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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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