July 1st, 2010

The Name Game


Why do so many people believe that a married woman ought to take her husband’s name, asks JOLENE TAN.  Why are they so wedded to gender norms that they cannot respect other people’s choices about a highly personal matter?

I’ve just got married, and something I’ve taken for granted all my life – using my name – has suddenly begun to trigger vexing conversations.

Let’s be clear:  I don’t run around with a megaphone offering unsolicited recitals of the many compelling arguments for keeping one’s name.  (Perhaps I should.)  But when asked about it, and when I’m wrongly addressed, I do clarify that I remain “Ms Tan”.

Making this statement seems to be like deploying a nuclear weapon, inasmuch as it prompts others to start up triple-layered security checks.

Ms. Magazine

Ms., an American feminist magazine.


(Yes, really – otherwise I wouldn’t have just said it, right?)

“You’re not double-barrelling?”

(No, I’m not double-barrelling – otherwise I would have just said so, right?)

“But what if you have kids?”

(What does that have to do with the price of fish?)

I don’t actually give these satisfyingly vindictive fantasy answers – I suspect they prolong discussion, and all I want is to end these tedious, predictable exchanges as soon as possible.  So I hurry things along, mumbling “I’m still Tan, I can’t be bothered”, and change the subject.

I want to look at the thought process (or total lack thereof) that generates these questions.  These days, “Ms” is a common fixture of every level of public and professional life.  Look in a directory, read your newspaper, fill in some forms – it’s there.

Many a married woman’s birth name is also a household name.  Ho Ching is famously married to a Mr Lee; Beyonce Knowles to a Mr Z.  I’m not a sparkly purple unicorn.

Why, then, the expressions of disbelief?

It seems to me these are best read not as authentic expressions of surprise or genuine requests for information, but as demands for justification.  Many people, however informed, are so wedded to an ideological system of gender norms that they have difficulty respecting other people’s individual choices about many highly personal matters.

Their questioning reflects their belief that a straight and married woman ought to take her husband’s name – that this is a normative default and that anything else is somehow deviant.  They are policing women for gender conformity.

I’m not attributing malicious intent to anyone.  Rather, I think the questions show a failure to think – the lazy refusal to see women as individual human beings.  Faced with a flesh-and-blood woman providing uncomplicated information about herself (“I am still Ms Tan”), these people erase the actual voice of the actual person speaking to them.

Rather than accept a clear statement of a woman’s preference at face value, they strive to remind her of the theory that all married women must use “Mrs”.  In effect, when told of her identity, they change the topic to focus on their own attachment to a system of gender norms.  It’s a perfect example of how systemic sexism can deny the individual humanity of women without for one moment requiring anyone to self-consciously believe in women’s inferiority.

It’s interesting to consider the post-colonial aspects of this, too.  The “Mrs” convention is of Western Christian historical origin.  Traditionally, neither Sikh nor Malay women change their names following marriage.  The practice has enjoyed only a mixed foothold in Chinese, Hindu and Muslim communities around the world.

Children are not universally named after their fathers, either: they take their mother’s last name, for example, in the matrilineal families of Kerala, where many Singaporeans have their roots.  The notion that becoming Mrs Husband is the “done thing”, or that departures from it are peculiar or unworkable or need especial explanation, is highly Eurocentric.

This critique is the sort of thing that some people refer to as “overanalysing” or “thinking too much”.  On the contrary, my suggested solution is the simplest course of action possible: if you need to refer to a married woman by her last name, ask her what she would like to be called, and then use the name that she tells you.  It’s really as easy as that.  It’s only a cultural aversion to allowing women to be ourselves that makes it look any more complex.

The writer is a charity fundraiser based in London.  She is a core team member of No To Rape, the volunteer-led campaign to abolish marital immunity for rape in Singapore.


  1. Eveline

    Taking on your husband’s surname appears to be more prevalent in America (and it appears, London!) than in Singapore. I’ve never had any grief about keeping my own surname. The only person who made the erroneous assumption that I took on my husband’s name was my church pastor, who was educated in America!

    I do not mind being known as Mrs X but if the title is left out then please stick to my own surname.

  2. Schutz Lee

    Finally! Someone has written about this subject. It has intrigued me for years, more than I have been married (10 years).
    Changing my name has never been something I spent an atom of time contemplating. I just knew I wasn’t going to do it, don’t need to. Everyone just has to deal with me being Ms Lee, even my children’s teachers. I write emails to them saying this is Schutz Lee, the mother of so-and-so. They write back calling me Mrs Chan or Madam Lee, if not my name.
    Anyway, I think it has a lot to do with a person’s identity. And how much your name plays in that identity. I say this because a very self-actualised friend of mine said she will change hers because it is just a name change, it doesn’t change who she is. I respect that. So yes, society shouldn’t just assume married women should change their names.

