Browsing Tag



Why we changed our names

8 July, 2013

It was our first argument, sitting in my little yellow Toyota Starlett. I can remember it vividly. We were outside my university, we had happened upon the topic unexpectedly and I was already late for class. I always had to park on a hill facing down as the engine of my beloved piece-of-crap would only fire with a push-start and as I stared glumly out the window I imagined rolling it out of the space without Tim around to egg it on. The engine really responded to a bit of verbal encouragement. (It was a well rubbish car – once I left it parked in the middle of the city while I went out for dinner. I came back to find I’d left the door unlocked. And wide open. And with the keys in the ignition. It was so rubbish it couldn’t even get pinched.)

We’d only known each other for five months but we were already engaged and planning a shotgun wedding. We barely knew each other; it shouldn’t have been a shock that we didn’t know where each other stood on hugely important matters like whether I’d take his name.

I rushed off to class with firey words pinging around my head. There was no WAY I was giving up my name and taking another! But Tim had made it clear he could never marry someone who didn’t.

It was an agonising few days. We’d thrown everything to the wind, committing to spend our lives with each other forever. It was a wild and delirious kind of love but we were now stuck on this most mundane detail.

But for us, it was a big thing. I was new to ideas of feminism – that not only are women still not equal in all things and that must be fought for, but that there were some serious structural and systemic reasons for this inequality- and it was clear to me that women taking their husband’s name was not a liberated thing to do. Would the suffragettes change their name? Hell no. So I wasn’t going to let these historical heroes of mine down.

Tim is from a pretty traditional background, and already people who knew me had warned him about my, er, ah, robustness. He was worried that people would think I wore the trousers, that he was subject to my whims when many in his Christian circle were adamant it should be the other way round. (*counts to ten* Don’t even get me started on how wrong religious teaching on female subjugation can be!)

We talked for hours over several evenings and spent each day wondering how we’d reconcile our views.  It was with an enormous sense of relief that a few evenings after our initial barney Tim told me that he now understood my position and agreed that it was unfair that women give up their names and unjust that this was the general expectation. I was elated! WHAT A GUY!should i take husbands name

It still took hours to work out what to do. We worried about having two different names- what would we do with our kids? We worried about double barreling- when would it stop? (Would our GreatGreat Grandkids be called Aitken-Read-Smith-Jones-Langley?) Could Tim just take Read? (No.) Could we mesh them? (Hey, Readken doesn’t sound too crackerjacks!) Or maybe just take the name of someone we admire, like Thatcher? (HAHAHA JOKES!!!!)  In the end we felt that boshing them together and BOTH taking it was the only way to respond.: AitkenRead it was!

A few peculiar things happened that first year of marriage.  Tim’s school (he was a teacher) originally tried to tell him he couldn’t change his name and it took some serious persistence to make it happen, which really confirmed just how sexist the world of names can be. We also have different versions on our passport as the NZ one didn’t accept AitkenRead- they insisted on a dash in the middle.

7 years later and many a A-I-T-K-E-N-R-E-A-D conversation later and it just seems utterly natural.  I still get a strange sense of pride when I discuss our name. It is simplistic but I am stoked that people must know how strongly I stand for gender equality and I love that my husband shrugged off convention and opinion to embrace something that was right for us.Picture 125
I looked like quite a normal bride, but my mum did walk me down the aisle 🙂
A recent Facebook report suggests that a third of young women are keeping their name. Although I know that women who take their husband’s name can be feminist too, I reckon this is a BRILLIANT thing for equality.

I am surprised at how little the name-changing tradition is challenged in my generation. I literally know ONE person who has kept their name and NONE who went for a shared new name with their husband. It’s interesting as the majority of my friends and family are ALL strong women and feministy men.

Loads of people think the married name thing is trivial. Sure, equal pay, rape and the rights of women in developing countries probably should take precedence but I’m not one to think that issues need prioritising all the time.  It’s not like we can to tick them off before we move onto the next one – it’s all tangled up.

Names are important and symbolic. Most women have their father’s and will take another man’s name upon marriage. What is this apart from a nod to barbaric historical bonds where a women was the only ever the property of a man? Is it possible that by continuing the tradition we are honouring that oppressive practice?

