Election 2016

Women Taking Their Husbands' Last Names Is Antiquated Biblical Misogyny—Why Is It so Often Unchallenged?

Will young women look to Hillary Clinton and take their husbands' names—or is there a necessary fight to be somebody, not just Mrs. Somebody?

Photo Credit: Trevor Collens / Shutterstock.com

Imagine a female presidential candidate whose name reminds people of her independent existence rather than her marital status.

Plug your ears, people. —I need to scream. HILLARY CLINTON’S HUSBAND IS NOT RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT! And if it wasn’t for an archaic tradition that pressures a woman to take her husband’s last name so that everyone knows who owns her pussy, our current presidential contest would be Hillary Rodham against Donald Trump.

As things are, much of America appears to think Bill Clinton is up for a third term—that Hillary in the Oval Office is really a back door to Bill, aka the Clintons, in the Oval office. The radical notion that Hillary, despite being married to a powerful man, might have her own ideas and might plan to serve as president on her own terms, is apparently inconceivable to many. And her last name doesn’t help.

If women ever needed proof that many men still think of us as appendages and that many women, conditioned by culture and religion, think that way too, the media’s incessant talk about Bill during Hillary’s campaign is it. In the words of blogger Neil Carter, “Conservatives have so little regard for women as autonomous persons they think critiquing Hillary Clinton’s husband *IS* critiquing her.”

And if we ever needed evidence that our names matter, we’ve got that too.

Proud to be Mrs.

Twenty-five years ago, when my husband, Brian, and I got engaged, his parents were dismayed to find that I was keeping my own last name. Brian’s mother Grace responded with dismayed puzzlement. “I’ve always been proud to be Mrs. Robert Arbogast,” she protested mildly.

“Well,” said his father, Bob. “I guess I can see it in your case. You probably have a professional reputation at this point, and people know you as Dr. Tarico.” We accepted Bob’s logic, but really, Grace’s comment was more to the point. I didn’t want to be Mrs. Brian Arbogast. I had every intention of being me. Also, I liked my Italian heritage. I liked the ring of Tarico. I liked the fact that the only people I knew who shared my last name were my own relatives, who I had known and loved since birth.

Most Americans think of a woman’s name change as one of the sweet if archaic rituals that bind husband and wife, a way of saying to the world that a couple has made a real, long-term commitment to each other. It’s just part and parcel of the wedding tradition. A white dress to symbolize virginity. Something borrowed, something blue. Till death do us part. Sugary cake. And a new name for the bride.

Since keeping your own name violates tradition, it can seem selfish or excessively clear-headed—like writing a pre-nup or maintaining separate bank accounts, or acknowledging the possibility that this marriage, like all others, comes with no guarantees. If you don’t want to change your name, maybe you’re not all in. Besides, sharing a name is practical. You know what to call the kids.

Except that men aren't expected to do it. Why? For the same reasons I declined to be Mrs. Brian Arbogast instead of Valerie Tarico. And nobody ever dings them for it or questions their lack of commitment.

Occasionally a thoroughly modern man does change his name when he gets married. I know a couple, the Marklyns, who created a last name together which they then gave to their children. Brian and I talked about doing the same—taking the Arbo (widely used as a nickname in his family), and the rico (my familiar Italian ending) to create a name that represented both of us and our partnership. But he thought about it and decided he didn’t want to—even though we did go on to give the hybrid to our two daughters and took considerable flack for it from the older man who issues their passports. Do you know how much trouble this is going to cause?

Women as appendages and possessions in the Bible

The tradition of a woman changing her name may be something people associate with wedding roses, but those roses have thorns—as Hillary Rodham Clinton is now experiencing—and they are rooted in rot. In the Iron Age worldview of the Bible writers, a woman was literally property of her father and could be sold as a slave, traded for goats, or used as a human sacrifice. Jephthah, who turns his daughter into a burnt offering, is listed in the New Testament as a great man of faith. Until a man handed off his daughter to another man, the prerogatives were his alone.

Nowhere does the Bible say that a woman’s consent is needed before marriage or sexual contact. In fact, Yahweh condones all manner of sexual unions that lack female consent, often blessing them with the birth of baby boys. A women could be taken (sexually) as booty of war—along with livestock and other tangible assets—as long as her new owner completed purification rituals. If a man raped a Hebrew woman, he could be forced to buy and keep the damaged goods. If a woman consented to premarital sex, she could be killed for degrading her value as an economic asset—her ability to produce offspring of known origin. If a man suspected his wife of an extramarital liaison, he could force her to drink an abortion potion.

According to the Bible, these edicts and more come from God himself. Passages making it clear that women are chattel can be found throughout the Old Testament, and they are never recanted in the New Testament, where women continue to be valued primarily for their childbearing potential, identified primarily as wives and mothers and forbidden to hold positions of authority over men. Scriptures, New and Old Testament alike, gave license to European church fathers and American religious leaders to say truly horrible things about women.

Modern ripples of biblical misogyny

This is not simply old history; to a greater or lesser degree Iron Age gender rules shape the worldview of anyone who thinks the Bible is a good source of moral values. When defending Donald Trump’s boasting comments about sexual assault, conservative commentator Sean Hannity said, “King David had 500 concubines for crying out loud.”

Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who think that the Bible is the literally perfect word of God, comprise almost a third of the American population. Putting the Bible on a pedestal makes them vulnerable to arguments like this one by an Ohio pastor:

“Women and men may be equal, but I think it’s pretty clear that the Bible teaches us that women should not be in authority over a man . . . Here’s the point I’m making. With all that’s going on with Trump and everybody screaming and hollering about that, when is the last time your pastor stood up in the pulpit and said, ‘Hey, listen, we cannot vote for Hillary Clinton because women are not to have authority over men?”

