It’s an argument as old as feminism itself, so it seems fitting that it was a woman widely seen as a pop-cultural feminist icon who pushed it back into the spotlight. The moment Beyonce announced her upcoming world tour, the rumbling began. For this modern day, leather clad, all-singing all-dancing wonder woman, an individual whose fame is of such magnitude she needs no surname, chose to call her new tour – wait for it – The Mrs Carter Show.
Hey, it’s been so long since any of us called her Beyonce Knowles, most of us barely even knew her bank cards bore the moniker Beyonce Knowles-Carter. Even her husband, Jay Z, eschewed his surname a long time ago.
So why now? Why, when riding high on the back of high-profile performances at President Obama’s inauguration and the US Superbowl, has Beyonce decided to go subversive on us? And why, when she’s made no secret of her pride in her new role as a wife and mother, as well as a business woman and performer, do we still see her decision as subversive in the first place? Maybe she’s just happy being Mrs Carter?
Regardless your opinion on Beyonce and her capacity to dominate the headlines, one thing’s for sure – the ensuing debate suggests that names remain, more than ever, a feminist issue. While in the Arab world – and indeed, Chile, Belgium, France, Cambodia, China and Korea among others – it’s long been common for women to retain their birth name (maiden name itself being a controversial phrase in some circles of feminist thinking), in most English speaking countries, including the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand, women have been widely expected to become ‘Mrs His Name’. So why the controversy?
While historically, many feminists have resented losing their identity from birth and have cited problems with the origins of the word Mrs itself – widely thought to be a contraction of Mr’s, as in belonging to Mr So-And-So – nowadays, the argument is far more complex.
In much of Western society, women are marrying later, at a time when they may well have already built a professional reputation in their own name. Add to that the amount of paperwork required in the modern era when undergoing a name change and the logistical case against is clear.
It’s an argument well understood by the British journalist and broadcaster Dawn Porter, who recently married her actor husband, Bridesmaids star Chris O’Dowd. Writing for the UK’s Glamour magazine about the internal debate she experienced over her name, Dawn revealed: “I am often asked why my surname is so important to me. There is the obvious thing that I am one of two sisters, and if we don’t carry it on, Porter is gone. But the truth is it’s more personal than that.
“My name and I have been through so much together. I have spent most of my adult life trying to get people to remember it. My name and I have worked really hard to get to where we are; my name and I are a team.”
From such a statement, one could easily believe Dawn decided to keep her name as was. However, she struggled with that too, admitting both she and her husband liked the idea of being seen as a unit, a team. Her solution? She took her husband’s ‘O’.
Describing her new moniker as a bit of fun, she declared: “My name is Dawn O’Porter. Members of my family think this is ridiculous, but we don’t care. I am lucky that I have the option to keep Porter prominent and take a tiny letter that, for me, expresses the unity with my husband that I am proud of.”
OK, it’s a bit of a laugh and good for them. Except, it’s not really a joke. Indeed, in the UK, it’s a fully fledged phenomenon with its own name: meshing. While still secondary to the double-barrel option, it is a trend which is growing with such force, the country’s legal name change bureau, Deed Poll, has had to create a fast-track system to cope with demand. In 2012 alone, 800 British couples opted to merge their names, from the Miss Harley and Mr Gatts who became the Hatts, to the Miss Clifton and Mr Mole now known as the Moltons. And the trend shows no sign of abating in 2013, with Deed Poll officer Claudia Duncan revealing: “Many couples feel meshing is more romantic than double-barrelling their surname, while we did have one very honest client who said they could not decide whose name should come first, so blending was the obvious solution.”
For others, double-barrelling remains preferable, increasingly with both partners adopting the result so one doesn’t feel forced to give up his or her identity. To be honest, it’s the option I’d have chosen two years ago when I got married – except with the surnames Crichton and Gibson, we’d have sounded like a strange circus act, hence my eventual name change. The key influence for me? My future name was my choice and mine alone. And hey, at the end of the day, isn’t choice what feminism is all about?
Would you, COULD YOU, change your name?
We asked you, our VIVA readers, for your opinions on the name change argument. The results were varied, to say the least...
“At first I wanted to keep both last names after marriage to keep my old identity along with my new one. But before marriage I was trying to figure out my signature with my husband’s name and after a couple of tries, I simply loved it. It looked even better and easier than my old one so I decided to take his name and not to have both. My husband would have agreed with keeping both names though.”
“I know someone who changed their name for personal stuff but kept her maiden name for professional things. It caused her all sorts of problems – her passport was in her married name and when she needed a visa for something abroad she couldn’t get it organised in time because the paperwork for that was in her maiden name. It’s really not a straightforward option.”
“In my religion there is no choice but to change the maiden’s first name as well as family name. But we females don’t have any issues regarding this, we take the change in stride. A new wedded life with a totally new name takes time to get used to, but it is fine and a girl’s own family and friends often still call her the same old name as before anyway. But nowadays, the whole trend of changing names after marriage itself is changing at home.”
“I never thought of changing my last name and even after marriage my husband suggested I not do it as it involved a lot of paperwork. I added his name in my passport and that’s about it...”
Merb Abdul M
“I am a proud wife so I would like to be named after my husband, not because of just the name itself but the personality his name is.”
“I know a couple who both changed their names, taking their partner’s names in a double-barrel surname. So both the wife and the husband had a new name and a new start.”
Morgan O’Donnell Mayoss
“I had a really hard time with the name changing but I decided the week before our wedding that I would change it for my husband. I slowly changed my name on things and made my middle name my maiden name. I also kept my work license in my maiden name, just because I felt like I was losing my identity.”
Meagan Kelly Horsman
“I thought I would change my name, but two and a half years on it has only been altered on Facebook and my business cards. I have found it difficult to lose my last name, so I am now working on incorporating it into my new name. My maiden name was Meagan Kelly, but I think my married name, Meagan Kelly Horsman, is the best of both without a barrel!”
Noona Al Sayyed
“In Islam, and in most Arab countries, the wife keeps her name unchanged. It’s less confusing like this I think, and it also symbolises her independence.”
“At first changing my name just seemed the thing to do, but as our wedding grew closer I began to wonder if taking my husband’s name made me less independent? Eventually, I decided changing my name was my choice, not anyone else’s, so it wasn’t really me giving up my values. As a modern feminist that’s what I think is important – having the power to make my own choices.”