Just as Queen Bey predicted, girls are now running the world. Or at least NATO and the G8. If and when (God willing) Hillary takes the White House, it will be official: Women leaders will be in control of the most powerful Western democracies on Earth. The flinty triumvirate of Merkel, May and Clinton will sweep us into a new frontier for equality – well beyond what many of us thought possible in this lifetime.
Or should I say Mrs. Merkel, Mrs. May and Mrs. Clinton? For this is what we shall call them. They will be known, as most married women of their generation are, by their husbands' surnames, introduced with a gendered honorific denoting marital status.
In Mrs. Merkel's case, her surname doesn't even belong to the husband she is currently married to but a man she divorced in 1982. How very odd it must be for Ulrich Merkel, a retired physicist, to hear his own name relentlessly bandied about on the evening news because of a brief first marriage in his youth.
It's not difficult to understand why these three women (and indeed many female professionals) choose to take their husbands' names and be called "Mrs." They do so for the same reason women leaders often wear heels, pearls and skirt suits instead of, say, comfortable shoes and loose trousers. It helps to reassure people that they are women who value traditional notions of family, even if their personal and professional lives don't entirely reflect that. Taking your husband's name, for many strong and otherwise empowered women, is a bit like wearing a little sign that says, "Calm down people, I might be tough and in control here, but I'm not trying to break the whole system, okay?"
A 2000 study of recently married women across Canada found that, within the first three months of marriage, 46 per cent took their husband's name, 8 per cent chose to hyphenate and only 7 per cent chose to retain their maiden names. (The remainder were undecided, though we know that many more married women eventually take their husbands' names once children come along.) In Britain, a study by the polling group Eurobarometer found that in 1994, 94 per cent of British women took their husband's name, whereas in 2013 that proportion had fallen to 74 per cent – a significant drop but still an overwhelming majority.
Presumably because most married women still do it, public perception of women who choose not to take their husband's name is still markedly negative. According to a 2014 YouGov poll, 50 per cent of Americans still believe women should be legally required to take their husband's name and 10 per cent believe women who didn't change their name were less committed to their marriage. On the other hand, a 2010 Dutch survey found that women who did take their husbands' names were less likely to be perceived as professional, hardworking and ambitious – so the gender stereotype cuts both ways.
My question is, why pander to stereotypes at all? Did you know it's actually illegal for women to officially take their husbands' name in many countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Greece and France? This also applies in the province of Quebec. I'd take this legal precedent one step further and require that the honorific "Mrs." apply not just to married women but all women over the age of 18 regardless of marital status. That way women could, officially speaking, be on equal terms with men who are traditionally "Master" in their youth and officially graduate to "Mister" on coming of age.
The term "Ms." which is the one I use, reluctantly and on principle, has become a pejorative term because it feels politically loaded. It was invented to correct a problem it has not exactly solved, i.e., the conundrum of what to call grown women who find "Miss" juvenile and "Mrs." outdated. It bothers me that it suggests that a) I'm likely not married and b) even if I am I don't want anyone to know. The point is, women, like men, deserve an entirely neutral term, one that doesn't come loaded with unnecessary baggage.
I find it supremely ridiculous that women are routinely asked on every form and application, in countless social and professional situations, to effectively declare our marital status when ticking off our preferred honorific, whereas men are not. You might argue that these sort of semantics are not terribly important, that today's feminist activists have bigger fish to fry – rape culture, female genital mutilation and the pay gap among them – and that the issue of gendered honorifics and maiden names is not a major one facing our sex. But I disagree, mainly because when it comes to social progress, symbols are powerful. The fact that May, Merkel and Clinton choose to use their husbands' surnames sends a strong message to young women everywhere, which is essentially: "Let's just stick with the old way, ladies." But the fact is, if we did that, women would not have the right to vote or own property, let alone rule the world.
Lucy Stone, a 19th-century U.S. suffragist and abolitionist, shocked the world in the mid-1850s by signing all her official correspondence with her maiden name "Lucy Stone [only]," and waged a long, heavily publicized legal battle to be allowed to buy land without using her husband's name. When she won, her friend and fellow activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote to her, "Nothing has been done in the woman's rights movement for some time that has so rejoiced my heart as the announcement by you of a woman's right to her name. It does seem to me a proper self-respect demands that every woman may have some name by which she may be known from cradle to grave."
How quickly we forget the lessons of our foremothers.