It ain’t what you say, it’s the way you say it

I wrote a post a few days back on Catherine Deveny’s article on changing one’s name after marriage. Although I enjoy Deveny’s pieces in the weekend TV guide, I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed many of her pieces in the opinion section, although I always try to keep an open mind.

The piece about changing one’s name after marriage seems to have gotten a lot of people riled. Deveny has written a reply article entitled: “I don’t give a stuff what you do. I’m paid to write what I think.” It appears that the response to her piece has been passionate, with some women supporting her view, but many other women attacking her view quite ferociously.

If Deveny had written an article saying from a personal perspective that she didn’t see why one had to change one’s name after marriage, I don’t think there would have been much controversy. If she had gone on to query why it is always the woman who changes her name, I think it would be valid. However, the bit in her previous article which really got my goat was this:

Why would you do something so drastic simply because you decided to delude yourself it was easier? Because you are deeply insecure, deeply conservative or deeply stupid. And in deep denial.

I suspect it was these three sentences which earned her the angry responses, even from those women who agreed that they would not personally choose to change their surnames upon marriage, or that the surname change was a sign of the patriarchy.

I thought her article was judgmental in the extreme. It does give me the pip that someone trumpets the fact that she is “paid to write what she thinks”, but why should someone be paid for badly-reasoned thoughts? Since becoming a blogger, I have become increasingly disappointed with the mainstream media. Many of the posts I see in the blogosphere are far more reasoned than the opinion pieces in the newspapers: why doesn’t someone pay some of these bloggers to write an opinion? I think that the mainstream media just churns out some real rubbish sometimes, just to create controversy. Incidentally, in light of my incipient entry into the mortgage belt, and a notification of the second increase to my subscription to The Age in about 6 months, I think I’m going to have to cancel the subscription anyway, so I won’t be contributing to Deveny’s licence to write rubbish anymore.

Yes, there are important questions about traditions in terms of surnames, and it is interesting to think about the politics of the notions which underpin our society. I felt fine about keeping my maiden name before I had a child, but changed after having a child. I know of others who have made the same decision. I know of some women who changed names immediately upon marriage. However, I also know of many women who have not changed their names after marriage and children. All of these women are intelligent, capable and empowered women (regardless of whether they changed their name or no). I respect that each of these women had a choice, and I respect the reasons behind those choices. I certainly don’t judge anyone or conclude that a friend is stupid or “wrong” because of the choice she has made.

As I explained in the first post, I changed my name not because I married, but because my daughter had a different name to me, and I got this odd feeling that I wanted to “match”. I didn’t really think about it deeply, but perhaps there was a desire in me to conform to societal standards and expectations. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that I’m automatically stupid, conservative or insecure. In fact, all human beings have a desire to conform to societal standards and prejudices to a degree, otherwise we couldn’t live with each other. It’s natural. And as I’ve also explored earlier, societal standards and prejudices can be both positive and negative. I would be very unlikely to hear a racist or sexist joke in the ordinary course of things, in part because of the pressure of social mores, and to my mind, this kind of social pressure is a “good thing”.

Funnily enough I don’t recall any decision that my child would take my husband’s surname (it’s a bit of a blur, you understand). It just kind of happened. The powers that be just assumed, and I don’t think we questioned it. There were more important things to consider (eg, how to look after this crazy little helpless being which had landed into our lives). Also, my daughter’s names sound better with my husband’s surname. If they’d sounded better with my surname, perhaps I would have pushed for my surname?

I was wondering why we have the tradition about children taking the father’s name. Perhaps it’s something about fathers wanting to stamp ownership on a child. It’s obvious that a child belongs to a mother, because a mother bears that child within her body. By taking the father’s surname, perhaps men feel that they are also stamping their identity onto the child. So it’s not so much that women are insecure, but that men need to secure their position as a father. I know that men do feel a little left out when a child is first born because of the closeness between mother and child.

I think that there also might be a biological anxiety in human society insofar as fatherhood is concerned, from an anthropological/sociological/psychological perspective. There is always the fear that a child is the product of another man, because before DNA testing, a man just couldn’t know for sure… One might think that this anxiety on the part of men is crazy, until you read the case of Magill v Magill, the facts of which are explained in a previous post.  Shortly, DNA tests proved that two of a man’s three children born during his marriage were not in fact his, but were the product of an extra-marital affair. So, I think it’s far more complex than Deveny’s rather glib attempt to blame the patriarchy. Perhaps children take the father’s name because men are insecure.

Incidentally, a point that occurred to me: I wonder what happens in same sex partnerships? Do partners ever change surnames when they enter into a long-term commitment? If so, whose surname do they take? What about the children of a same sex relationship? Which surname is taken by the children? It would be interesting to know what people do in that circumstance.

Yes, it’s good to think about these things, and it’s good to question why we do what we do. But I think it’s best if pieces on the topic are measured and acknowledge that part of the gift of feminism should giving choice to women – there’s no one right way for women to behave.



Filed under children, feminism, motherhood, parenthood

10 responses to “It ain’t what you say, it’s the way you say it

  1. guera

    I completely agree! Thanks for the comment on my post, BTW. I’m new to this blogging thing and its exciting to know someone actually read my blog! Deveny’s opinions are so flawed in their reasoning – on the one hand she says “Why would anyone care what I think? Who’d give a monkey’s about what a stranger writing in a newspaper would think about their choice? If someone had a go at something I’d decided to do, I wouldn’t give a rat’s. I’m happy with my choices.”, yet she’s not happy to extend that argument to the women out there who have chosen to change their name. My gut reaction is to be outraged by what she says, but I suspect that is what she wants. She is essentially a shock jock on paper. It seems the practice of journalists blogging instead of writing “articles” is just a licence to forget about facts and research and go for the extreme and sensationalist view.

