Thursday, July 05, 2007

Is the surname the most sacred thing in a relationship?

(Still from the movie "Mona Lisa Smile")


The discussion has been going on ever since emancipation started. Is it anti-feminism when a woman takes her future husband's last name? And what is the point in keeping her own? The two girls above had not to worry about it, but why is it such a topic today?


Looking back into European history (and the 'surname-problem' is mainly something European people - and those with European ancestors - seem to be concerned about), it's not hard to see why men always wanted their wife to take on their name. Of course, it's also a problem for other societies, but there the discussion about it has not arisen yet.

We are a society with patriarchal root - "family" and "ancestry" have always meant the man's family and ancestry. The main problem with this from a practical point of view is that a man can never be 100 percent sure whether or not his children - and heirs - really are his. Up until the relative modern means of in vitro fertilisation, a woman on the other hand could be sure that every child she gave birth to really was hers.


In the past a family with a lot of members was a 'good' family, so it was only logical to include all the women into the men's families. That way they - and their children - automatically enlarged their husbands' families. But unlike in Arabian countries, where a man had to 'buy' his wife (or wives), in Europe the woman's family had to 'pay' the man for marrying her.

When seen with the eyes of 'revenue', the Arabian way is more logical. As the woman and all the children will be a part of the husband's family, it is only right to give something to the wife's family as a compensation. In addition a man has to prove he's got enough money to sustain a family - and to keep up the woman's current lifestyle. The European way is a little less logical - and in addition in a way it's even more insulting to the woman. An Arabian has to pay for getting a woman - and her possible offspring. A European on the other hand gets money for being so gracious as to take care of a woman. In the first case the woman is worth something (sometimes quite a lot), in the second she is worthless (and thus her family has to pay to get rid of her). That's, of course, not what it was originally about, but it's how it could be interpreted.


But back to the topic. Among the first thing the feminists did was claiming that taking a man's last name after a marriage was a patriarchal thing and would not be tolerated any longer. But what can be done against that?
1) Everyone keeps his/her own name. The German state would frown upon this, because it makes it so difficult to see who belongs to whom ('belongs' here does not mean 'being owned by', but rather 'being connected to'). Nevertheless, it would be the most logical way (and the children could take either name, depending on their gender).
2) The man takes the woman's last name. That's not the most logical way, either. That way we could, of course, create a matriarchal society in which only female bloodlines are preserved. The European soul on the whole frowns on that, too, because it's unheard of.
3) Everything stays the way it is. The woman takes the man's last name and we're done with it. But that's unacceptable to a lot of feminists.

At the time the movie from which the picture above was taken is situated, there wasn't any discussion about the whole 'surname-issue'. And most girls went to college not to get a good job, but to find a good, respectable husband (therefore not choosing an area they could make a lot of money with, but rather arts or something else that was defined as 'feminine'). Luckily those times are past. A woman going to college today mostly doesn't go for a "Mrs." before her name, but for a good education that will grant her a better job (although she can get married any time, if she wants to). But the moment she actually decides to get married, the whole discussion starts.

In Japan - not the most advanced country as far as feminism and emancipation are concerned - the 'surname-problem' is solved completely different (and was for a very long time): Not the gender decides on the name, but the influence and position of the family. The member of the family with less influence and a lower position takes on the name of the other partner, no matter whether this partner is male or female.


But, of course, that's not a solution for the Western world. We continue to argue about this - as if it were the most important thing, in a society with that many divorces. I personally can't see the point in it, because a women usually gets her last name from her father - thus it comes from a man, anyway.


We're still not completely equal to men, so it seems a little petty to discuss about such an irrelevant thing as a last name. There's more important things to fight for.

5 comments:

Ranma Tendo said...

"I personally can't see the point in it, because a women usually gets her last name from her father - thus it comes from a man, anyway."

If a woman is born with a name and has that name all her life, why do you consider it her father's name? Why is it "her father's" name, rather than her paternal grandfather's name, or her paternal great-grandfather's name? In other words, how did her father acquire a name but she didn't?

If twins are born, a boy and a girl, does the baby boy twin have his own last name but the baby girl twin doesn't? Either all people get their own last names at birth or nobody really has their own last name, they're just using the last names of long-forgotten ancestors (or of the town those ancestors came from, or a name based on a characteristic of an ancestor [e.g. Russell for red-hair], or whatever the Ellis Island clerk decided to write down for their family).

At a wedding, both the bride and the groom have their own last names. It's up to them which one they decide on for their family, but it shouldn't be based on gender. They both got their names from the same place, from their birth certificates.

Anonymous said...

We're still not completely equal to men, so it seems a little petty to discuss:
Lower pay - at least women get to be in the workplace, equal pay will happen eventually.
Sexual harassment - that construction worker, co-worker, etc. was just complimenting you, sweetie.
Domestic violence - you know, there are people dying of AIDs in Africa, let's deal with that first.

There's more ALWAYS something more important to fight for. ALWAYS! It's a great distractor, isn't it? Keep would-be activists fighting about what's most important and nothing will ever get done.

Meanwhile, little girls will continue to see their parents try for a boy to "carry on the family name," and they'll internalize the lesson of that, which is that they are worth less than their brothers. Women will continue to lose valuable business contacts because of a name change or two. Brides will continue to be told that they have no last name of their own.

Cay Reet... said...

The question I am raising here is why people put a name they can change anyway (although it's quite costy in Germany) on such a pedestral. All family names come, in the end, from the men's side - because that's been how it has been done for centuries.
Nevertheless it isn't 'her' name, but that of her family - and in more than ninety percent of the cases it's the name of her father's line of the family, so it's her father's name. That's what I mean.
As in Germany there never was an Ellis Island, someone living here usually does still have the name the family of their father has had for centuries (not im my case though, because my father's last name doesn't come from the man who truly fathered him, but that's another story). Nevertheless, I carry the name my father was born with, not the name my mother was born with.

So, even to a feminist, the last name he or she takes after the wedding shouldn't be the most important decision. And as long as all those other problems prevail, it's not the main point in a fight for equality.

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