IT LOOKS like I’ve finally achieved my aim of whittling my readership down to three. So hello to Nana, Mum and Germaine — if you’re still reading. Last week I wrote a column questioning, among other things, women taking their husband’s surname. Talk about stroppy! There were more noses out of joint than in a Jeff Fenech lookalike competition.
The response was massive, totally unexpected and absolutely fascinating. Reader feedback, the letters editor and the opinion editor were flabbergasted by the sheer volume of people wanting to put their two cents in. Even Kerri-Anne Kennerley bagged me. She was “offended”, called me a “judgemental feminist” and said that I “probably couldn’t get a man”. I laughed for an hour. It seems you’re either with me, or with Kerri-Anne …
It was a case of Team Deveny versus Team How Dare You. Game on! Poke that animal in the cage!
I was shocked by what a deeply and blindly patriarchal society we still live in. How can this name thing still be an issue? Didn’t they discuss this on The Age’s weekly women’s issue page, Accent, in the 1970s?
I’ve poked the cage of private schools, clipboard-carrying parents, unnecessary caesareans, 4WD owners, even God, and I have never been so overwhelmed by a response (equally positive and negative). Team How Dare You were extremely defensive and highly emotional. There was a stunning lack of clear rational thinking in every response. It was glaringly obvious that many women who have changed their names have a deep conflict about the true motivation behind their decision and the convenient excuse they present to the world. The blokes were just as illogical. And angry.
Why would anyone care what I think? Who’d give a monkey’s about what a stranger writing in a newspaper would think about their choice? If someone had a go at something I’d decided to do, I wouldn’t give a rat’s. I’m happy with my choices.
I don’t give a stuff what you do. I’m just paid to write what I think. There’s no gun to your head. Turn the page. If you can’t stand the heat, read the Herald Sun. Why bother trying to set me straight. All you’ve done is prove my point.
The defences were, well, defensive. “Well it’s just your father’s surname anyway.” No, it’s not. It’s mine. I was born with it. And if you follow that argument through, then you are not changing your surname to your husband’s but to your father in-law’s.
“You are only a real family if you have the same surname.” Wrong. If a family wants the same surname, why don’t half of these families have the mother’s surname? It seems only women have names that are hard to spell, they aren’t attached to or they don’t like. Not men. Odd. And convenient.
Women told me their husbands would have been happy to change their surnames. But they didn’t. I asked some of these blokes who, according to their wives, would have been happy to. They either said. “No, I wouldn’t have but don’t tell her” or just shuffled their feet and muttered, “I dunno, probably.” You can say what you like now the deal is done.
I did a few radio interviews, and the callers were a real eye-opener. Men told me they agreed with me totally then proudly said: “I told my wife she didn’t have to change her name” or “I let her keep her name but the kids had to have my surname.” Where do I start?
It’s a choice, but what’s informing this choice is the issue. Why is it that it’s “just easier” for “the wife” to change name in almost 100 per cent of situations? It’s easier for many not to take on convention and consequently reveal the depths of dormant patriarchy among their nearest and dearest. Then it’s easier still to say: “It’s just easier.”
The stories I have heard of a backlash towards some women who kept their names were jaw-dropping. More women than you would think have confronted extremely angry reactions, with people telling them it is “illegal”, “unethical” and “selfish” not to change their names. Others just ignore the woman’s wishes and address her as Mrs He.
It’s the mindless default setting, the convenient and flimsy excuses, the extreme defensiveness and the lack of rationality that’s the worry. The personal is political. Surnames don’t need to be uniform. Our society can cope with an equal mix of families with the male surname, the female’s, both, hyphenated (both mother’s and father’s surnames first), male kids get one surname, female kids get the other and new family names. Bureaucracy can cope, but can you?
My theory? Many women want the same name as their children. They know their husband won’t change or they don’t want him to change (in fear of his being branded henpecked and/or she as a femonazi), and they are certain that he won’t accept the children having her surname or hyphenating. So change it is. And everything stays the same.