What's in a Name?

Published by Wednesday Martin

Names are important. They are used to address and lay claim, and often names become part of our identity and sense of self. And yet, when women marry, they are usually expected to cast all these considerations aside and change their surnames without a fuss. In the West, this legal and cultural norm can be traced back to the Norman conquest, when the practice of “coverture” was proliferated. Under coverture, a husband and wife become one entity in the eyes of the law and society, erasing a wife’s independent identity and rights. This historical foundation has been a powerful constraint for women’s sexual and professional autonomy. Just a few decades ago, as reporting from The Atlantic shows, this philosophy led to women being pulled from welfare for having extramarital sex and being excluded from many professions. And it remains uncommon for this dynamic to run in the opposite direction; it is still exceedingly rare for a man to take his wife’s name, which has much to do with cultural scripts. Or as singer Kylie Minogue once remarked, “Nobody wants to be Mr Minogue. It takes a very strong man to put themselves in that position and I fully appreciate that." In much of the world, the US very much included, a wife’s decision to keep her own name is seen as an emasculation of her husband. Thus a woman’s decision is framed in terms of its consequences for a man. Most can’t seem to muster any empathy for women’s suffering for relinquishing their names—identity erasure, bureaucratic hurdles, and professional penalties. (Worse, some data suggest half of Americans believe it should be legally required that a woman assume her husband’s last name!) Even in places where women do not typically take their husband’s name after marriage, there are still deeply rooted traditions that connect a woman’s value to attachment to a man; if not a husband, then a father. There are a handful of notable outlier nations like Greece and France, where it is actually illegal for a woman to assume her husband’s name (and some where they need not take a familial name at all), but even here regressive norms persist. Men are more likely than women to be known and addressed by their surnames, which often confers authority and respect and deepens gendered inequality. A recent New York Times report showed that at Wimbledon there continues to be a gendered practice of identifying female champions by their husband’s name (even in cases like Billie Jean King’s, where the couple has been long separated). Of a piece with this, earlier this week a mother and daughter were hassled at Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport due to a difference of surnames, with the mother being berated by a Customs and Border Patrol agent that she should have taken her husband’s name to confirm maternity. These recent cases highlight the enduring ways that marriage and naming practices are used to constrain and control women. We have a name for this: patriarchy.

Dangerous and Untrue: Myths and Politics Undermining the Modern Woman

Published by Wednesday Martin

Joan Didion famously wrote that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But our society also tells many stories in order to suppress and control, harm and abuse. This is particularly evident in our stories about women, which often have a simple, insidious throughline: that women who are autonomous and empowered are untrustworthy and dangerous. This fiction finds life in everything from the false but popular Madonna-Whore dichotomy—where only fathers or husbands can contain womens’ terrible force—or the constant, feckless chastizing of Maxine Waters by pundits and other politicans for daring to use her voice and platform. Earlier this week, Bloomberg ran a piece on the plight of single mothers in Japan that put the consequences of our societies’ stories about women in stark relief. The article highlights the countless ways in which single mothers and their children suffer materially, psychologically, and socially in one of the world’s wealthiest nations. Worse still, single mothers in Japan with jobs do worse on almost every metric than those who don’t work, and the article pointedly suggests this has as much to do with taboo as economics. In my new book, Untrue, I similarly relate the copious literature showing that women in the US fare substantially worse financially from a divorce than men do, and that the only meaningful recourse is remarriage. What these facts tell us is that women are most valued when attached to a man and that the penalties for existing outside attachment to a man are severe. Some prominent new voices in pop culture have been pushing back against these narratives, allowing women to carve out space on their own professionnal, sexual, and cultural terms. There is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, Issa Rae’s Insecure, Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, Hannah Gadsby’s astounding new comedy special Nanette, and so so many more. In all of these brilliant works, female creators are presenting stories where women can be unruly, angry, unsure, empowered, alone, or in community of their choosing. But the world around them is still playing catch up. A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research argues that across developed nations the cost of modern maternity is a consistent pattern of women failing to realize both their professional and reproductive aspirations. A gap that the study’s authors contend is unaffected by currently implemented policy prescriptions like extended maternity leave. The picture their study paints is of a world where we have raised women’s expectations for their lives without meaningfully changing the offices or homes they inhabit. (To be fair, this week the Supreme Court tried to bring women's expectations back down, ruling that so-called "crisis pregnancy centers" can lie about abortion and reproductive health.) We may be beginning to get better stories about women (thanks to listening to the ones they tell themselves), but we are still a long way from seeing these stories lead our politics and culture.