On mother’s names and marriage certificates

Let me start by saying I don’t just have a problem with every feminist petition on change dot org. Heck, I’ve linked to a fair few in my time. I just have an issue with a certain streak of liberal feminism, the high-profile sound and noise which makes a big media impact because even if a campaign is won, nothing will change.

The latest of this ilk that has bothered me is a petition to put mothers’ names on marriage certificates as well as fathers’. As with much of this brand of feminism, on the face of it, it sounds perfectly reasonable, a step towards equality. However, what this all fails to understand is what marriage actually is. Historically, marriage is a political arrangement, to join bloodlines. It is a relic of a patrilineal society, and by existing, it continues to keep the old ways alive. It comes as no surprise, then, that it is only fathers on the marriage certificate, because it is only fathers who matter throughout the way we frame lineage. Lineage itself is very literally patriarchal.

Let us imagine for a second that this campaign was won–which seems plausible given it’s such a minor tweak to the system. The mother’s name now appears on a marriage certificate. But who’s name is the mother’s name? Odds are, it won’t be hers. If your mother married your father and took his name, then she has his name. If your mother has her “own” last name for any reason, that comes from her father or some other male ancestor. This is how lineage works: as women, almost all of us have names conferred on us by men, save for the very few who are awesome enough to carve out their own true names. Therefore, to put a mother’s name on a marriage certificate is simply to add more detail about the male line.

There are far better uses for our time. I ought to remind readers at this point that I am far more in favour of completely abolishing marriage than I am of reforming it to make it marginally more inclusive. I think we should solve the problems which require people to marry: to preserve immigration status, to confer next-of-kin status, and various tax and income perks. Make it easy to do these things without marriage, then grind the whole patriarchal institution into dust. Stop the state from dictating how we form families, and create something beautiful and new.

I realise I’m an idealist here, and so I also offer a more pragmatic solution to equality on marriage certificates: do away with naming parents entirely. It’s bizarre and dated that, in 2014, one still needs to mention who owned those getting married before a transfer of ownership. Why not get rid of this archaic requirement entirely?

This would have more benefits than adding a mother’s name. There are a lot of people who are estranged from their parents, for good reasons. Their parents are irrelevant to their lives, so why should there be any need to acknowledge their existence simply to get married? There are benefits for everyone in getting rid of parents’ names on marriage certificates: it chips away, ever so gently, at the patrilineal foundations of marriage itself. This is also just as easy a minor tweak to marriage as putting another name on the certificate.

And maybe after we’ve done that, we can abolish marriage completely?

13 thoughts on “On mother’s names and marriage certificates”

  1. As I said to all the people who asked me why I wasn’t going to change my name when I got married, since my surname was my father’s name anyway: How long do I have to have something before I can count it as mine?

    When I got married my surname had been mine for 29 years. That’s long enough to count it as mine, don’t you think?

  2. “do away with naming parents entirely”

    Quite. And if you hadn’t said it, I would have.

    But as far as abolishing marriage; the problems come with inheritance and splits. How do you deal equitably with that? Once the law gets involved, things seem to get messy and expensive.

    In the UK, people are taxed individually. In Switzerland, for example, married couples are taxed on joint income—and thereby pay more than if they were single; no surprise that what they call “concubinage” is common there.

    And children’s surnames, what should they be?

    1. A step forward for surnames wold be to make hyphenated surnames standard. That way every child gets both their parents names and lineage becomes both matrilineal and patrilineal.

      As far as inheritance and splits–how do people who live together for 10 years w/o marriage today deal with things when they split? As someone who spent 5 years and had two kids with a partner and never married, our split was actually easier and smoother than if we had to divorce. We came to an agreement on child custody and how to split our assets (most assets were in one of our names to begin with, so for the most that was “what’s in your name is yours, what’s in my name is mine” and household stuff we each took what we wanted and gave the rest away). If we couldn’t come to an agreement on our own we could have hired an arbitrator. When our situation changed a few years later and we no longer agreed on custody we hired lawyers and went into court.

      As for inheritance, what’s wrong with wills? Whether I’m married or not I can draw up a will and leave my things to who ever I choose. Marriage only matters if I don’t draw up a will. So make minor tweaks to the laws so anyone can draw up a will without spending bunch of money on lawyers (in some places this is already possible–there are places where a video tape of youself stating your wishes can count as a valid will), and everything is good. If stuff is in my name alone, I have a right to dispose of it in my will. If it is owned jointly, then I have a right to dispose of my share in my will or leave my share to the other owner(s).

      1. In some countries, double-barrelled names are the legal form after marriage, though the kids take the father’s name.

        And, if Mr A-B marries Ms C-D, will the kids be lumbered with A-B-C-D as a surname? Where would that stop?

