First of all, I must apologize for having been away for quite some time. There’s been my MA dissertation, planning for a wedding, and a sudden death in the family. Perhaps not the dissertation, but the latter two has made me ponder the position of the woman in today’s society.
Lakoff wrote in 1975, in her seminal book ‘Language and Women’s Place’, of society’s control and subordination of women through the language women were expected to use – language that was socialised into them from a young age. To put it crudely, it’s brainwashing at its most subtle and insidious form.
The identity and status of a woman was largely influenced by that of her family, and then that of her husband when she got married. She would be known to her neighbours and friends as ‘Mary, the one who’s married to David Green, the accountant’. At parties, women would almost inevitably be asked the question, ‘So, what does your husband do?’ What she did was often of no relevance since she would most probably be a housewife (or homemaker, but political correctness didn’t exist in those days…and hey, a rose by any other name?)
Before you think I am knocking the very noble job of a homemaker, let me just say that I have no issues with women who choose to stay home and look after their families. The issue I have is with the lack of recognition these women have. The role of ‘Homemaker’ or ‘Housewife’ is never considered a ‘proper job’, and therefore not one that identifies a person. Meeting ‘Mary the housewife’ isn’t enough in most people’s eyes to tell us about Mary or put Mary’s social status into a category – a favourite past-time of most of humankind. ‘Mary, wife of the doctor’, however, raises different expectations from ‘Mary, wife of the miner’.
Thankfully, a lot has changed since 1975. Lakoff, in her newest edition of the book, comments that although it was literally unheard of back in 1975 for anyone to ask a man the question, ‘So what does your wife do?’, this is taken for granted as normal today. Amongst many other factors, standards of living have risen, leading to more and more women maintaining a job and having a career, and in so doing, carving out an identity and a role for themselves in society.
In my day-to-day life, it’s almost easy to forget the sexism and discrimination that women have experienced through the ages because I work in a relatively liberal industry where my sex bears no relevance to the job that I do, or the perception of my ability to do the job. The laws of the country ensure that my biological makeup does not impact upon the opportunities I get in my teaching and training career. Outside the workplace, I have always chosen, albeit unconsciously, to socialise with women who took pride in being equal to men, and men who support that notion. Perhaps this is why I was filled with shock and horror when I realised the inequality and injustice that perpetrated every part of the rituals of weddings and funerals.
Like many girls, I used to dream of the fairy tale wedding, and in my notebook, I would write my name beside the surname of the boy I had a crush on dozens of times. It was romantic. It was cute. It was the brainwashing that society has served up in a pink icing-coated wedding cake.
The planning of my wedding has so far been a tremendously joyous affair and my fiance has been nothing but chilvarous and enthusiastic in jointly organising the event with me. However, having been researching it for the past few months, I’ve come face-to-face with the values and beliefs embedded in the ritual that haven’t quite seemed to have caught up with modern times.
Let’s start with the ‘giving away’ of the daughter to the new man who would reign over her. And the ‘honouring and obeying’ of the husband in the wedding vows (which most people have now taken out…thank God!)
Then there’s the stealing of the credit for organising the wedding. Most men (my fiance is an exception, a gorgeous exception) would not want to have anything to do with the organisation of the wedding, leaving it all to their wives-to-be. Yet, come the speeches, they are standing up there thanking everyone as if they had done it all, while their wives don’t even get a chance to get a word in edgeways. Instead, their fathers speak on their behalf. We get to hear amusing stories about the groom’s drunken escapades from the best man, but childhood stories about the bride from her father. Of course, a woman’s childhood lasts till she gets married, for she can never fully be an adult with her own identity until she weds, right?
But the thing that makes me most irate is the taking of one’s husband’s surname. I know that many women today choose to either keep their maiden name or to turn it into a double-barrel surname, combining it with their husbands. But most tend to continue with this tradition, oblivious to the origins or implications of this age-old custom. Many of us don’t even question the reason we do that, assuming it’s just what is done.
In actual fact, it isn’t what’s done in most countries outside the UK and America. Chinese and Singaporean wives might use their husband’s names in social occasions, but keep their maiden names for official and legal purposes. Korean women are not allowed to take on their husbands’ surnames. It’s just not a done thing. So how did we start thinking it is?
Although we know now that women no longer need to take on their husbands’ identities and status, that they can carve a name for themselves in the world, we still think it romantic to change our names after marriage. We would go through tedious and copius amounts of red tape, calling every institution to change our names. We would risk ex-work acquaitances and ex-business associates not being able to locate us through any directory. We would forgo the long lost friends that might now not be able to get in touch through Facebook because we no longer exist. We would wipe our ‘old single selves’ off the face of this planet. For we’ve been given away to another family. Our single selves are now a non-entity.
Some may wonder why I am making such a big deal out of this. After all, my husband-to-be is totally fine with me keeping my maiden name. So, no, this is not personal for me. This is simply a feeling of intense puzzlement at how rituals and customs have simply not caught up with the times. And how we let ourselves be so willingly brainwashed…perhaps by society, perhaps by traditions, and perhaps by the romantic dream factory of Hollywood.
Why is this such a big deal?
To quote John Proctor in the Crucible (Arthur Miller),
“Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! …How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”