“Equality is all in the surname, ladies”

So ran the headline on an opinion piece by Barbara Scully  yesterday in response to the ‘news’ that Yvonne Connolly had legally shed her Keating title three years following the split from her husband, Ronan Keating.

One can only speculate, but some practices are demonstrably more personal than political. Just as she chose to change her name originally, the pursuit of gender equality is unlikely to have been the sole motivator in changing it back now, if at all. But sparked a public debate, it did. The ensuing clash of on-line opinions ranged from head-scratching mystification at the thought of ever changing a name; tossing about comprises and re-configurations informed by pragmatism and family practicalities, to the merits of blokes changing theirs. Romance featured in there somewhere, back in the early heady days. Overall, it’s a topic that tends to animate a few folk.

“I got married, not adopted. Of COURSE I didn’t take his name”

This is a common refrain among the particularly shrill participants in the debate. As an exercise in dabbling in logic, it’s impressive. Great strides in comprehension demonstrated there. As a statement with the potential to provoke a beating with a beetroot encrusted kipper, it’s irresistible.

Of course, the commentary wasn’t directed at Yvonne Connolly personally, and like any cultural practice, name-changing should not be immune to some form of periodic collective scrutiny and the obligatory on-line kicking. But horror and high octane gasps veer dangerously close to being as out-dated and inflexible as the charges laid against it.

Citing Iceland’s no-nonsense standardised name-changing traditions, Scully interprets it as an influencing factor in the country emerging as the most gender-balanced nation in the world according to The World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report. The corollary being that if Ireland were to take a similarly uniform approach, greater strides would be made in achieving the elusive goals of gender equality. Presumably, Scully, though she doesn’t elaborate on it, is being more considered than this over-simplification.

It’s not unreasonable to suggest the potential that dropping the habit would have in helping diminish inherited sexist attitudes and erode the disproportionate grip domestic life has on women’s identity, however subtly (or not) these are currently played out. How much is another question. The complexity of cultural norms is such that it would require a longitudinal study in attitudes to capture its impact, and few need more than a basic grasp of economics and politics to understand that equality in Nordic countries hinges on a little more than stringent naming traditions, or whether your fella volunteers to change his. As a weapon to combat sexism and equip women with the confidence and ability to invade the legislative arena, it would be foolish to over-state its reach. It also, worryingly, despite thumbs up to Icelandic and Canadian law, invites an over-reaching arm of the State to meddle in the private affairs of its citizens.

Furthermore, there is the implication that women bear the responsibility for promoting changes in equality, and opting to change their names runs counter to the overarching feminist cause. The one for which there is no actual consensus.

Is that not a little outdated in the *thinks for second* 21st century? Interpreting ‘traditional’ rituals in a contemporary context and soldering a neat link with inequality fails to stack up. Take that logic to its conclusion and we see women who have no-one to blame but themselves. With all the subtlety of a brick, many critics of name-changing view the practice as a direct attack on feminism. By feminists! So they can’t be feminists! Can they?

Well, of course they bloody well can.

The history of feminism is fairly static and indisputable, but the context of it is in a perpetual state of flux. Rifling through issues and holding them up for a good sniffing to reject or accept doesn’t undermine women’s appreciation or recognition of the battle that paved the way for strides in gender equality. But not every contemporary personal decision is a direct action against progressive political policy.

Women aren’t any less equal because they have chosen to change their name, or because they haven’t chosen to abandon ritualistic traditions associated with the wedding ceremony. We live in a Western World where women enjoy the freedom to make choices on which traditions they want to pick and choose, and attach their own personal meanings to them in the process. When it comes to name-changing, one person’s political meaning can’t be superimposed on the personal view of another. These simplistic arguments only serve to debase the meaningful fight for equality.

There’s a striking similarity between what these critics assert, and the claims put forward by more radical elements within feminism. The hyper surety of the dominant force of one innate characteristic, and its apparent ability to undermine all others. That to be truly feminist, women most embody all aspects of feminism, all of the time. How exhausting would that be? You can’t wear a white wedding dress, and fight for equal pay; you can’t freely enjoy traditional expressions of femininity, and attack the exploitation of women’s bodies; you can’t be well-off, and speak out against injustice; you can’t be white, and object to the racist sexism against black women.

You can’t be a Ms. Whatever feminist or a Mrs Whatever-Whatever feminist without signing up to the principles of equality; no more than you can’t be a onesie-wearing make-up free feminist without doing the same. As an argument, it has more aggression than logic, and ignores the fact that is it perfectly acceptable for women to reject absolutisms on issues appropriated by feminism. Issues that have a bearing on their own lives, to be adjudicated on privately. It doesn’t undermine their commitment to equality to do so, or the right of other women to do different. It didn’t prevent me from not changing my name.

The rights of women in Western Europe and those in more conservative and unequal societies are not mutually exclusive. Participation in traditional wedding rituals is not indicative of the subservient conditions women live in; inequality, poverty and social exclusion is. Domestic violence, misogyny and unequal pay transcend naming-practices. Individual women, as women, as feminists, as advocates of equality, as cheese addicts, as name-changers, as Bono-bashers, as dishevelled Wurzel Gummage lookalikes, are not duty bound to carry and exhibit all the apparent tasks of feminism all of the time, or prove their integrity by discarding name changing. Integrity trumps all labels and snooty dismissals of fairly benign practices.

Practically, I get the quiet life appeal of integrated names, but not having experienced any pressure to conform, the thought of changing it never occurred to me. As the bearer of an already inconvenient polysyllabic name, I’m often met with officials’ urgent need to know if I go by it. Well, I often get wench and gobshite, but generally yes. I was delighted when all the Eastern Europeans showed up, and those delightful Africans with their penchant for intricate naming traditions that renders each family member with a different surname. They would give Iceland a run for their newly minted money any day of the week, but they would also give us all a lesson in the dangers of holding too much stock in the correlation between non-patriarchal name-changing and growth in gender equality. That’s probably in The World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report, too. Only in more sober language.

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4 thoughts on ““Equality is all in the surname, ladies”

  1. I guess not being married let’s me off the hook of name changing….or not, given that we’ve been together for twenty odd years. We had quite a debate about surnames when the Kid was turning up. His Dad comes from a large family, many of the siblings have children to carry on the family name. Me, well I’m an only child, with aunts and uncles who did little for the sake of procreation. I am very much the last of my line. It was agreed the Kid would have my name. Then the Kid arrived and his Dad got all paternal and wanted his surname to be used – he even suggested the “compromise” of the hyphenated use of both of our surnames. Well, I wasn’t having my Kid sounding like a firm of accountants. It was a stalemate. There were 21 days to register the Kid’s birth. On day 19 a friend suggested the Kid could have his dad’s surname as a middle name. I concurred. And so it is that the Kid has four names. I felt a bit bad when the Kid was at primary school, in case people thought he had a step-dad. It’s worked out well at High School though. His Dad works there too. The Kid declared that his Dad must never make eye contact or acknowledge him in any way whatsoever.

    • A firm of accountants. That’s it exactly. But I secretly love them as they feed into my toff based prejudice, which is quite broad and includes anything from the first names of their children to how they substitute conversation with talk about wine. Sort of like my crunchie biscuit weakness, but confined to an after-work activity. Where’s the joy in that? Anyway, fair play for holding your ground. Twenty years eh *three point five second pause* Well, that makes sense.

      • Yup. No point in marrying Him now, I know what I’d be getting!! And if I were ever to take his name mine would become the utterance of an inebriated Icelandic.

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