        Your experience may not, sadly, be typical; not everyone has stuff neatly in named categories. And so many people don’t these days make wills—even if a decent solicitor will do it either cheaply or for free.

        My point is more along the lines that one change leads inevitably to a chain of changes, some of which may fall into the ‘unintended consequences’ category.

        1. I trust my daughter to come up with a solution that suits her, just as I came up with one that suits me.

      2. My parents did that. More inclusive, but also unfortunately a logistical nightmare because both of my parents have long surnames, and my surname was longer still as a result. In order to get a passport, I had to get a legal name change because the bureaucrats behind the desk at Service Canada were either unwilling or unable to figure out what to do about someone whose name is too long to fit on the form.

        And also, “That can’t be your name. You’re single. You only get hyphenated names if you’re married!”

        And I was just like, “Uhhh… You have my birth certificate. That’s actually my real surname.”

        So, yeah. Not happy that I had to do it, but I did.

  3. I agree with the above. The name change argument just doesn’t make sense. I double barelled my name when I got married. I love my name, it’s unusual. In fact my family’s part was created by a woman. About 4 generations ago my great-etc-grandmother changed our name to one she liked more. So no, it is my name. I don’t buy that it belongs to my Dad at all.

    Marriage has a patriarchal history, but that doesn’t mean it has to be dropped. So many of the complaints about it are optional anyway. The traditions, the wording, the rings. If people want to get married they can make it their own. I’ve been to a bunch of alternate and interesting weddings that never once felt patriarchal. They felt like celebrations of people in love, of all genders. And yeah, I’m soppy but I just don’t see what’s wrong with that.

  4. Interesting blog – lots of issues to mull over!

    Just a quick point – Scottish marriage certificates include the names and occupations of BOTH the mother and father of both parties. I think it’s the same for civil partnership certificates as well.

    I suppose anyone keen to get married but peeved they can’t have their mum’s name on the certificate can come to Gretna Green! 🙂

    1. In N Ireland, marriage certificates include both parents of both partners. But don’t think that this equality is mirrored in equal marriage—yet again the Assembly has refused this.

  5. I got married, as an American in Germany, over 37 years ago. They didn’t put either parental name on the certificate — they put our addresses!

  6. Whilst all of these are strong arguments, it would be really nice to hear someone from a community in the UK that is either matrilinear or matrifocal (or both) give their experiences and opinions.
    When I’ve heard the issue of parents names appearing on marriage certificates discussed by clergy (my Mum being one), the justification is always placed on tracing family trees. But then, my closest family ties are all through my Mum’s side, anyhow.

    1. The clergy referred to above obviously haven’t recognised the biggest challenge my father, doing the family tree, has come up with which is that he can’t trace the women back before their marriage as they ‘lost’ their pre-marriage family name. The trail back runs cold as soon as they marry.Their descendents can be traced but not their antecedents. This isn’t a problem on the male line. This is another symptom and symbol of an unequal society where women are seen a someone else’s property.

  7. If marriage certificates can be made more equal, I see no reason why that shouldn’t be sought.
    You suggest that the whole notion of marriage is useless, but your suggested solution is common-law. I don’t see what you see, I don’t see common-law as being in any way better than legal marriage, OR more free.
    I’m not against it in theory, but in practice I do see common law as being far more messy, especially legally.

    Common-law is the state making assumptions about your relationship status, instead of you stating and affirming your relationship status. Marriage as it stands may be a bit of a mess, but abolishing it and keeping common-law could make a much bigger one.
    Common-law would have to cover everything, from queerplatonic zucchini partners, to poly marriages, to swingers. And provide the protections legally for all those people presumptively. The only way to do that is to assume far too many thing.
    Where I live common-law is already a mess because it has to protect people using the broadest definition, so here that you share a grocery bill could be used as evidence that you were in a “marriage-like relationship” no joke. Grocery bills, what a riot. We cover same sex-couples in this too, so this goes for anyone.
    And in theory a crazy ex-roommate could claim you were in a relationship, and because you lived together, even if you aren’t even of aligned sexual preference for a relationship, if you couldn’t prove otherwise, they could get half your stuff.

    Allowing marriage to become more modular and accessible, to be a simple affirmation of “I’m in X relationship” would solve that.
    We could make it a set of legal templates which notaries can help people use to affirm their relationship and define it how they chose.
    Making those legal notes also up-datable would be much better than the current way we do things.
    But getting rid of all the legal affirmations and having the state try to cover all things in a common-law way, would mean the law has to assume at all times that anyone you come in contact with could be your partner at any point, and then you may have to defend or prove that through the mess of splaying your whole life in front of a court.

    Lets not abolish marriage, let’s simplify marriage, and make marriage modular.

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