Before my now-husband Dan and I got engaged, my friends began joking around about my name change. Mrs Brown. #TeamGB. Brownie. And to be honest, beyond the giggles, it did overwhelm me a little bit.
Take a step back with me for a second. The strongest thread that runs through my life and my work is a desire to see human worth upheld; I am at my angriest when people are exploited or treated as less valuable than they are, and my job is to tackle this happening in a particular way through managing an anti-trafficking charity. As it happens, a certain group of humans have been discriminated against for centuries, and the culture that I live in is particularly good at it.
Women and girls are treated as ‘less than’ in big ways and small ways – some more obvious than others. I’m concerned about how society accepts some of these, and am careful about not encouraging any thinking or behaviour that subordinates any human being.
I’m so thankful then to be in a marriage where I am treated as an equal to my husband. My thoughts and skills and identity have been valued since Dan and I sipped our first hot chocolates together. We wanted our wedding to reflect our mutual respect and the wonderful balance of male and female voices we have both enjoyed in our lives. So our vows reflected our desire to honour each other, we both gave speeches – it would have been weird for the public speaker in the relationship to sit back while the academic threw himself into an uncomfortable activity alone! – and our parents expressed their joint blessing.
In light of all that, I was very aware of the debate around name-changing after marriage. Was it anti-feminist to take on Dan’s name? An archaic tradition supported by and supportive of the patriarchy? An obliteration of my identity or individualism?
The following is a snapshot of the ping-pong game that played in my mind for a while. I share this with you not because I reached the ‘right’ decision – I don’t believe there is one – but precisely because it is important we recognise the validity in both ‘sides’.
The history of the tradition really doesn’t do it any favours. Some historians suggest that it was at the beginning of the 15th century that women began to take on their husband’s surnames, as a step-up from being nameless, or only known as ‘wife of’. In the following centuries, women who chose to keep their names were shamed as ‘over-pert’, ‘confused’, or even ‘sick’.
Would changing my name be turning my back on years of progress made by brave people? They fought for a woman’s right to hold her own identity, and part of this was symbolised by keeping – or having – her own name.
But then, I don’t actually find my identity in my name. Sure, I’m Gemma Wilson, and people know me as that, but I’m much more than a few letters. Maybe if I’d found the cure for cancer and published it under Wilson I would feel differently? My family history is important to me, and it’s nice to carry on the lineage. It would be a shame for the Wilsons to end up being wiped out, of course. But then, I carry with me Wilson traditions and stories and traits that go far deeper than just a name.
That’s all fair enough. But why should it be me that changes my name? Why does that traditionally fall on the woman? Dan and I will be as much a part of the Wilsons as the Browns. And my identity is as important as his. Why not drop Brown?
If Dan dropped Brown and took on Wilson, we would be taking on my dad’s name. So we would still be playing into a patriarchal structure? If we’re going to take a stand against that, we should go all out. Maybe those of us who feel it is problematic should pick numbers when we get married?
Maybe. Realistically though, I’m not going to pick a number. I would feel awkward, and wouldn’t our non-existent, but potential, future children find that hard? And on that note – would they find it confusing to have a parent with a different name, even if they took on mine? Maybe they would feel caught in the middle?
They should know that women are as important as men, though, and that my voice is also important in our marriage. So maybe I should keep Wilson? Or maybe we could double-barrel? Wilson-Brown has a nice ring to it.
Oh hang on. What do the kids do if they get married? It’s a flawed system, at best. We should all just choose names for ourselves every 20 years. Though I’m pretty sure I would have been Strawberry Shortcake had I been able to choose for myself as a child.
Ok, so maybe that’s not an option either.
In the end, friends, I decided to take on Dan’s name. I have issues with the patriarchy, but I’m picking my battles. And I liked the thought of Dan and I sharing a name, as a symbol of sharing a lot of things. And I felt sure enough that the Wilson heritage would carry on in and through our marriage. So I became a Brown.
I do sometimes question my decision, but if feminism is ensuring we all have equal rights and choices, then actually choosing to change my name as an informed, equal, empowered human being was quite a feminist thing to do, just as your decision to not change your name is.
So what’s in a – my – name? My unity with Dan, and my decision to reflect that in my name.
I am Mrs Brown.