Hannah McGill: Wedded to maiden names

Japanese newlyweds are legally obliged to share a surname. Photograph: Yoshikazu Tsuno/Getty

Japanese newlyweds are legally obliged to share a surname. Photograph: Yoshikazu Tsuno/Getty

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I SUPPOSE I belong to the first generation of women who didn’t take it for granted that they would change their surnames upon getting married; and yet I never regarded the choice as a challenging one. I didn’t even see it as a choice.

If I ever got married, there was simply no way I was changing my name. Not because I’m an especially extreme feminist, nor because I’m in love with my name (it’s OK). Just because the notion of giving up the central marker of my identity seemed silly to me; and that of taking on the surname of my man uncomfortably redolent of being bought and owned. I know people have many reasons for doing it, and that it’s too personal a thing to berate anyone about, but I’ll admit it surprises me so many women still sign up for a tradition that seems so dated in what it implies.

One reason they do, of course, is that it simplifies things. One family, one name. Should there be children, there’ll be no question over whose name they take. It’s currently modish to compromise by giving children double-barrelled surnames, but while that’s fine for one generation, one wonders what happens when all those double-barrelled kids marry OTHER double-barrelled kids… Will everyone end up going by great long chains of initials, like serial numbers…? My children have my surname, and my partner’s name as a middle name; if they want to swap them about when they’re older, they can. The conversation wasn’t difficult: we agreed on the order that sounded best, and my partner wasn’t troubled or emasculated by my name being the one on the official paperwork, because – well – why would he be?

As straightforward as it was for us, our decision to retain our own names and to make our own choice regarding what to call our kids would be against the law if we lived in Japan. The Japanese Supreme Court has just upheld a 19th century law stipulating that all married couples must bear the same surname. The stated reasons for retention of the law go beyond mere tradition: supporters feel that it acts to curb “the spread of extreme individualism”, and that “allowing different surnames risks destroying social stability”.

The “individualism” that requires control is implicitly female. While in theory Japanese couples can take either spouse’s name, in practice 96 per cent use the man’s. And there’s a question. If, as so many still argue, it’s preferable for couples to share a surname, why do we still assume that the man’s name should dominate in a heterosexual union? Most of us have got over the idea that a man is the head of a household (and not just because of feminist pressure: I don’t know many men who want that burden). So, shouldn’t men be equally willing to change their names? Maybe the happy instigation of gay marriage will help to even things out: without the weight of patriarchal history to consider, the decision becomes a simple matter of selecting a shared identity that works for you as a couple. And if you can’t agree on that, well, maybe that’s a warning against making things legal at all…

So you think you have problems?

IT’S the withering put-down for almost every occasion: “First world problems.” It’s most commonly used to mock angst over high-end trivialities – this latté has the wrong number of bubbles; the horse bit the nanny; Waitrose has run out of pickled clover – but it seems to have expanded to apply to any complaint that doesn’t involve a visit by one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I saw it used in print last week to describe the issues caused by the current closure of the Forth Road Bridge. (Can’t get to work? Oh hush with your first world problems!) It’s a phrase I can’t stand for a number of reasons – the fact that it’s no longer deemed acceptable to separate out a hopelessly stricken “third world” being only one of them. Since when did living in an affluent country preclude legitimate problems? Is money so important that people who don’t have it can only be unhappy, and people who do can only be happy? No wonder people are scared to report depression or domestic violence. Presumably, people who accuse others of flaunting “first world problems” never get upset by small things themselves? Complain about what you want, and accept this snotty accusation only from people who are actually cleaning up a bombsite or digging a well.

Royals are still too private

BIG boost for the nation’s Montessori institutions, as the Royals announce that Prince George will follow a tradition instigated by his late grandmother, Princess Diana, by attending a private Montessori nursery in Norfolk. This is nice, if only for the mental picture of someone explaining it to the Duke of Edinburgh (“Yes, it’s… experimental. They sit on the floor, and they engage with nature. No, not by hunting it.) Some of us still harbour the fantasy of a Royal family that respected state institutions enough to actually use them. What a great statement it would be for George’s later education to take place in the public sector, among people he will one day rule.

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