“If you are a self-proclaimed feminist, and you are not passing negative judgement on other women based on your understanding of what is right and wrong, then you are a welcome member of the feminist family.”

The recent “controversy” surrounding Emma Watson posing in Vanity Fair partly revealing her breasts, and the subsequent swirling of opinions on Twitter brings to light an important question, particularly as International Women’s Day has just passed: what does it mean to be a “good” feminist? Emma’s boob-gate is a reminder the topic is still up for debate, and if women profess to be a feminist, they should also be prepared to defend certain personal decisions.

With wedding season just around the corner, the IPF decided to investigate the perspectives of young women on whether or not you can change your name after marriage – and still be a “good” feminist.

The number of women keeping their names after marriage is on the rise, although to do so is still a rarity compared with the tradition of taking the husband’s name.

Historically, in Britain at least, it was initially only men who had a hereditary last name. Women were defined by their first names, followed by “wife of X” as a woman became part of a man’s property upon marriage. This evolved to the point where the religious definition of marriage – becoming one flesh and blood – introduced the notion that as the couple were becoming one, the woman should adopt the name of her husband.

Undoubtedly, the original reasons as to why a woman would take a man’s name upon marriage are at odds with the modern conception of equality.

Is it possible, to identify as a feminist and adopt this practice rooted in distinctly un-feminist tradition?

For many couples, having the same name is a symbol of unity. Laura, a doctor from Leeds, married her husband Mark at the age of 23, and despite pressure from her family decided to take his name. For Laura, marriage signifies two people becoming one in every aspect, and having the same name symbolised this.

Laura told the IPF:

“My Christian faith influenced my view on marriage. Marriage represents Jesus and the Church – the Church submits to Jesus, so the wife submits to the husband; Jesus lays down his life for the Church so the husband lays down his life for the wife.”

Laura acknowledged that some people may interpret such a perspective – particularly in terms of the submission to the husband – as being at odds with the principles of feminism, however she thinks that it can be a mark of “good’ feminism”, as “by being so secure in yourself you can take the other person’s name”.

“I see feminism as a recognition that women are equal to men but different, and thus have different roles that are equally important. This in turn influences my thinking that to keep my name would have been emasculating for her husband, as it would have subverted his male role,” Laura added.

Maryam, an Egyptian-British entrepreneur, also married at 23 and had a different take on the subject:

“The idea of re-branding yourself as a married woman is unnecessary, and my marriage was another normal step in my life that did not require a change in my labelling to the world.

“In Egyptian culture you rarely meet women who have changed their surname.” 

Maryam argued that you do not have to change your name to be part of the family or to show your commitment to the union with your partner, and that the historical roots of the practice – the shifting of dependence and expectations of how married women should act differently to unmarried women – are not relevant in a modern context.

Maryam also took issue with the idea of emasculation being linked to a woman keeping her name. She asked: “What does it mean to be less of a man anyway? That statement as a whole has so many problematic connotations.”

There is no clear answer to the issue of women changing their names and feminism; every individual will have their own personal reasons for reaching a decision. It is likely that this decision will be shaped by societal factors, such as Laura’s Christian faith or Maryam’s Egyptian culture, although the rising number of women keeping their maiden names suggests more women are challenging the norms of their society.

Ultimately, any decision a woman makes with freedom of choice can be empowering; feminism does not mean that every woman follows the same rules, but that every woman has the option to follow any rules, if they so wish.

Maryam concluded:

“I would never pass judgement on what it means to be a ‘good’ feminist because I feel like that is something that the enemies of feminism can use to divide us.

If you are a self-proclaimed feminist, and you are not passing negative judgement on other women based on your understanding of what is right and wrong, then you are a welcome member of the feminist family.”

In other words, as Emma Watson said, “feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women”.

This article was written by Tatum Summers