  2. lostinsuburbia

    I read that article yesterday online. It bristled my feathers in the sense that she tried to defend her stance on the name enforcing patriarchy by asking what was wrong with keeping the name you were born with, yet that name is generally your fathers, unless you were born outside a marriage which in that case would be your mothers fathers name. (At least until you have permission from the father to use his name outside marital partnerships)

    Isn’t that still cowtowing to the patriarchy?
    In my opinion, (my unpaid and knee jerk reacting opinion) the articles read like a vent. Not something well written or worth being paid for.

  3. So, I think it’s far more complex than Deveny’s rather glib attempt to blame the patriarchy. Perhaps children take the father’s name because men are insecure.
    But that is an element of the patriarchy.
    It’s a common mistake to think that all elements of patriarchy must make (all) men happy, or seem in control, or whatever. The patriarchy just growed, and some men certainly got some rough with the smooth. Swings and roundabouts. (Which doesn’t mean to imply that the swings and roundabouts end up equal, as we are now.)

    The point Deveny is making is “yes, you “just” decided to take your husband’s name, but why? I think a term in the blogosphere might do her a bit of good, as she’s throwing away the civility thing but being quite surprised when people react in kind. but her point is valid. You didn’t just do that for no reason. The reason is historical, and yes, it is to do with ownership.

  4. Absolutely, historically speaking, women and children taking a man’s name is to do with ownership. As I said in my earlier post, the father handing the bride over to the groom is another example of this.

    But personally speaking, my own decision to take my husband’s surname was definitely not a statement that he somehow “owns” me. From a personal point of view, it was about me making a statement that we all three belong together, sharing a common surname. We don’t “own” each other, our relationships are built on mutual respect and love, not ownership. That’s the reality of my life.

    Here’s another question – in societies where women do not take a man’s name upon marriage, is there any less sexism? Somehow I very much doubt it. It’s symbolism, which is important, don’t get me wrong – but the real disadvantages suffered by women (regardless of whose surname they have taken) are the more important issues to my mind.

    I was just teaching a class this morning where in a few cases, women’s contributions to the household had been written off as “mere love and affection” which did not give rise to any legal rights in the family home – that’s the kind of thing that makes me mad. And these are relatively recent cases…

  5. pete m

    Someone pointed out part of the historical basis for the name choice was based on the man’s obligation to financially support his wife and children – hence they took his name in return.

    these days with more women working, earning more, and same sex couples – this tradition has become eroded.

    we didn’t have to deal with this issue as my wife hated her maiden name, and her first married name, so gladly took my surname

    which btw i didn’t particularly like given who gave it to me

    sometimes I think it is about that feeling of family that you mention, LE, but sometimes I think it is just because it’s easier!

    funny how in some instances, feminism seems to complicate our lives, and not free them

  6. Backroom Girl

    “Perhaps it’s something about fathers wanting to stamp ownership on a child. It’s obvious that a child belongs to a mother, because a mother bears that child within her body.”

    I don’t see it as the father stamping his ownership – as a woman who has kept her own birth surname but has two daughters with their father’s surname, I see it as my public acknowledgement that he is their father. (It is an easier surname to live with, I’ll grant, but I think I would still stand by that principle even if it weren’t.)

  7. Just ranted on this to the point of exhaustion at Larva Pee. Funny, considering that yourself and Mrs Gnac are probably both at least as smart as the idiot columnist, earn well, yada yada but she’s managed to dig up an argument to say you’re both insecure conservative petals. Beyond me. I think our whole approach to names, which included me offering to take her’s or make up a new one, was along the lines of there being more important things to worry about.

    If I *told* my wife to take my name, or frankly to do anything else, she’d put the future of our extending family in a garlic crusher until I apologised…

  8. Oh Catherine Deveny, please shut up.

    Well done, LE. I’d have much preferred my subscription money to be spent on your well-thought out, reasoned piece rather than the emotional, ‘they’re picking on me’ hystrionics served up by Deveny.

    I particularly liked her sweeping claim that “there was a stunning lack of clear rational thinking in every response”.

    So, Miss/Ms/DEFINITELY NOT MRS Deveny, are you telling me that every single person who disagreed with you couldn’t formulate a rational thought? All of them? My, you must feel safe and superior in your righteousness if you’re laying claim to that.

    Please. Even my year 7s know that that doesn’t fly as a retort.

  9. Just wanted to reflect on all the posts so far on this subject… my trick was to have the kid and not get married, and work it out from there…!

    I reckon my partner would be fine with the girl having my name, and the boy having his, but there’s no telling what you’re going to have, and you might end up with a gaggle of girls with your name and none with his. Would he accept that? Maybe… but then there’s the problem of siblings not having the same surname. Possibly a worse problem than just Mum or Dad being the odd one out. I suspect schools and kinders are used to Mums having different surnames now.

    A hyphenated surname for us was out of the question, as it was ridiculous (imagine one surname was licorice and the other was sticks for example).

    My aunty also made an interesting point about child naming – she does heaps of genealogy now. She said that names that include both sides are really useful for tracing family history. She was very happy to hear that we had put my surname as my daughter’s middle name.

  10. Pingback: No wonder I cancelled my subscription to The Age « The Legal Soapbox

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