17 July 2010

On Sturgeon "not taking her husband's name"

Congratulations to Nicola Sturgeon, who got married to Peter Murrell in Oran Mor in the West End of Glasgow yesterday. Gendered speculation consumed one of the pages of the Scotsman newspaper this morning, wondering:

She has one of the best-known names in Scottish politics — but marriage to SNP chief executive Peter Murrell begged the question of how health secretary Nicola Sturgeon would now like to be addressed. Would she now go by Mrs Murrell? Or even Murrell-Sturgeon? These were among questions the Scottish political class wanted answers to.

I always feel an unrepentant flush of depression when feministically-inclined friends get hitched and shake off their family name like so much dust, in a trice turning into chattel-wifies. Of course, people can call themselves whatever they like. Their old patronym may be unloved or unlovely. Perhaps the other party has a more exotic name, and owing to a desire to stand out, the husband's better serves those wagtail ends. I have Swedish friends whose fathers took on their mother's parental names. I've heard of members of the upper classes, even these days, whose wedding was conditional on adopting the name of the wife's landed family. Others hold on to  their older surnames but simply add others, united by cheeky hyphens. In some instances, it is merely the woman who double-barrels, but I've known other couples who have both united both surnames and thereby transformed their association into a new unity, equally novel for both parties. Of course, if one begets weans, eventually this virtuous and egalitarian multiplication of names risks becoming absurdly inflated. The simple life beckons. But isn't it amazing how the most patriarchal option is invariably also the most simple solution?

With public figures, too, self-interest and identification comes to the fore. Nobody kens a Nicola Murrell. Still other women I've known simply don't feel the chafe of the change and as a result can't be bothered with the flim flam and the social difficulty they perceive to be associated with the uncertain identity afforded to married women who do not "take" their husbands' names. They assume the yoke of existing social forms and conventions gratefully, not making a scene. Generational differences also obtain. We should be terrifically suspicious of these taken-for-grantednesses. After all, we manage to resist any urge we might possess to twist ourself into knots, faced with the conjugal ambivalences and uncertainties of a Mr Smith. The uneven anxieties prompted by a Ms Smith should hardly be dignified. Merely reflect on the fact that if this was a prominent male member of the cabinet getting married, none of the questions raised in the Scotsman would even be asked. The ambivalent position is assumed to be entirely occupied by women, men suffering no uncertainty. That Mr Murrell would become a Mr Sturgeon is nigh unthinkable. The gender-politics of heterosexual romantic and civil union become, paradoxically, exclusively a woman's problem.

However, I'm equally conscious that it is rather iffy for a chap to be lecturing women by sticking an insistent finger in a wound they simply don't feel. With friends, I tend to ask gently pointed questions, wonder at their choices, conceal a little flicker of disappointment - and leave matters be. I'm ambivalent. On one level, undoubtedly, how you behave and interlace across the whole relationship matters decidedly more than what you happen to be called. However, the symbolism of the thing also makes me decidedly uneasy. Women are still expected to perform new orbits around their men, transmogrified into a new married identity, while men assume the status with an easy constancy, never called upon to change. That doesn't strike me as a virtuous or appealing credo in the least. Obviously, I've no idea what precisely may have motivated Sturgeon's choice, whether she is an incipient feminist of merely a notorious figure, not wishing to lose her hard-won public notoriety. The latter implies very little in the way of feminist analysis at all. Indeed, its face could quite comfortably be set against many of the qualms I've expressed here.

To end on a more prosaic note, I notice that aided and abetted by his usual accomplices at the Scotsman - who really ought to know better - old Lord George Foulkes is up to his usual tricks. Like  a lushed-up uncle propping up the free bar at a wedding reception, Foulkesy takes to his trotters and totters across the floor to disturb the happy occasion and make a small, leaky scene. Having inexpertly parped a bridesmaid and thoroughly forgotten to commend his good wishes to the happy couple, the boozy Baron gatecrashes the wedding article to make a party political point:

"If I was one of the Scottish Government's ministers I'd want to change my name because they are so unpopular. They might not get away with it though. But the Windscale power station did change its name to Sellafield because it was so unpopular."

Classy, isn't he? Another incident for ...

Coming to all good Scottish cinemas near you, some time in 2013. Alas poor Foulkesy, I knew him Horatio!


  1. I admire Nicola Sturgeon. It's not easy (for certain legal reasons) for a woman to keep her name upon marriage. I speak from experience. :)

  2. With caveats that I'm crashingly ignorant about Family Law in general - I wasn't aware of any theoretical, technical problems that might be presented by the female party not changing her name, Subrosa. Were the difficulties more in the nature of the legal practice and entrenched, procedural assumptions that women would change their name on marriage?

  3. P.S. On Foulkes' idiotic sally, I meant to note that his remarks, although undoubtedly gratuitous, are extremely unlikely to have spontaneously fallen into the Scotsman journalist's e-mail inbox. Namely, the latter must have gone fishing for them.

    What's more, it is my understanding that such things are generally cooked up or at least involve our tribunes' flunkies. One of Foulkes' parliamentary moscas being, to the best of my knowledge, none other than Kezia Dugdale. I could be mistaken, of course. I've no intricate knowledge of her precise Foulkes-facilitating functions but...