Mrs. John Smith, The Real Story

Feminists have always assumed that a woman’s taking of her husband’s surname – which English-speaking nations took to the extreme of making her take his Christian name as well – was entirely a matter of the imposition of male preferences. Perhaps Mr John Smith indeed used to get off on hearing his wife referred to as “Mrs John Smith”, but why then do we not find this in all patriarchal cultures? For example, in traditional Arab society, which is commonly reckoned to be pretty patriarchal, women retain their own family names.

Whether a woman has to take her husband’s name or not is a function, not so much of the male-female power relationship, as of the extent to which society is conceived in terms of kinship-groups; that is, whether a wife’s affiliation with her birth-kin is more important than her connection with her husband. The phenomenon of “Mrs John Smith” is thus a peculiar side-effect of Western primogeniture, individualism and romanticisation of marriage.

Westerners imagine that they are speaking on behalf of the entire species when they talk about “the family” being the foundation of society. By “the family” they mean primarily the bond between one man and one woman, thinking of the wider family merely as a support system; other cultures, however, see it the other way round, so that the kin or clan is primary and marriage is entered into mainly in order to strengthen and defend the kin through positive links with potentially hostile lineages. Symbolic subsumption of his sister’s identity into the other clan is the last thing a man then wants to happen, however patriarchal he may be in other respects. “Mrs John Smith” is therefore an expression of the arguably pathological Western notion that a married couple ought to exist in a vacuum, devoted to one another but without outside affiliations stronger than the marriage.

Moreover, for every Englishwoman who resented the loss of her own name there was at least another who gloried in the name of Mrs John Smith, on the grounds that Mr Smith was a bigger monkey than Mr Brown, and so every time she named herself thus, she ground Mrs Tom Brown into the dirt.

Posted on December 15, 2012 at 12:43 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: WHAT WOMEN WANT, On Sovereignty And Hierarchy

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