Posted in AS Sociology: Family

Feminism, Family, and Work

Source: Feministing

This week, Stephanie Coontz contributed an opinion piece to the New York Times in honor of the 50thanniversary of Betty Friedan’s, The Feminine Mystique. Coontz’s article, entitled “Why Gender Equality Stalled,” explores some of the structural and economic reasons hindering equality between men and women. The attitudes and beliefs of individuals are not to blame for the stalled gender revolution; instead, Coontz points to a failing economy and inadequate work-family policies as the major obstacles to gender equality.

Coontz relies on recent research which suggests that many men and women want egalitarian relationships. Specifically, a 2010 Pew Poll found that 72% of men and women think that marriages based on equality are the best. The implication of this research is most people start out with an egalitarian relationship as “Plan A.” If the conditions are right, most couples want to fulfill a utopian vision of gender equality in their interpersonal arrangements. However, as in most situations, “Plan A” rarely comes to fruition, especially under a set of constrained structural conditions. At some point, many people have to fall back on “Plan B,” a plan that involves more work for men and more family responsibilities for women.

Coontz suggests a few reasons to explain the prevalence of this less than egalitarian back up plan. She describes economic conditions in which men make more money than women and in which neither men nor women have adequate access to family leave. When men and women have few economic options, they return to a more traditional arrangement because it is the most lucrative and/or the most obvious choice. Ultimately, Coontz makes a strong argument for better family/work policies in order to create the conditions for gender equality

I think Coontz’s analysis is insightful. As a sociologist, I appreciate her emphasis on the many structural problems that prevent more gender equality between men and women. Importantly, she showcases the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy, highlighting the ways in which economic conditions uphold the patriarchal arrangements between men and women. We can’t expect a change in gender relations if our institutions do not reflect the goals of gender equality.

Yet, I am not convinced that these structural alterations are the only requirements necessary to produce the desired changes in gender relations at the individual level. Patriarchy has endured as a system of power not just because of social structures and institutions, but also because of cultural values and beliefs. While we have evidence to suggest that men and women want more egalitarian relationships, we also have evidence to suggest that cultural attitudes still reflect the belief that the household is women’s domain.

For example, when both men and women work, the bulk of the family and household responsibilities fall on the women. While this surely has something to do with economic conditions (for example, who can more easily leave the workplace without repercussions or significant loss of money), it also has something to do with the historical association of the household as the women’s domain.  This link between women and housework persists despite the many gains that women have made in the public sphere.

What I am suggesting is that we still have a ways to go with our cultural ideas about gender and family. Better social structures can help change these ideas, but can we think of others ways to disentangle women from the private sphere?

Posted in AS Sociology: Family

Is feminism really killing the family?

ed balls and yvette cooper

Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper on their wedding day. Photograph: Adam Butler/PA

Is feminism “destroying the family“? Plenty of people appear to believe so. Earlier this week, “crop-haired” Katherine Rake, who recently ended a seven-year stint as head of feminist campaigning organisation the Fawcett Society, was accused of continuing to work towards this sinister agenda – her easy-care hairdo cited by the Daily Mail as proof of her malicious intent.

Rake upset the socially conservative by declaring in her first speech as head of the Family and Parenting Institute (a government-funded organisation that we don’t need anyway) that “the days of the typical family are numbered”. This statement of statistical-projection fact drew outrage from David Cameron, who lambasted Labour for its continuing hostility to marriage.

Ed Balls, the minister for children, schools and families, offered a retort. He’s not personally hostile to marriage – he is, after all, married himself, to “crop-haired” work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper – but he is against the Conservative idea that unmarried parents should be treated as “second-class” citizens.

It’s a horrible idea, of course, and its horrible reality is still a raw, living memory. Only days ago, there was a new outpouring of abhorrence – and an apology from Kevin Rudd, the Australian prime minister – over one of the most ghastly manifestations of the treatment of “unmarried parents”. Who could listen to the stories of children separated from their mothers, told they were orphans, and transported to exploitation in Australia (a practice that ended only four decades ago) without a horrified shudder?

Yet however scrupulously one may reject the idea of unmarried parents as “second-class citizens”, class – as a cultural expression of economic status – continues to dog the “debate”. Single parents do tend to be “second-class citizens”, with 47% living below the poverty line. Statistically, their children do less well at school, and are overwhelmingly more likely to enter the criminal justice system, or to run into mental health or addiction problems.