A few months ago I asked Twitter why strong, feminist women change their name. About 30 women responded. Around a third said they were young at the time and would do differently now, a third said they couldn’t see a good enough reason not to and a third had deeply personal reasons for doing so.

I’m going gently here, because so many of the women I admire and love have taken their husband’s name, and it is clearly (as my Twitter survey, a most scientific measure backs up) an intimate decision that chiefly concerns the bewedded, loved up pair.

But I don’t think it ONLY concerns them. I wonder if there are wider implications. Might it be a leettle bit like walking into the office block of a chocolate company and the door being made out of licorice? (*croons* “Chocolate’s always on my mind… it is always on my mind”) The company SAY they love chocolate but, even though it might not matter that much, their facade gives another impression? Society says “Women are equal! We expect to be treated as such!” but a peep at our envelopes and online accounts show something different. When it requires breaking from tradition perhaps women feel less confident about their equal status?

I think the Facebook research (nearly as scientific as my Twitter study) shows that at least this is s a question being asked. People are discussing it, yeah, most still going with tradition, but that conversation is happening. People will have great and wise reasons for going with their husband’s name and so of course, that is PERFECT, but reasons ARE needed. Rather than just walking down the aisle with the status quo.

Finally, I reckon men could get more involved here. I want to see more of the progressive, liberal Kingdom of Bloke NOT expecting to bestow their name upon women. Imagine if men had to add in their reasoning (much like I do, sticking up for our name-crash upon questioning) for why they both have his name. “Well, I know it’s Old Skool but neither of us fancied being Scrumbledingers…”

What do you reckon? Does it matter? What did you do?

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Streets filled with peace (not tanks, thanks)

27 June, 2012

There have been a fair few surreal moments in my 5 years history as a campaigner with Oxfam.

I have taught Richard Branson how to do the running man.*

I have trundled around the streets of Tunbridge Wells dressed as a big cuddley polar bear.*

I have wheeled a GIANT Santa in front of the US embassy and sung carols.*

I have bantered with Esther Rantzen in front of an audience of hundreds.*

I have mimicked those New York builders sitting on the girder eating lunch- whilst pregnant nonetheless.*

And then today I ‘as bin gallivanting around the streets of London with a big fat genuine TANK. *

Come with me for a tick, back a couple of years, to another amazing and surreal experience with Oxfam. It involved spending time in rural Cambodia, seeing the work Oxfam does in poor villages out there, arriving home just days before my daughter Ramona was conceived.  (In fact, we joked for most of my pregnancy about how a little Cambodian baby might surprise us, bahahahaha, ooh, teehee.)

As a result of the Khmer Rouge and the Pol Pot years Cambodia had a huge share of weapons within its borders.  When the armed struggles began to fizzle out soldiers from all sides went back to their homes and took their guns with them. Some estimates suggest there were close to one million unregistered weapons in that small country. As you can imagine, the presence of guns in almost every home was having a dire effect on families, in much the same way the presence of guns has an effect in my own neighbourhood of Peckham.

Fortunately for Cambodia, back in 2003, some passionate peeps decided to tackle this injustice by launching the Control Arms campaign- fighting for a UN treaty on the arms trade.   Mobs  of people from across the world joined in with the One Million Faces campaign – I added my freckly grin, as did thousands of Cambodians- even those based out in local, rural villages joined this struggle for justice in the arms trade.

Such a global force couldn’t be overlooked and  just a few months after the  this creative petition was presented to the UN work began on a historic, legally-binding international Arms Trade Treaty. (Campaigning works, it really truly DOES!)

As we know these things take time but whilst in Cambodia I was gobsmacked to see that even just TALK of an Arms Treaty was making an impact. The momentum of the global campaign had fortified national efforts to stop the arms trade, developed the campaigning consciousness of Cambodians AND lead to the handing in and burning of thousands of weapons during Gun Destruction week.  (Campaigning WORKS! Yes! It blooming WORKS!)

Now, two years on from my visit to Cambodia we have entered the final stages of an Arms Trade Treaty, and I have a little tot. Once you have children, your hopes for a more peaceful and just world become just that bit more crisp. The chance for a strong Arms Treaty that could make the lives of other children untold times more peaceful is moving nearer.

