Lucy Stone-Feminist who retained her maiden name after marriage

70 odd years ago, things were simpler — when a man and a woman got married, the wife changed her surname to that of her new husband. But now, the subject is a maze.

Over mutton biryani last Friday at the office, I conducted a random survey on this issue that yielded interesting results.80% of the men said they would like their wives to take up their names but they would not impose it on them whilst 20% of them said they would insist on a name change. When asked what a name change connotes, the 20% said respect and commitment whilst the 80% said nothing at all.

The responses from the women we’re like chalk and cheese. They we’re split smack in the middle with half of them saying it would be an honour to take up their husbands name and that it showed unwavering commitment. The other half queried the origin of this out-dated, patriarchal gesture that portrays the woman as some sort of property and therefore would not be caught dead changing their name. They did however disclaim that their view on this does not preclude the love and admiration they possess for their men.

I can see you trying to guess where I fall; your guess is as good as mine.

Some of the reasons women generally give for assuming their husbands name include:

  • To show commitment
  • So we all have the same surname / it makes us a family
  • I hate my surname
  • I hated my father
  • It’s just easier
  • It’s just a name.
  • Do I have a choice?

Back to the beginning

“A British court reportedly stated in 1340: “when a woman took a husband, she lost every surname except ‘wife of’.”

A brief dip into the history of marital surname change — a specifically English phenomenon — reveals that its origins are at best controversial. And at worst, they are deeply unsavoury.

Around the turn of the 15th Century, the French doctrine of coverture received a unique English twist. Coverture is a French word whose literary meaning connotes protection or covering. Historically though, it was a legal doctrine whereby, upon marriage, a woman’s legal rights and obligations were subsumed by those of her husband,(her baron, her lord) in accordance with the wife’s legal status of feme covert.

In the words of the English jurist Henry de Bracton, they became “a single person, because they are one flesh and one blood”. However, if there was one person in a marriage, that person was the husband. As this idea gained ground, so did the clerical habit of designating a married woman by her husband’s surname. Married women still could not hold property, vote, or go to law. Legally, at the point of marriage they ceased to exist. (BBC, 2015)

By the early 17th Century, the custom of the woman adopting her husband’s surname was sufficiently entrenched in England. Adopting of the husband’s surname spread during the 19th century to Scotland, Ireland and Wales as well as to British colonies and ex colonies; including Kenya.

Interestingly, many women in African communities (especially amongst the Bantu) during the pre-colonial era still retained their maiden names after marriage. A woman’s identity was not derived from her husband but from her father (place of origin).

Upon marriage, a woman was either referred to as the daughter of a clan or as the daughter of her father. After she bore a child, she would then be referred to as ‘the mother of the child’. In some Nilotic communities like the Luo, wives in a homestead were referred to by their place of origin. For instance, a wife married in Kisumu but hails from Alego would be referred to as Nyarlego (Lady from Alego).

My guess is that the matriarchal and matrilineal system in some African societies in West Africa and Southern Africa may have had a bearing on the retention of one’s name after marriage.

Incidentally, there has been an increase in men changing their names and taking on their wives names by a 0.00000%…. margin but an increase nonetheless. And no, not African men…

The feminist outlook

In 2015, Hollywood hunk George Clooney married Amal Alamuddin; a stunning Lebanese born barrister. Amongst the myriad of conversations that surround nuptials between high profile personalities was the feminists’ reaction to her decision to change her name to Amal Clooney. The buzz was exciting; I trolled the internet for every single thesis and anti-thesis!

Some feminists argue that it’s within your rights as a woman to decide which names you would like to possess. That your name is your choice and therefore you can change it if you please. Their premise is that feminism is about doing what’s right for you, setting into motion courses of action that will make you feel happy and healthy and like a woman of dignity and grace out in the world.

Other feminists argue that your name is a brand; with the increasing age of marriage to over 30, changing your name at that age would amount to sabotage. This school of thought advances the argument that changing your name will upset your social and professional balance. That you will require affidavit after affidavit to prove that you are one and the same person and that this process is unnecessarily tedious.

In the event that you live in Kenya and are compelled to change your name upon marriage, this is the process;

  • Swear an affidavit.
  • Drop affidavit at Huduma Centre attaching copies of your ID and that of your husband and a copy of your marriage certificate as well.
  • You will then get an amended ID that you can use to change other crucial documents such as your passport.

{I may have simplified the process a tad bit, but this is basically it}

To change your name, to the husband taking the wife’s, to hyphenating, to getting a double-barrelled name, to not changing it legally but changing it socially-your social media handles, meshing two surnames…It’s 2017,anything goes.