Women are, and always have been, identified in relation to the men around them. In addition to taking their father's names at birth, women then traditionally take their husband's - it seems women's identities are simply swapped out as they change male custodians. Unlike men, who are afforded their own autonomous identities free and clear of their relationship to anyone but themselves (except perhaps their fathers, whose names they bear), women's names are prefixed by a seemingly innocent identifier: Miss, Mrs, or Ms. These titles serve to signal to others the marital status of the woman named, but rarely do we ask why it is that women are forced to be defined by their marital status while men are not. So why is it that women all over the world accept that, unlike their male counterparts, they are expected to announce their marital status (or perhaps availability) to the public?
The legal theory of coverture, the notion that once married, a woman's identity is absorbed into that of her husband, makes clear that historically women's identities have been legally subsumed by their husband's. As the infamous Sir William Blackstone put it in his 1765 work Commentaries on the Laws of England,
By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage…
Women in the United States today are free to own property, enter into contracts, and enjoy their own legal identities. It is, after all, 2011 (not 1765!) yet the vestiges of coverture are still prevalent as women must select Miss/Mrs/Ms from the pull-down menu as they purchase an airline ticket or subscribe to a magazine.
Most curious of these titles is "Ms”. Gaining attention in the 1970s (mainly due to the debut of Gloria Steinam's "Ms. Magazine"), "Ms" was taken up as a political symbol by feminists who did not wish to be "owned" by a man. Today, it seems that "Ms" is the most "PC" way to address a woman in a professional setting, but Mrs. and Miss commonly appear and are often used in all other contexts. Indeed, “Ms” is perceived as more of an accommodation to feminism than anything else, or perhaps a “polite” way of skirting the issue of marital status with an older women for whom “Miss” would likely be inappropriate. Nonetheless, “Ms” was met with ridicule and mockery before being accepted even as an option.
Perhaps women have grown too comfortable with the idea that their identities are implicitly those of their husband's or father's - chalking up to tradition and convenience the fact they don't wish to be addressed any other way. Maybe we believe that women have already achieved equality, so we need no longer worry about such details. I believe that we are too complacent in the roles in which society has ever so subtly placed us, and I truly wonder why we so casually forfeit our autonomous identities.
It is estimated that about 90% of women change their names after marriage, and that 70% of Americans (albeit in a small study) agreed or strongly agreed that a woman should take her husband's name (for some comic relief on this matter, watch "Joann from Bensonhurst" on the subject of maiden names). While I do not outright disagree with a woman taking her husband's name, I do take issue with the loss of identity that a woman is expected to undergo as a certain right of passage in her life. Perhaps the most egregious of examples is when married women are addressed simply as the wife of their husband, as in "Mr. and Mrs. John Smith." Would men be comfortable if their identities were to casually disappear after marriage, as in "Mr. and Mrs. Mary Smith?"
My aim is not to dissuade women from taking their husband's names, nor it is to judge or lecture those who do. My purpose in this brief blog is to draw attention to the seemingly automatic acceptance of the vestiges of coverture, a legal notion that, when read today, seems outlandish and unjust. I hope to inspire women to take another look at the seemingly innocuous titles we elect or accept and to challenge the systems at work that still require us to find our identities in relation to men.