Which brings us to today and our tank. We (some activists and some policy wonks) were delivering letters and reports (read it if you like that kinda thing) to 5 key embassies, countries that have a key role to play at one of the final negotiating conferences beginning on Monday in New York. On that day too, a  global petition is once again being handed over, asking them to ensure this Treaty is effective and strong. You have just FOUR days to add your voice.

I want to see a world free from mindless violence, communities restored from the damage of guns. I want to see the young people my husband works with as a youth worker in Peckham and the young people I met in those villages of Cambodia knowing the sense of tangible peace. I want to see kids playing in streets free from tanks. I want Ramona and her generation to  inherit a more reconciled world . An Arms Treaty is one step along the way.

As we know (I may have mentioned it once or twice already) campaigning WORKS – let’s make it happen this time.  


*We were promoting Oxfam as the primary charity partner for the London Marathon.

*We were enticing people along to see the fantastic film, the Age of Stupid.

*We were singing climate carols and asking them to stop blocking progress at the Copenhagen Climate Change summit.

*I was basically trying to mass invite the audience to come along to the Put People First rally and she saw straight through me.

*We were raising awareness of how risky childbirth is in poor countries.

*We are giving a final push to get people to sign up for a robust Arms Trade Treaty. Please join us!


The world is my oyster… no, I’m the world’s oyster. I mean rice.

17 May, 2012

I spoke at a Hunger Banquet for work the other week. You know  those events where you turn up for a meal and just eat rice? Well, this was at a restaurant and it kind of threw us all. When the waiting staff came over we asked what was on the menu. Then we marched on with a million other questions. “What does it come with?” “What kind of beans?” What sort of sauce?” Without a word of a lie it was the most questions I’ve ever experienced in a restaurant.  We ordered, she left, we were satisfied.

Then the food arrived. Mounds of plain, white rice.

WHAT THE HELL? We looked at each other in confusion. The organiser squinted at us with a “Are you serious?!” look and exclaimed ” This is a HUNGER BANQUET, people!”

We had conveniently forgotten and spent the rest of the evening shovelling rice in to our mouths with great misery.

Some of you know that I spent last week living on a £1 a day food budget. I would NOT have gone to that Hunger Banquet if I had realised quite how much Value rice I’d have to eat as part of my Live Below the Line challenge. Gah.

I learnt lots of thrifty food things:

Free fruit and veg at the end of market day is not too rotten- and free, did I mention that?
We are going to cut down our organic box order and raid the bins on a regular basis. That kind of waste can’t be justified.
A squeeze of lemon or orange juice can make a nice sauce – with a spoon of vegemite thrown in.
Value food is a lot, ALOT, cheaper than what we usually buy.
Organic really is a massive luxury and just not affordable on a budget.
Garlic should be chopped and thrown in last minute instead of cooked right at the beginning. Same with Soy Sauce.
Your body really does adjust to not eaten snacks all day.
We waste a lot of food. Well, Ramona does. We need to put her half eaten biccies in tupperware so we can re-use them easily.

Other things I learnt (the things I suspect I was meant to learn)

£1 a day is a tiny, tiny, TINY amount of money.
The insecurity of being unsure of having enough food is really frightening – particularly when you have children to feed.
I feel very removed from really poor people in my day to day life.
This exercise made me feel connected, by the end of the week my sense of “global citizenship” was hugely enhanced.
I do genuinely believe  with all my being that a future where everyone has enough to eat is possible.
I want to be a part of a movement that makes this happen.

Ramona needs this!

That is a LOT of learning for 5 days of having Hungry Eyes. (I literally sang that song to myself all week as I stared at people’s tea and cake.)

At the end of the Hunger Banquet I mentioned earlier, the chef who did the cooking came up. She dumped the leftover rice on our table and said something along the lines of “Ridiculous middle class  English people trying to empathise with the poor but actually just mocking them”. We were shocked, particularly as we were all feeling very worthy right at that moment.

