bent the laws and there were officers of the law who sometimes looked the other way.
Today approximately 90 percent of women still take their husbands name upon marriage. While many people may have forgotten about the legal concept of coverture, undoubtedly many still think women should change their last name upon marriage because it is part of tradition.
I disagree with tradition.
I think it says something–and that something is not good–that so many woman are willing to toss away their legal identity and take their husbands’ last name upon marriage. Why do so few men take their wive’s last name? If the purpose of one person changing their last name is so that the couple can share a joint identity–an explanation that many women will proffer when asked why they changed their last names–then the man would change his last name as often as the woman changes hers. But the statistics clearly indicate that this is not what happens.
Why are women so much more willing to let go of their identity in order to be subsumed under the identity of their spouse than vice versa?
I understand that my own feelings on the matter are heavily dictated by my personal experiences. My father changed his ENTIRE name when he became an adult. He had my older sisters and they all have the last name of their mother. My dad then married my mom and she only took the second part of his last name–as my dad had two names hyphenated as his legal last name. I share the last name of my mother. My mother and father divorced and my dad remarried. My step-mom took both of my father’s last names as her own. So as you can see, I grew up in a family in which there were multiple last names floating around and we are no less of a family just because most of us have different last names. In my experience ‘family’ is determined by legal relationship, blood ties, and/or affinity.
Oh, and don’t tell me about how it’s not really ‘your name’ it’s actually your father’s name, and that’s why you don’t have any problem changing it. In that case your husband’s name isn’t really his name, it’s his fathers’ name, and why would you want to toss your name away like old rags in favor of taking on your husband’s fathers’ name? At the end of the day there is only one reason why a woman takes her husband’s last name: Tradition.
Variants of the tradition reason include having the desire to avoid social ostracism. Other women claim that they had abusive childhoods and/or no longer want to have contact with their family, but clearly men do not feel this same desire to abscond from the shadow of their painful childhoods–otherwise, a greater proportion of men would be changing their last names due to matrimony.
For black women the decision of whether or not to take a spouses last name takes on special significant for other reasons. I think that for middle-class black women taking on a husband’s last name helps to signify her status as a married woman to other other people–a signal that raises her status in the eyes of many. She is no longer just So-and-So she is now a Mrs. So-and-So. She is now under the protection of a man who is not her father, and this man resides at a closer distance than her father, and thus she is less likely to be seen as a possible victim of assault or harassment than a single woman. Black people also hold the role of being a mother in extremely high regard–a fact that rankles some feminists–and thus being referred to as a Mrs. also marks a black woman as a likely mother. For some women getting your Mrs. degree can make her feel as if she has finally attained respectability.
All of this talk of last names brings us to Beyoncé.
This year Beyoncé has named her upcoming tour and album “Mrs. Carter,” a reference to her status as the wife of rapper Jay-Z, birth name Shawn Carter. I can’t imagine Jay-Z naming any of his future tours Mr. Knowles (the maiden surname of Beyoncé) or choosing the far more descriptive, but inelegant, ‘Husband of Beyoncé.” I remember when Beyoncé was referring to herself as Sasha Fierce, the name she used for her alter ego who took over the normally shy and quiet woman and transformed that woman into a ferocious entertainer.
But still, why is a woman seemingly more likely than a man to create, gain, and discard identities in order to become acceptable to such large segments of society? Why does a women as powerful as Beyoncé–and she’s just an example, this is about women in general who take their husbands’ last names–even need to create, gain, and discard identities to help her make sense of herself?
Jamila Akil is a Senior Editor at Beyond Black and White. Follow her on Twitter @jamilaakil