Middle- and upper-class people are more likely to have their children later, when they are financially stable. Middle- or upper-class teenage pregnancies are more likely to end in abortion than teenage pregnancies among poor families. And so on. Delayed and structured parenthood, even marriage, is now, broadly, the choice of people – men and women – who have real choices. Early and unplanned parenthood is now, broadly, the choice of people – men and women – who look around them and perceive their options are narrow.

Feminism has liberated aspirational and affluent women, because it has ensured that women who are capable of financial independence are more able to achieve it, within marriage or outside it – although the continuing gender pay gap (much-monitored by Rake when she was at the Fawcett Society) is testament that even this success has been highly circumscribed.

I don’t imagine that 1970s feminists envisaged the rejection of educational opportunities, the refusal of family planning options, and the graft of bringing up children alone and on the breadline, as brave-new-world female choices for a post-liberation era, any more than they envisaged the advent of boob-jobs, pole-dancing supermodels and store-card bankruptcy. Actually, it is a big fat irony that feminists are now obliged to defend the right of lone mothers to stay at home with their young children, when the initial idea was to liberate women from the obligation to, well, stay at home with their young children.

Notwithstanding his dislike of the idea of unmarried parents as second-class citizens, Ed Balls has long been a senior member of a political party that has directed policy – admittedly without great success – at pressurising unmarried parents, in particular, into work. The Conservatives believe that, with rings on their fingers (placed there with the help of a tax break), the mothers who have caused Labour such angst would have stayed at home very much more happily. But that is only because of their blind adherence to the middle-class portrait of the pre-feminist world.

I don’t believe in that world, in which women got married, then gladly gave up work. Both of my grandmothers worked. My father’s mother worked in a factory that made ladies’ foundation garments, supporting her five surviving children alone after her husband, an asthmatic miner, had died young of lung disease.

My mother’s mother left “service” after she had married. But as the wife of a landless rural worker and mother of seven, she kept chickens, grew vegetables, made jams and chutneys, baked, cooked, sewed and knitted interminably, all year round. My aunts worked, all 10 of them, especially the widows – in offices, as barmaids, in shops, as cooks, even though they were married, even though they had children. My mother, like her sisters and her sisters-in-law, stayed at home when we children were small. But she returned to work, first part-time, then full-time, as soon as she could.

So, when Fay Weldon ruffles feathers, as she did at a literary festival this week, by declaring that one of the down-sides of feminism is that it has “made wage-slaves” out of mothers, I can only shake my head. Mothers always had access to wage-slavery, and those mothers who had husbands who drank the pay-packet, or handed over risible “housekeeping”, were particularly glad of their “pin money”. Feminism gave women much greater access to, or at least hope of, “careers”. Its rejection of marriage was bound up with the fact that a married woman was a woman who could forget about professional progress.

Now feminists defend their distrust of marriage, as if out-of-work mothers, living with a succession of boyfriends with whom they have a succession of children, was the intention and the dream all along. It wasn’t, and other social factors, such as the sexual revolution, the mass exodus from religious belief, and changing patterns of work (including the annihilation of the earning power of manual-labouring males), have played just as large a part in “promoting” alternative family structures as feminism.

For Conservatives, the feminist rejection of the taboo against unmarried motherhood has been fuelled by a welfare state that “puts children first”, creating a society in which the female poor have little incentive to work because they can get an income and a home from breeding. There is certainly some truth in this argument, but it ignores the counter-intuitive fact that throughout human history, and in our own era too, the poorest people are always the ones who have children most frequently, whether there is a welfare state to offer incentives or not.

So, if David Cameron is worried about his recent poor showings in the polls, he should reconsider his lazy homilies about the magic of marriage, and take a look at the possibility that “broken societies” are often teeming with very broke people.

Posted in AS Sociology: Family

Should Women Change their Surnames?

Should Women Change their Surnames?

‘Marrying left your maiden name disused,” Philip Larkin wrote in 1955. “Its five light sounds no longer mean your face, / Your voice, and all your variants of grace.” Larkin’s poem, written about his friend Winifred Arnott, sees the lost maiden name as a symbol of the erasure of a woman’s youthful and sexually desirable self, now swallowed up in domestic duties and motherhood. The birth name, to him, “means what we feel now about you then: How beautiful you were, and near and young”.

