What's in a name?
International Women's Day is all about pausing to reflect on our achievements in the long-standing effort to create equality between men and women. I must admit, writing about Beyonce Knowles as part of my thoughts on this important day of reflection was not really part of the plan this year...until she announced her upcoming tour.
For over a decade, Beyonce has been singing about girls and women being independent, surviving and even running the world and I've definitely been a fan. However, when I found out last month that the megastar and girl power proponent was calling her tour the 'Mrs. Carter Show' I thought I was going to short circuit. Perhaps she thought it would be a nice gesture to express her love for Jay-Z or maybe it's just a marketing stunt and her team is completely oblivious of the message it carries. In either case, it is a reminder of how unaware we still are of all the everyday messages that perpetuate the notion that girls and women are less important and less valuable than the male half of our species.
One of the most effective ways we perpetuate inequality between the sexes is by continuing to engage in traditions that are rooted in the notion of male superiority (and thus female inferiority). Marriage is one of the biggest culprits because as beautiful and romantic as it can be, many traditions associated with it stem from the patriarchal belief that a girl is first the property of her father and then of her husband. The common practice of naming babies after their fathers and women taking their husband's name upon marriage, are prime examples. So, too, are the romanticized traditions of a woman's boyfriend asking her father's permission to marry her and the bride's father subsequently walking her down the aisle to "give her away." What message are we sending when we suggest that parental permission is required for an adult woman to get married? We're saying, "We don't think you are a whole person capable of making your own life decisions."
Some 90 per cent of women today still 'choose' to change their name when they get married. But to what extent is choice actually a factor here? It's really hard to exercise one's right to choose when a second or third option is not even presented and the one that is, is set forth as the only honourable, romantic, respectful (to your husband) and commonly accepted thing to do. Many women default to giving up their name without conscious choice and men expect it because they think it's 'just what you do'. The belief system behind the tradition is rarely discussed with girls or with boys, for that matter, so it's probably not surprising that 50 per cent of Americans believe a woman should take her husband's name upon marriage.
Some of the most progressive and educated people I know will argue that the original meaning behind these traditions no longer applies. However, when I ask most men, "How would you feel if your wife asked you to give up your name and take hers?" the very quick and disdainful answer I usually get is "Hell no!"
Frankly, this reaction is understandable. Imagine two people setting up a law firm or any other type of partnership and putting the name of only one partner in the title or on the door. To most, this would be unacceptable because it would imply that one partner was more important and valuable than the other. And yet, we communicate very clearly to girls and women that we expect them to do just that. In what could be the biggest and most important partnership of their lives, we tell them that their individual identity as a whole and separate person is not valued or relevant and in so doing, essentially negate the notion that marriage is actually a partnership at all.
All of this is not to say that if you've taken your husband's name, you don't value yourself as an individual. And if you're a man who has always wanted your wife to take your last name, it doesn't mean you are misogynistic or consciously view her as inferior. However, if you believe in equality between men and women, it's nearly impossible to come up with a sound, logical argument for why a woman should take her husband's name as opposed to both parties keeping their names...hyphenating both names...or creating a new name.
What's in a name is our strong, socialized beliefs around the role and place of women in relation to men. It means something that men in our society always remain 'Mr.' but women carry 'Miss', 'Ms.' or 'Mrs.' to define who they are in relation to men. If we are truly dedicated to creating equality between men and women then we will need to consciously address traditions that are anchored in the belief that women are inferior to men.
I thought this was part of Beyonce's mission. In fact, she recently announced her involvement with Gucci's 'Chime for Change' campaign for girls' empowerment, which nobly declares that 'None of us can move forward if half of us are held back.' I couldn't agree more.
Unfortunately, Beyonce's decision to publicly relinquish her own identity and sensationalize a tradition that tells girls their identity is less important than a man's, contributes to holding girls back. She has the ears of millions of girls and boys, women and men, all over the world. Her ability to send and model a powerful message about the value of women and the importance of equality between the sexes is greater than ever. Instead of doing so, by calling her tour the 'Mrs. Carter Show' she is reinforcing and endorsing the exact opposite message. So much for moving forward...unless perhaps Jay-Z is ready to call his tour the 'Mr. Knowles Show.'