  3. Teo Keng Chuan

    I am male (do find the need to clarify) and as far as I can remember have thought this tradition rather unfair to women. I am in my 40s now and been married for 10 years and this issue has never been an issue with my wife. She is and will always be whatever she chooses to be called. Retaining her maiden name never did cause an itch. It is as natural as night and day as far as I am concerned.

    Without trying to appear new agey, I have insisted upon our kids having a double-barrelled surname. Yes, the registry of birth did encourage me not to do so for fear of complicating matters in future (their reason being what if my daughter decides to double-barrel when she marries; heaven forbid, then how is her name going to fit on her IC?). I had always felt that to be the way and I am glad we have done that. Again, it is a non-issue and should be the norm.

    Most importantly, people should be allowed to make their choices. Tolerance is respect.

  4. SarahJayne Edwards

    I have been married since 2002 and did not take my husbands name. It was never an issue for him or for me and the main reason if I am honest is that I couldn’t be bothered with the paperwork of changing all my documentation.
    However I read this article with dismay and disbelief. In 10 years of marriage I have NEVER been questioned or asked to explain my decision. A couple of time within bureaucratic departments I have been asked twice to clarify I am in fact the mother of my children, but even then I could see they were just trying to tick the right boxes on their forms.
    I would say that the writer of this article would have more validation if she had concurred with other women who had also kept their own surnames so that the slant on this issue wasn’t so negative.
    In my experience keeping my surname has been neither positive or negative, really it is a non-event and not worthy of conversation in my social or professional cirlce.

  5. The answer lies in ‘society’ more than anything else. If I live with family and spend most of my time with extended family members, as they do in most Asian countries, then it would be the sensible choice for the girl to take on the husband’s name – JUST to avoid weird questions. The general attitude of most people who are able to think like us is that we are above these minor subtleties, but at the same time, we’re smart enough to avoid the awkwardness when the bank sends a letter addressed to “Mrs Tan”. In cases where the last name is the father’s name and not the family name, no girl wants to deal with someone thinking she is her father’s wife. It IS stupid, but hey, it’s the society we grew up in, right?

    A new trend I noticed amongst Pakistani girls is that they hyphenate their last name, just how TeoKeng mentioned in his comment above. That works.

    In the end, if you’ve seen the movie, it’s Whatever Works.

  6. Fong Lai

    I notice many Chinese women who married Westerners tend to take on their husband’s surname or have their surnames hyphenated, more so than those who married within their culture.

  7. Anj

    Forcing women to declare their marital status has long puzzled me. Men go by ‘Mr’, but women have to declare if they are ‘Miss’, ‘Mrs’ or ‘Madam’ in many places. Why such a discrepancy? What purpose does declaring our marital status serve?

  8. Vanessa

    I didn’t choose to take my husband’s name upon marriage but I’ve never had anyone question me about this in Singapore. I’ve had questions about this outside of Singapore though.

  9. Dana Lam

    First of all, Jolene, congratulations to you and your spouse! Who is the lucky guy? I should like to thank him, too, for your writing the piece! :)

    I especially appreciate your making the point on how easily we can all become complicit in undermining ourselves (women) without necessarily believing in, or being conscious of believing in our (women’s) inferiority. Ouch. (para 4 from bottom.) But, you are absolutely right. We cannot afford to ignore what informs such a convention as this obligation on a woman to change her name on marriage, however banal it may seem. We cannot afford to ignore it if we are interested in building a society that values women and men equally. This is the reason AWARE has to be.

    We owe the pioneer batch of feminists whose activism gave us the Women’s Charter in 1961. Part VI of the Charter clearly legislates the wife’s equal right to use “her own surname and name separately” and to “engage separately in any trade or profession or in social activities”. It also mandated that husband and wife have equal rights in the running of the matrimonial household and be “mutually bound to cooperate with each other in safeguarding the interests of the union and in caring and providing for the children.”

    Going by the Charter, women in Singapore were well ahead of the time. In practice, although changes have been slow, they have been incremental. I would go so far as to say if there is such a thing as a “better” time to marry, that better time is now. Well, at least until a better future arrives.

    Clearly, in spite of the progressive legislation, we have needed individuals to keep the issues and the debates alive in order for change to happen. We owe the present to those individuals who have kept their voices up since 1961. We will owe the future to you who are making your views known now.

    Here’s to equal and rewarding partnerships for everyone!

    Dana Lam