Reading Larkin is never a simple matter, and his depicted transition from “maiden” to “married” name invites multiple interpretations. On the one hand, it’s easy to understand the poem as an elegy for a loved person who has been married out of existence. On the other, the narrator admits that the subject of his elegy is “thankfully confused in law” with her husband-to-be. The shedding of the maiden name could be seen either as a tragic sublimation of identity or as a natural and welcome step; an escape from the erotic attentions, perhaps, of such men as the poet himself. But whether the name change means obliteration or maturation, we should not make the mistake of imagining that it means nothing at all.

As my partner and I make decisions about our marriage next year, I’ve found myself thinking about Larkin’s words. If marital surname change was open to ambiguous interpretations in 1955, it is even more so in 2014. Recently, lawyer Amal Alamuddin’s decision to change her name when she married George Clooney was both fervently criticised and heatedly defended. Just a few months earlier, the singer who has announced herself, in the space of a few years, as Cheryl Tweedy, Cheryl Cole and Cheryl Fernandez-Varsini was variously mocked and praised for her willingness to change her “brand” for each new husband. Feelings about these women’s decisions ran high in the press and on social media. Some feminists pointed out that women suffer detriment to their careers when they change their names; that they signal their submission to their husbands, and reinforce to their children the idea that women are inferior to men. (One recent survey found that school pupils thought men taking their wives’ surnames would demonstrate a “weak character” but the reverse would show women were “grown-up”.) Others defended Amal Clooney and Cheryl Fernandez-Varsini, claiming that women’s surnames mean little to them, that the birth name is usually the father’s name anyway, or that their decision to take their husband’s name showed that they were truly committed to the partnership.

Cheryl Fernandez-Versini
Cheryl Fernandez-Versini and Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini. Photograph: Palace Lee/Rex
When this last argument has been made to me by my name-changing friends, I’ve pointed out it implies the man who keeps his name is not committed. “Ah, but it’s traditional for the woman to change,” they might retort: “neither of us really think it’s that important, but we wanted to have the same name, and it just made more sense to go with tradition.” This argument presupposes that “traditions” are worth preserving. But how many of us actually know where the tradition of marital surname change comes from, and what it originally signified? And are we sure it is a tradition we want to preserve? A dip into the history of surname change reveals that, at best, its origins are controversial; at worst, they are deeply unsavoury.


British hereditary surnames are about 1,000 years old. Imported by the Normans, they had stabilised throughout much of English society by the 14th century, with Celtic regions taking longer to adapt. Married women, however, were perceived to have no surname at all, since the Normans had also brought with them the doctrine of coverture, the legal principle that, on marriage, a woman became her husband’s possession. Her state of namelessness reflected this. In the words of one court in 1340, “when a woman took a husband, she lost every surname except ‘wife of’.”

Around the turn of the 15th century, the French doctrine of coverture received a unique English twist. There was another interpretation of coverture available, based on scriptural ideas, which focused not on the husband’s power over his wife but on the unity that marriage gave them. According to the English jurist Henry de Bracton, they became “a single person, because they are one flesh and one blood”. As this idea gained ground, so did the clerical habit of designating a married woman by her husband’s surname. But she could not hold property or go to law – legally, she ceased to exist.

By the early 17th century, the custom of a woman adopting her husband’s surname was sufficiently entrenched in England that the antiquarian William Camden could write: “Women with us, at their marriage, do change their surnames, and pass into their husbands names, and justly. For they are no more twain, but one flesh.” The custom was specific to England. Camden noted with disapproval: “And yet in France and the Netherlands, the better sort of women will still retain their own name with their husbands … But I fear husbands will not like this note, for that some of their dames may be ambitiously over-pert and too forward to imitate it.”

Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft. Photograph: UIG via Getty Images
So even in 1605, Camden identified a woman’s desire to retain her own name on marriage with “ambition”, “pertness” and “forwardness”. Perhaps this was because he saw the surname as an especially important component of the name: surnames were, he declared, “especially respected as whereon the glory and credit of men is grounded, and by which the same is conveyed to the knowledge of posterity”. But by the middle of the 18th century, as print culture expanded and literacy increased, some of those most preoccupied with “glory”, “credit” and “posterity” were wealthy, powerful or famous married women who resented that their names would die with them. In the words of the aristocrat and writer Mary Wortley-Montagu, women desired “that Fame which Men have engross’d to themselves and will not suffer us to share”.

The pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, had a vexed relationship with the surnames of the men with whom she was romantically involved. She adopted the surname of her lover Gilbert Imlay in order to pretend to American citizenship – an advantage in revolutionary Paris, where British citizens were being persecuted and imprisoned. But when Imlay abandoned her, she wrote to her friend Amelia Alderson that she “earnestly desired to resign a name which seemed to disgrace me”. She subsequently married her fellow philosopher William Godwin in 1797, but immediately after their marriage, she still signed herself “MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT femme [or wife of] Godwin” – perhaps reflecting uneasiness at some of the implications of her new wedded state and the prospect of another name change. Both the monument to her in St Pancras, and the grave in which she currently rests in Bournemouth, bear her birth name.

More conservative 18th-century women might have hesitated to take such a radical step as retaining their name after marriage – Camden’s accusations of “ambition” and “forwardness” were still damaging, and to sign a different surname to one’s husband or children could suggest that one was living in sin. But in many cases, these women found other ways to perpetuate their own surnames, thus cheating the companion tradition that had arisen from that of the wife taking her husband’s surname: that of the children inheriting the paternal surname, too. The most popular of these “cheats” was the royal licence.

In the last 40 years of the 18th century, nearly 700 people petitioned to change a surname by royal licence – and almost a sixth of the name changes were instigated by women who wished to see their birth names continue to posterity. Hester Piozzi, one of the most influential literary women of the era, petitioned for a royal licence for her husband’s nephew to take her birth name of Salusbury. The fact that he had adopted it, she wrote – even though she herself had abandoned that name on her marriage, made him “my Son at last – in true Earnest; my Son by Adoption, inserted into the Pedigree of my Descent”. Other women would do the same, or even petition parliament to pass a private act ensuring the continuation of their birth names.

This 18th-century vogue for women keeping, or perpetuating, their surnames was controversial. The novelist Frances Burney plotted her second novel Cecilia: or, Memoirs of an Heiress, around the problem of a man who had to take a woman’s surname. In Burney’s narrative, the middle-class heroine Cecilia Beverley and aristocratic hero Mortimer Delvile must choose whether or not to marry, since, due to a clause in Cecilia’s uncle’s will, doing so would mean surrendering either Cecilia’s inherited fortune or Mortimer’s cherished family surname. Cecilia ultimately marries Mortimer and takes the Delvile surname, losing her inheritance and temporarily her sanity along with her own name. The novel ignited impassioned debates in drawing rooms across literary London.

But the royal licence and the private act of parliament were solutions for only a few very wealthy English women. As the 19th century dawned, the majority continued to take their husband’s surnames and see their own die out. During the Victorian era, however, several English women braved fierce criticism to obtain landmark court decisions that confirmed their right to call themselves the name they chose. Florence Fenwick Miller won the right to be elected to her school board under her birth name in 1877, and two of the first married women to stand for parliament, Mary Macarthur and Violet Markham, did so under their birth names. Often they still had to deal with officials who maintained that it was the law for women to take their husband’s names. But the barriers came slowly down and, in 1924, Helena Normanton, the first female barrister in England, succeeded in getting the British Foreign Office to issue her a passport in her birth name.

One of the first things Normanton did after receiving her passport was travel to the US to mentor a group of women who were fighting for a similar right: the custom of marital surname change had taken on a global life. During the 19th century, it had spread to Scotland, Ireland and Wales, as well as overseas to British colonies and former colonies, and to parts of mainland Europe. As the legal restrictions of coverture were gradually abolished, its symbol lived on – and in some other countries it became law.