There is potential for Live Below the Line to appear that way- a sort of posturing that raises some money (£350,000 to be exact) but fails to actually address the root causes of poverty and primarily serves our “saviour complex”.

However it is forgiven this by being such a powerful exercise in solidarity. There is no way of imagining life as the poorest without trying to embody it in some miniscule way. Of course, it doesn’t compare in the least- we still for the most part had warm homes, gas to cook with, water to drink, jobs to go to, social networks that build in resilience.

 But it bought me back to the reality of millions of people with a stonking big thud. I am convinced that if we all felt a little bit more connected to our global brothers and sisters things would INSTANTLY improve. I am sure that a sense of global citizenship for everyone is the essential first step towards a more just and equal future. Live Below the Line definitely achieves this.

Celine Elliot’s Global Citizen illustration –

I do have a worry that I sound like I’m trying to be Gandhi, writing this post. And I guess it’s a worry people often feel when they try to make a difference. That people will just think them self righteous do-gooders but I think this is a fear we need to get over.

Perhaps one way of getting over it is using the thing you LOVE to do to join the movement of change makers. Combining a passion for justice and equality with your appreciation of knitting (someone, somehow is doing this, trust me) blows stereotypes of interfering do-gooders out of the window. It re-sets people’s tired old brains – jogging their minds to remember that another world IS possible. It is like, totally, the bomb. Oof, this craft-changey-knit-movement subject is SO a whole freaking post. Watch this space, peeps, watch this space.


Girl Gandhi*

PS – I am ten measely quid short of my target – go on, be a global citizen and give some to the Salvation Army’s poverty fighting work.

*This is an in-joke about the time I wanted to be called Eric. You can read about it if you want.


Power of Making: making makes you…

1 September, 2011

Once I sewed a weird but cute looking stuffed monster for a friend’s new born baby. As I tucked it into the envelope something pricked my finger. I had left the needle in the toy. A cuddley toy. For a NEW BORN BABY. The needle.  The things I make have charm but otherwise fail on so many levels. Yet I continue to make stuff. “Why do it, baby harmer???!”  I hear you cry. It is because I think crafting is important.

The value of craft has been given loads of air time lately – the upcoming “Power of Making” exhibition at the V and A has inspired the Craft debate at the British Museum and a brilliant article by craftivist Sarah Corbett. There is shed loads of evidence to suggest that craft has the power to challenge social injustice in an imaginative and beautiful way.

It is a topic I LOVE.  In fact just a few months ago some friends and I launched “the Make Collective” –  a group of people who make stuff together as a way to build community and explore spirituality. It is a pretty exciting time for us.

I love stories of how cross stitch has played a part in significant global campaigns, and how making your own clothes quietly subverts our damaging consumer society.

For me though, a massive and unexplored part of the “power of making” is it’s impact on the person who is doing the making. Creating (be it writing a poem, pouring paint on canvas, building an ark) puts people in touch with their soul.  When we create we reveal an often hidden part of ourselves, a side that is quite primitive the part of us that can’t fail to be overawed by a night sky jampacked with blazing stars. (As a person of faith I reckon this is because when we make stuff we are imitating God, the one who formed mountains and imagined the oceans into being. It is a deeply spiritual act.)

And when we experience that moment of connection, the satisfaction after an afternoon of making – it feels like having scratched a good itch- we are just that bit more whole.

And whole people are often the ones who feel more able to visit their neighbour, write a letter to their MP about a major issue, spend more time on the eco-ness of their homes. When I give enough time to make stuff (even terrible stuff- trousers that give Ramona  builders crack, wobbly pottery that can’t stand up let alone hold a brew) I feel things are more right, and my self efficacy goes through the roof.

Making stuff changes people on the inside for the better. And in turn this impacts society and the world.

So I think every one should get in touch with their makey selves; even people who say they are utterly unartsy leave our Make workshops after whipping up a tiny comic or piece of metalwork with a buzz. I’d go so far to say that making is as important a need as nutrition, fitness and seven hugs a day.

Some of the Make Collective creating a collaborative collage for Camberwell Arts Week

Sarah Corbett from the Craftivist Collective is leading our October Make Workshop at House Gallery and Cafe in Camberwell. Get in touch for more info.