Changing names and gendering identity

By Rachel Thwaites.

Writing about names might seem trivial.  Sociologists certainly seem to have thought it wasn’t important, with a real lack of naming research in this discipline.  Yet names are important signifiers: of personal identity, familial links, and even social roles; they help us to delineate between people, enact contracts, and speak to people in the everyday.  They are a crucial part of social organisation in any society and are bound up with social values and norms.  In Britain, the last name continues to have a particularly gendered significance and it is this which my research addresses.

My research focused on what heterosexual British women do with their last name when they marry, examining the choices and justifications of women who change their name and women who retain their birth name.  One hundred and two women took part in the study altogether, completing an online survey, with sixteen also undertaking an in-depth interview.  My forthcoming book, Changing Names and Gendering Identity: Social Organisation in Contemporary Britain, brings together all the research I have published from this project, on love and emotion work, and selfhood, as well as data which haven’t yet been published on family, tradition, choice, and feminism.  It brings a new set of findings to an under-researched area, focusing specifically on gendered identity building for those who change and those who retain names.

In Britain the norm is for women to change names on marriage and, despite the relaxing of this norm, there remains a strong pressure on women to conform to this practice.  By doing so they confirm and reproduce the social order, making families intelligible to other people and organisations, connecting husband and wife, and publically confirming their role as wife, as well as their love and commitment to their partner and marriage.  A reciprocal action is not expected of men and their love and commitment not questioned when they do not change names.  This gendered set of expectations and actions reiterates what women, wives, and mothers ‘should’ do to be appropriately gendered and intelligible social beings.

These acts are constructed, as are their connotations and meanings, yet they have consequences for lived lives and lived identities.  Participants in the study found their commitment being questioned if they even suggested not changing their name to their husband’s; while a participant who had come through the immigration system to become a British citizen was strongly encouraged by authorities to change her name to her husband’s to make things easier for them throughout the process of claiming citizenship.

Women who retained names were told they had snubbed their partners and in-laws, that they were being ‘too feminist’ and troublesome, and that they would create problems for their (presumed) future children.  It is true that women who don’t share names with their children faced problems when authorities questioned their family connection, but these strong reactions and the inability to understand something other than the norm shows it strength and pervasiveness in contemporary Britain.  It shows how important the norm remains to maintaining the gendered – and therefore unequal – social order.



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