Mrs Clooney chooses patriarchy


Mr & Mrs George Clooney

It came as a surprise, in our apparently post–feminist world, to hear that human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin had adopted her husband’s surname upon marriage. I discovered this snippet of information in a lead opinion piece published in the Guardian online and provocatively titled ‘Amal Alamuddin took George Clooney's name? Oh please – put your torches and pitchforks away’.

The title referred to the many, nameless feminists who were allegedly ‘losing their minds’ over the decision by Amal – née Alamuddin – to forthwith be known as Mrs Clooney. Nothing fires up feminists more, wrote columnist Eleanor Robertson, than ‘whether or not women take their husband’s name upon marriage’.

There are many things that fire up feminists more than the relatively benign patriarchal tradition of adopting one’s husband’s surname: the deeply damaging practice of female genital mutilation, for example, or gendered violence, sexual harassment, discrimination and the growing pay gap between men and women. 

But that’s not to say that feminists don’t have something valuable to say – or the right to comment – on a patriarchal relic that somehow continues to endure long after the supposed ‘liberation’ of women. After all, here is a modern, highly–educated and high–performing adult in her fourth decade making the conscious decision to allow her husband’s identifying family name to subsume her own. By deleting her own birth name, Amal Clooney is buying into the Western tradition of coverture, established with the express intention of legally constituting women as possessions of their husbands. 

That this once deeply sexist tradition has been retained into the 21st century and transformed into an expression of love and romance doesn’t make it right. Love and romance are quite capable of flourishing within an egalitarian marriage. And feminists – even those who keep their own names – are quite capable of inspiring devotion in men and of exuding femininity. Yet implicit in the renaming of women upon marriage is this coda: in so doing I have demonstrated my love and commitment – as only a female can do –  to my husband and to the children we might one day have. 

On a deeply personal level, it is not really any of our business whether Amal Clooney (or anyone else) changes her name; women, after all, should be free to make their own choices. But it’s important to consider, in the broader socio–political context, the circumstances under which such choices are made, and to examine how they are defended by the women who’ve made them. 

When little girls grow up in a society in which patriarchal practices are entrenched, and where few role models exist for change, they will be less likely to question the status quo and more likely to adopt the prevailing rituals themselves. Girls socialised in societies where women are respected as individuals, where they have their own identities, would see as anathema outmoded practices originally designed to subjugate them. While the retention of women’s names upon marriage is common in Latin America and many parts of Asia, in the supposedly developed and feminised West women are still choosing a practice they have been taught not to question, one which in fact reinforces male privilege. 

It’s also important to question the role of men in this custom. Many men fiercely cling to the right to retain their own names while expecting that their wives will change theirs’. There is still the belief that men own their names, while women borrow their names from their fathers (even though men and women come to the marriage as equals, each with a name bestowed – usually – by their fathers). There is also the strongly–held conviction that family unity is achieved through the sharing of a common surname, and that the surname must always come from the husband. This is because boys are socialised to believe their names are indissoluble, while girls are brought up to believe their names are disposable. In truth, every newborn is gifted with a name – whether from their father, mother or invented – and this is their birthright. 

If the name–changing decision is all about choice, it is strange that only women (largely) have to make this choice. If the reasons women cite for changing their names can be assumed to occur equally across the population – dislike for their former name, no connection to family, desire to have the same surname as the children – then surely men would make the same complaints in equal numbers, and adopt their wives’ names at least as frequently as their wives adopt theirs’. 

This antiquated tradition remains an important feminist topic, because it is a reflection of the society in which we live and the gendered expectations that still course through its veins. It also exposes the ‘choice’ that women face upon marriage as being not much of a choice at all, for either they rock the boat by opposing convention and keeping their own name or submit to the broad expectation that it is the woman who must make sacrifices of self for the greater good of the family.


Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney based freelance journalist and travel writer.

