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A name of one’s own: identity, choice and performance in marital relationships

Wilson, Rebekah (2009) A name of one’s own: identity, choice and performance in marital relationships. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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With its origins in sociological debates about individualisation, personalisation and the transformation of intimacy, this research explores the long-neglected subject of the surnames of married women. Drawing on in-depth biographical interviews with 30 married or once-married women, respondents are found to engage in complex negotiations with cultural assumptions about wifehood, motherhood and the family when called to change surnames upon marriage. Through their interviews, women account for their surname ‘choice’ via a range of, often-contradictory, discourses – thereby identifying marital naming as an issue of tension and struggle for wives, as well as for women considering marriage. Their ‘talk’ frequently calls upon debates of social stability and change, as well as ideas of autonomy and connectedness. Overall, their narratives speak of social control and a dominant institutional structure in life – and women either accepted the norms of naming or dealt with the consequences. This finding was underscored by the responses of 453 people to a street survey. For interviewees, the opposing role of surnames in marking out both individual identity and social connections led to conflicts. Relational identities were often placed in opposition to autonomy. Yet, women more frequently positioned themselves as interdependent negotiators rather than autonomous agents. For interviewees, surname ‘choices’ were imbued with social meanings and were not rated equally – their choice of surname either ‘displayed’ that they were ‘doing gender well’ or ‘doing gender poorly’. However, discussions of gender were largely absent or neutralised in the interviewees’ accounts, while women who kept their maiden names spoke about feeling the need to silence their naming decision. The research concludes that marital naming forms part of women’s exhaustive efforts at ‘relationship work’. Married women were accountable for their surnames as assumptions of marital naming were found to pervade notions about wifehood. Whatever surname an interviewee decided upon, she was responsible for conducting a gendered and classed performance, and her surname ‘choices’ involved both personal sacrifices and gains.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2009 Rebekah Wilson
Library of Congress subject classification: H Social Sciences > HQ The family. Marriage. Woman
Sets: Departments > Gender Institute
Supervisor: Gill, Rosalind

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