Tuesday 25 October 2016

What price equality if women give up their own names?

Published 25/07/2015 | 02:30

Yvonne Connolly, who reassumed her maiden name after her split with husband Ronan Keating
Yvonne Connolly, who reassumed her maiden name after her split with husband Ronan Keating
Dawn O’Porter, who ‘blended’ her name with that of her husband Chris O’Dowd
John Lennon (and wife Yoko) who changed his name to John Ono Lennon

Coverture is an ancient legal doctrine which holds that a woman, once married, is subordinate to her husband, her legal existence sacrificed for eternity at the altar of male supremacy, cunningly disguised as 'marital unity'.

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The feudal law, lifted from the Normans by the English and thrust on the Irish when Brehon law was unceremoniously stamped out, had little to do with love. Not only was the former feme sole unable to buy or sell property, earn money or make any decisions of her own, she could be raped by her husband at any time because marriage meant everlasting consent.

Romantic, huh? But tradition, however unequal, is deep seated.

Ireland only made marital rape a crime in 1990. And for all the hard-fought freedoms won through female emancipation, including the suffrage movement and equal pay, there's something about the twinkle of a diamond engagement ring that makes vast numbers of intelligent women tumble head first into a gooey vat of patriarchy and male privilege.

A case in point is the will she/won't she debate over whether to take your husband's surname when you marry. Model Yvonne Keating, former wife of Boyzone frontman Ronan Keating, recently won widespread praise for converting back to her maiden name (Connolly) on the eve of her ex-husband's new nuptials.

I congratulated Yvonne on Twitter and, before running for cover, asked whether women should be taking their husband's surname at all. My interaction with Yvonne and others prompted a diverse, earnest and at times hilarious debate - which was 'trending' within half an hour.

Some of the most enlightened comments came from men - often the greatest equality champions, in my experience - who said they would never expect their partners to assume their surname.

But when asked if the children should take her surname, the sands shifted somewhat.

Patriarchy never dies.

Double, triple and even ridiculous quadruple-barrelled names featured amongst the "solutions" to the great maiden name debate.

The late John Lennon formally changed his middle name by deed poll from Winston to Ono in 1969 as a mark of respect for his wife Yoko Ono taking his surname.

Actress and producer Dawn Porter opted for the de rigeur blending trend. She changed her name to Dawn O'Porter when she married Irish actor Chris O'Dowd.

Some couples opt for a meshing of their surnames or recreate a new one altogether.

But rare are the men who change their names to those of their wives.

Do we go the traditional route or should we keep our own personal and professional identity?

One's 'surname intentions' are entirely down to personal choice.

But I've been surprised at the amount of friends, arch feminists during our student years - who consider themselves feminists still - who changed their names quicker than a flash of lightning once they said "I do".

"Its tradition, they say. "A dodgy one," I reply. "It's messy to book airline tickets for the whole family and awkward with the kids at the (invariably Catholic-maintained) school," they add.

"It's your identity, you are equal," I implore, to little avail. "But what if people (immigration authorities, conservative types) suspect we're not married?" they go on. Show them your ring. "What if you end up getting divorced?" I ask - that one never goes down well.

"What's in a name?" cried Juliet to her Romeo - shortly before both died following a row over their surnames.

Maybe very little. I've always felt the only time a woman should change her name is if her husband's name is super cool or there's a scandal she's trying to suppress that could damage her brand.

It might seem silly, but the surname intention dilemma goes to the heart of our notions of equality and traditional gender roles.

For many in the feminist movement, it was an emancipation for women to keep their own names (admittedly their fathers' names) after marriage, just as the legal status of married women was a major issue in the struggle for suffrage generations before.

Greece even went so far, in 1983, as to enact laws that dictate that all women must keep their birth name.

In Canada, either gender may informally assume the spouse's surname after marriage - as long as you don't plan to become Bonnie and Clyde style fraudsters.

In the Spanish-speaking world, a person's name consists of a birth name, followed by the father's and the mother's. Any children a couple have together take both first-surnames. This makes Spanish names sexy if cumbersome and a nightmare for email purposes.

In Germany, where Angela Merkel is reaching for smelling salts at the prospect of gay marriage, equality is all the rage.

A woman can take her husband's surname or the man may adopt his wife's surname. One of them may use a name combined from both surnames, whilst the remaining single name is the "family name" which is the surname of the children.

It is curious how much Irish women cling to quintessentially patriarchal traditions and how contrary many of them they are to our ancient values. Under Brehon Law, women were equal to men with regard to education and property: after marriage, the woman was a partner with, and not the property of, her husband.

We were warrior queens in our own right, we marched our husbands into battle, flanked by male troops. When the British banished Brehon law, they banished most of the equal rights enjoyed by women too.

But I wonder.

If Prince Charming turned up, would I fall too, head over heels in love and into the patriarchy pool?

I dunno: it would take some man, for one man, to top me out of my equality tree.

Irish Independent

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