Topic tags: catherine marshall, Amal Alamuddin, marriage, feminism, human rights



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Existing comments

Why don't we also have a conversation about whether children should have to take their father/mother's surname. At least as a grown woman getting married it was my choice to take my husband's name. I did not have the same freedom when it came to having had my abusive father's surname. For me choosing to take my husband's name was an expression of leaving behind the abusive family of my past and starting a new family with a positive culture with my husband. I was under no pressure from anyone to change my name. It was my free choice and it was something I did for me. Nor does it mean that my marriage is not egalitarian. I really wish we could drop the generalisations when we talk about so called "women's issues". I'm not an issue, I'm a person, and my life is more complicated, beautiful and challenging than either side of the debate allows in these sorts of discussions. Some more respect and less judgement would be appreciated.
ez0711 | 16 October 2014

We are living in a world where corporations are offering to help female employees freeze their ovaries just to keep them - so I think surnames protocol is the least of our worries before we reach some sort of equality/fairness.
AURELIUS | 16 October 2014

It is interesting that, in the Muslim world (out of favour these days in many circles) women do retain their family name. It is certainly Arab practice. Amal, by whatever surname, is a Druse (a "closed" religion which is a spinoff from Shi'ism). Traditionally, if a Druse woman in the Levant married "outside" she was killed. By a close relative. Vicious? Patriarchal? You bet. Fortunately Amal lives in London and her family is progressive. In Lebanon or Syria I would be terrified about her safety.
Edward Fido | 16 October 2014

What a lot of unnecessary rubbish. It is a matter of mutual pride to be a loving couple who have made lifelong vows to each other and hopefully will produce children who will happily share in that union.
Tony Knight | 17 October 2014

What's so hard about respecting the decisions that adults make about their lives? I had thought that was the point feminism has always sought to make.
Bee | 17 October 2014

Amal made her choice. Isn't she free to make this choice? I wish feminists would spend time exposing and denouncing the abuse of women in sex slavery and by Islamists. These are the areas where the greatest abuses occur today. Who is defending women here? Or is it only first world causes that count?
Skye | 17 October 2014

A name is simply a name. Women can still be independent, have careers and command respect even if they take their husband's name. In Australia today I don't believe this is an issue. I changed my name when I married but that was all I changed. I continued to believe that women should have equal opportunities, that they have the same rights as men to be educated, to be employed on their merits and to have freedom of choice. Changing my name did not limit me in any way. It was simply a formality I chose to accept - my choice as a woman.
Jennifer | 17 October 2014

The comment" in the supposedly developed and feminised West women are still choosing a practice they have been taught not to question, one which in fact reinforces male privilege' is rubbish. It has no real basis.
Rob Colquhoun | 17 October 2014

Great article Catherine_thought provoking and opens up a whole can of worms. Great!
Maggie | 17 October 2014

Despite its origin in a less civilised and less enlightened age, a case can be made for continuing 'the relatively benign patriarchal tradition of adopting the husband/father's surname'. For one thing it is a public reminder to the man of his responsibilities towards both his partner and the child/children. Too often the man seems to want to act as if they are not really his concern. Also the practice could be a counter - balance to what seems to be stronger natural ties along the matriarchal line than the patriarchal. I have heard mothers, if not complain, at least comment, that married daughters and their children always seem to be closer to them, but married sons and children seem to belong more to their wives family.
Robert Liddy | 17 October 2014

thank you for your sensible and balanced writing catherine. amazing that it could still elicit such vehement negative responses.
Deborah | 17 October 2014

A well-considered article Catherine. However, I am disturbed by the many defensive comments that follow. Your article clearly explained the very aspect being commented on: the unacknowledged 'tradition of coverture' that many unconsciously embrace. Ignorance of something doesn’t negate it or its influence (just watch the reaction of the girls – and boys – I teach when we discuss implications of ‘like a girl’, that many of the girls have used themselves).
Western language and tradition are littered with sexist practice and terminology. Recognition is the first step in diffusing their oppressive influence. While Miss becomes Mrs or Ms, Mr maintains his title; it is only women who are expected to declare their status by their very name (we dropped the ‘master/mister’, so why have we hung onto Mrs?). I changed my name upon marriage - others found the difference of one letter between our surnames confusing – and I was surprised, upon returning to my birth name ('maiden' is also an issue), by how much of a difference it HAD made to my sense of identity. I guess I’m also lucky that I love my father’s name, although sometimes I hanker for my mother’s rarer ‘maiden’ name…
Elizabeth | 17 October 2014

Did Ms Alamuddin spontaneously appear on this earth and was granted a name?, or is she bearing her father's name; or her mother's? Intersting too that women are the only sex that encounter this choice in life, men don't unless they operate via deed poll. If this is a concern for a certain % of the population then we have officially dropped below the level of the lint within our navels.
Tom | 17 October 2014

Dear Mrs George Clooney,
Congratulations on your stellar career. Your work as a human rights lawyer is important to society at large. You have succeeded in a competitive field of endeavour and I hope to hear more of your work in the future. By the way, you and George know how to throw a great party and to have chosen Venice, that most romantic of cities. I also liked your wedding dress. Sincerely, Pam
Pam | 17 October 2014