Some conservative Christians see Donald Trump as a sexual predator, but even these often fail to transcend the biblical worldview. Intuitively repulsed, they explain their moral indignation in terms that are consonant with chattel culture: violating a woman is problematic because of her connections to other men. She is somebody’s daughter, sister, mother, or wife.

  • Hitting on married women? Condoning assault? Such vile degradations demean our wives and daughters and corrupt America’s face to the world. —Mitt Romney
  • As the grandfather of two precious girls, I find that no apology can excuse away Donald Trump’s reprehensible comments degrading women. —Jeb Bush
  • As the father of three daughters, I strongly believe that Trump needs to apologize to women and girls everywhere —Mitch McConnell
  • I have five daughters, and what Mr. Trump said is offensive to me and my family. —Rep. Sean Duffy 
  • I have a wife. I have a daughter. I have a mother. I have five sisters . . . This was somebody’s sister, this was somebody’s daughter. In some cases it may have been somebody’s mother or somebody’s wife. —Sen. Mike Lee of Utah

Why do men like these fail to articulate their dismay in the language of universal human rights? Christianity offers little ready-made language along these lines because Christianity fails to recognize that women exist as free and independent moral agents, with objectives, values and creative power that is not contingent on our marital or motherhood status.

From Adam’s rib to salvation through childbearing

The problem goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden, to stories in which God makes Eve from Adam’s rib and then she eats forbidden fruit offered by Satan. In this narrative world, woman is made to be a “helpmeet” for man, never intended to choose her own sexual partner or chart her own life course. When she dares to disobey and eat from the Tree of Knowledge, sin and suffering enter the world. God then punishes Eve and all later women with painful childbearing, which according to one New Testament writer is the only way that women can be redeemed:

A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint. 1 Timothy 2: 10-15.

Two as one

The words of a popular Christian wedding song reflect this narrative of woman coming from man and then being joined to him through marriage:

A man shall leave his mother and a woman leave her home
And they shall travel on to where the two shall be as one.
As it was in the beginning is now and til the end
Woman draws her life from man and gives it back again.

Small wonder, then, that the first woman ever to receive a major party presidential nomination should be one who is perceived as part of a male-led presidential dynasty. Small wonder that despite her prodigious intelligence and accomplishments, she must constantly fight her way out from under the shadow of her husband’s legacy, ideas, and failings. Small wonder that the media can’t talk about Hillary Rodham Clinton without talking incessantly about Bill.

If wives were husbands

My mother used to quote an old adage: If wishes were horses then beggars would ride. Brian’s family said it differently: If your aunt had balls, she’d be your uncle. Both sayings are meant to remind us that there’s little point speculating about things that just aren’t real. But the reality is that if Hillary Rodham and Donald Trump were of opposite genders, campaign dynamics would be very different.

It doesn’t take much of a thought experiment to illuminate how gender scripts shape who talks about what. Imagine if the press devoted as much time to the sins, financial dealings and policy preferences of Ivana Trump, Marla Maples and Melania Trump as they do Bill Clinton. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? Imagine if, instead of a headline comparing Donald and Bill, the Washington Post headline asked: Who is worse, Melania Trump or Bill Clinton?

Do I hear a protest—perhaps that the views and sex lives of these women aren’t particularly relevant? Maybe you’re thinking that they aren’t powerful and smart as Bill and for all we know they don’t even have policy ideas. Maybe you’re thinking they aren’t sexually unboundaried like Bill. Not that journalists have investigated their sex lives thoroughly, but aren’t we taught that only men use power and money to get sex, while women use sex to get money?

Or imagine if, during Ronald Reagan’s campaign, the focus had been on Nancy’s infatuation with astrology. Is the thought of Ronald Reagan taking cues from Nancy and her astrologer ridiculous? Was Mrs. Reagan too small and ditsy to worry about? Was Barbara Bush too much of a proper lady? And who can even remember Mrs. Jimmy Carter, Mrs. Gerald Ford or Mrs. Richard Nixon?

I think I’ve made my point: Try to deny that the country’s newfound obsession with the character and potential influence of presidential spouses is sexist, and you just dig the hole deeper.

Not Mrs. Somebody, just somebody

Hillary Rodham kept her name when she and Bill got married in 1975. But this became an issue during her husband’s gubernatorial campaigns in Arkansas. The Republican who defeated Bill in 1980 made a point of telling voters that his wife was Mrs. Frank White. Hillary conceded, and when Bill ran again in 1982, she accompanied him on the campaign trail as Mrs. Bill Clinton. bAccording to a CNN poll in 2006, 52 percent of Southern voters preferred the name Hillary Clinton over even Hillary Rodham Clinton. CNN’s polling director called it a matter of “class and tradition.”

What if she had held out? The leftover remnants of traditional chattel culture, which are strongest in the South, see woman as an extension of her husband—including her name. For Hillary Rodham Clinton, this has created an impossible bind. Without the name change, she might not be on a path to become the next president of the United States. Then again, the right would have a harder time turning loathing for Bill Clinton into loathing for Hillary Rodham, reinforcing for all the world the notion that a woman and her husband are one being.

As an older woman who is watching the current political circus play out with a mixture of disgust and dismay, I hope young women are watching too and listening well. And I hope one thing they hear is this: Keep your own name. Or make one up. Or fine, do whatever you want, but just don’t expect that becoming Mrs. Somebody will bring you sweetness and roses without a flowerbed full of shit. One day we’ll have a female presidential candidate—and then a president—whose name reminds people of her independent existence rather than her marital status. That day can’t come soon enough.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington, and the founder of Wisdom Commons. She is the author of "Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light" and "Deas and Other Imaginings." Her articles can be found at valerietarico.com.

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