Lucy Stone
US reformer and advocate of women’s rights Lucy Stone battled for her birth name. CSU Archives/Everett Collection/REX
The battle for the birth name was particularly fierce in the US. Lucy Stone, a 19th-century American suffragist and abolitionist, was inspired by African-American customs to keep her birth name after her marriage, signing her correspondence “Lucy Stone (only).” She faced challenge from legal officials who wouldn’t let her buy land without signing her husband’s name, which inspired her to seek legal assurance that there was, in fact, no law in existence that dictated she must do so. When this was confirmed, Stone made a public announcement that her name had not changed and never would. Her fellow activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote: “Nothing has been done in the woman’s rights movement for some time that has so rejoiced my heart as the announcement by you of a woman’s right to her name. It does seem to me a proper self-respect demands that every woman may have some name by which she may be known from cradle to grave.”

In 1921, Stone’s example inspired the journalist Ruth Hale to found the Lucy Stone League, an American organisation supporting women’s rights to keep and use their birth names. The “Lucy Stoners” challenged in federal court any government edict that would not recognise a married woman by the name she chose to use. Their slogan was “My name is my identity and must not be lost.” During the 1920s they succeeded in getting real-estate deeds, passports, bank accounts and voter registrations issued in the names that they chose.

But various American states countered their success by passing new laws compelling women to take their husband’s surname. One attorney general told a women who wished to keep her name that she was “an oddball”, a “sick and confused woman”, whose need was “not for a change of name but a competent psychiatrist”. It was only in 1972 that a succession of legal cases confirmed that women could use their birth names in whatever ways they pleased.

Some would say that the fight is now over. Both in the UK and the US, the restrictive provisions of coverture have long been abolished and women are, at least in law, equal to their husbands. They can now make a free choice about what to do with their names. Most of us, it turns out, still take our husband’s surname, but the proportion is declining. A Eurobarometer survey conducted in 1994 suggested that 94% of British women took their husbands’ names when they got married. But recent smaller-scale research suggests that this proportion has shrunk significantly over the last two decades, especially among highly educated and younger women. In 2013, scholar Rachel Thwaites found that 75% of respondents took their husband’s name. And just last month, the Discourses of Marriage Research Group found that only 54% did so. In Britain it has always been legal to call yourself whatever you like (as long as you’re not committing fraud), so it is hard to get a definitive figure. But, as a rough guide, we can estimate that after the confetti has fallen, half to three-quarters of married British women still sign documents using their husband’s surname or introduce themselves using it; they apply for new passports and credit cards, or they change their handles on social media.

The debate about marital surname change continues. While some protest that the question is unimportant, it still provokes strong feelings. Now seems a good time to reconsider why we do what we do with our surnames: in the wake of last year’s Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, a custom that depends on a gender-normative idea of marriage – a woman automatically sacrificing her name to take that of a man – is starting to look more outdated than ever.

Every woman must make this choice for herself, and it’s important not to let the conversation be hijacked by judgmental accusations about who is, and is not, a true feminist. I can see why a woman might wish to change her name in order to leave certain aspects of her past behind; why she might, after seeing her husband’s displeasure at the idea of her keeping her name, opt for an easy life; and why, for instance, in 1924 a certain Emily Smellie might have rejoiced to change her name to Emily Hall.

But we don’t live free of history, and I can’t bring myself to ignore that. In my own case, were I to look at the form you need to fill out to change your name, I would see instead the medieval script, “she has lost all surname but wife of”. I’d see the royal licences bought by aristocratic women desperate to transmit their names to posterity. I’d see the legal judgment of the American attorney general on the “sick and confused woman … in need of a psychiatrist”. And I see the signature of “Lucy Stone (only)”.

Larkin’s poem “Maiden Name” concludes that the old name “shelters our faithfulness, / Instead of losing shape and meaning less / With your depreciating luggage laden.” He saw a woman picking up most of her “luggage” after marriage, and suggested that this luggage – children? wrinkles? wisdom? – would “depreciate” her value. He doesn’t consider that the woman about to get married might have picked up quite a bit of “luggage” that she is fond of, and proud of, already.

To abandon my surname and take that of my partner would mean abandoning Sophie Coulombeau, along with all her luggage – the errors, achievements and resonances created over 30 years. I would become, first and foremost, my husband’s wife. And that’s not the whole of me. So when it comes to my own wedding day I will be “ambitious”, “pert” and “forward”. I will keep the name Coulombeau, and its luggage. And as I sign my unchanged name, I’ll think of all the women who made it possible for me to do so.

• Sophie Coulombeau teaches at Cardiff University. She is writing a book on the history of naming and identity in Britain.