Of course there is always the option of both parties adopting a hyphenated surname:Madame Amal Alamudinn-Clooney.
Uncle Pat | 17 October 2014

Progress is slow...
Amal Clooney I can cope with.Mrs George Clooney definitely not (though 50 years ago it was regarded as the only possible way to address a married woman, which makes discovering their personal name a real challenge at times).
Seriously I do think we are making SOME progress - and in fact 'upper class' cases where husband took wife's surname (to claim inheritance) were not uncommon.
But a great article Catherine that does indeed reveal the survival of some very archaic thinking.
Margaret | 17 October 2014

You're right. It is none of our business what name people choose to take. We do have a choice today. My father changed his name which I was given on my birth. I changed to my husband's name on marriage and then again to my old name. I have remarried and have stayed with my own name -not for any deeply held belief but because it is a professional name and it was easier to keep it. Can be simple. Jorie
jorie ryan | 17 October 2014

I like Uncle Pat's idea of a hyphenated surname. "Oceans 11" starring George Alamuddin-Clooney. Nice.
Pam | 17 October 2014

I would have thought there would be far more serious things feminists to worry over than someone using their husbands name. Shallow ladies shallow
Irena | 17 October 2014

I have three married daughters. One has taken her husband's surname, the second now uses a hyphenated name and the third uses our family name. I come from a family of two daughters, so the family name is lost and the same will happen to our own family name. I do find this sad.
Margaret McDonald | 17 October 2014

My son was married in Berlin, Germany last year. The month before they had to go to a judge and declare which surnames they wanted to use. All the options were open: both to choose hers, both to choose his, or to combine both surnames with his or hers first.
And, by the way, now his wife is pregnant, and they have 14 months maternity leave, to share out between them as they choose!
Joss | 18 October 2014

I like the American custom of the wife dropping her middle name on marriage, and adding her husband's surname. Hilary Rodham Clinton is an example.
My wife and I are medical doctors and she used her birth family's surname for over fifty years. When, long into retirement, I told our church congregation that she was changing her surname to mine, they cheered!
Michael Grounds | 18 October 2014

Uncle Pat! What happens when hyphenated surname person marries another hyphenated surname person and they have children? How many hyphens can we run to? In any case it is still a patriarchal name - or a sequence of them. I am all in favour of retaining family names for first names as identity preservers for females, as traditional Greeks do. As in, Grandma is called Eleni, so grand-daughter gets called Eleni. Also, being able to choose between designations is okay by me - Ms Miss Mrs....
Anne Perkins | 19 October 2014

It seems to me women face the same thing whichever way they choose to go: their husband's name, their father's name or their mother's name, which is likely to be their grandfather's name. Men don't have this decision and there is no logical reason why we should not, nor why it has to be a problem or decision for women alone. My wife and I married nearly ten years ago (second marriage for both). When we discussed names, she wanted to put the past behind her and that's fair enough. It was her call and it doesn't set a standard for anyone else, just us. Outside of agreeing on the names of our children, I don't think we males have any place trying to tell women what they should be called (and the kids can always change their names when they are old enough if that is what they want).
Brett | 20 October 2014

Thanks, Anne Perkins. I was just throwing in a third way, little knowing that the Germans have even more options available (per Joss's comment). Trust the Germans to cover all bases and possibilities legally. Whether the practice has any impact on patriarchy would be an interesting sociological question.
Uncle Pat | 21 October 2014

Open sesame! Clooney will open far more doors,than Alamuddin. This woman knows human nature and the need to name-drop.
Anita Joy | 22 October 2014

'On a deeply personal level, it is not really any of our business whether Amal Clooney (or anyone else) changes her name; women, after all, should be free to make their own choices. But it’s important to consider, in the broader socio–political context, the circumstances under which such choices are made, and to examine how they are defended by the women who’ve made them'. Exactly. Catherine's excellent article isn't about Amal Clooney, as she has every right to call herself. It's an examination of the societal context in which she and other marrying women make their choice, or don't have a choice. This is very important, because it's the same context in which women are killed by their partners, (in Australia), genitally mutilated (in several countries) and stand unequal before the law (also in many countries). This is indeed the business of feminists male and female, and not, in Catherine's case, an attack on any individual. Thank you, Ms Marshall!
Joan Seymour | 30 November 2014


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