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Remain “Ms. Individuality” or Become “Mrs. Coverture”: Women’s Identity Dilema on Marriage

It is an evident and unfortunate fact that violence against women, whether physical, psychological, or verbal, has existed since forever. The main cause of this problem is cultural. A culture that has always emphasized the role of women as mothers, wives, and homemakers, associated with resignation; a culture that has educated men into such roles for women; a culture that has always sought to strip away female individuality and identity to confine it in any possible way. Since the beginning of humanity, which has always been involved in mysteries from a scientific point of view to religious beliefs, there has been a continuous gender division among humans: Masculine and feminine.

“A culture that has always sought to strip away female individuality and identity to confine it in any possible way.”

Undoubtedly, there has always been a segmentation between both, where women mostly end up being inferior. But… why has she been categorized as inferior? On this occasion, it is appropriate to reference Jean Jacques Rousseau, specifically his work Emile, in which he states, “Perfect men and women should resemble each other in their minds no more than in their appearance (…) One is to be active and strong, the other passive and weak. Once this principle is accepted, it follows in the second place that woman is made to satisfy man” (180). Since Genesis, the feminine has been presented as a bundle of desires and passions that must be tamed by masculine reason, based on the argument that “women [are] so slow-witted”, spiritually and physically weak beings, hence dependent on men (Pizan 57).

This dependence, or rather subordination of the feminine to the masculine, was instituted in the legal sphere around 500-1000 BC, under the name “Coverture”. According to Catherine Allgor’s contribution to the National Women’s History Museum, Coverture “held that no female person had a legal identity. At birth, a female baby was covered by her father’s identity, and then, when she married, by her husband’s. The husband and wife became one–and that one was the husband” (2012). This means then, that the practice of coverture establishes that a woman’s identity is defined, for the most part of her life, by that of her husband, “[it] can only exist if it is contingent upon a man”, becoming a “Mrs” denies any kind of female individual agency (Rohn).

Design by Shiuli Jamuar

This type of reasoning explains why around the sixteenth century, women did not reject marriage arrangements made by their parents, because they could not risk being socially excluded by not having an identity (husband’s). This is the case of Bertrande de Rols, who, at the age of approximately 9, was forced to marry Martin Guerre, becoming Bertrande Guerre. She showed no rejection or opposition to the arrangement because she did not want to risk being rejected by her community and left in an identity limbo. Although eventually, due to Martin Guerre’s disappearance, her identity remained in limbo, and she lost the little social agency she gained through her husband and was forced to return to live with her mother. According to Davis, Bertrande spent several years without having Martin by her side, without having a status or an identity, until the appearance of Arnaud du Tilh, who impersonated Martin Guerre. Several aspects come into discussion regarding the various ways in which Bertrande could have realized the impersonation of her husband, but she put the situation of her lack of identity and social agency on a scale, and one could conclude that, to become “herself” again, she ignored the fact that Arnaud was impersonating her husband to become Bertrande Guerre and regain her status and honor on the public eye. 

These events happened years ago, but “can identity only exist if it is contingent upon a man” (Rohn)? Is it still expected for women to have their names replaced by their husband’s? Does this practice still impact how women are viewed in the public eye?

The expectation ingrained in society that families should share a name generates a complication by putting family and their individual identity on a scale: they have to decide between “being seen to be a good family by other people, to feel like a unified family” and avoiding “burying a part of [their] own identity” (Zaman) Today’s society still expects the feminine to sacrifice for the family, to sacrifice “their personal identity, a degree of autonomy in their career, and their family heritage”, and if they don’t conform to this sexist and well-engrained social norm, they’re labeled as selfish and not loyal to the common sense of family (Zaman).

Many couples adhere to patriarchal marriage traditions simply because it’s commonly considered “a family expectation, a tradition that was worth honoring, or just easier” (Zaman). Many couples take for granted the changing of women’s surnames, following the tradition without discussion or consideration. However, in an interview between Zaman and Sabrina Beaumont, Beaumont asserts that “the practice of taking your spouse’s name is truly one that helps maintain the ingrown sexism we see in society”. The fact that women are expected to change their names in marriage clearly demonstrates that women must conform and subjugate to their husband’s identity. What if a divorce takes place and women decide to re-marry? Who once was “Mrs. Stevens” now becomes “Mrs. Johnson”, thorning apart her past identity and once again, not being able to recover her initial female identity, her true self.

Allgor, Catherine. “Coverture: The Word You Probably Don’t Know but Should.” National Women’s History Museum, 4 Sept. 2012, www.womenshistory.org/articles/coverture-word-you-probably-dont-know-should#:~:text=Coverture%20held%20that%20no%20female,last%20names%20of%20their%20husbands. 

Davis, Natalie Zemon. The Return of Martin Guerre. W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library, 2010. 

De Pizan, Christine. The Book of the City of Ladies. Langara College, 2006. 

Jamuar, Shiuli. Women wearing a “Mrs” collar as a sign of male ownership. 7 Dec. 2022. When a Woman in India Chooses Not to Take Her Husband’s Surname, Scroll.In, https://scroll.in/article/1039134/when-a-woman-in-india-chooses-not-to-take-her-husbands-surname. Accessed 27 Feb. 2024. 

Rohn, Freya. “Why I Don’t Publish under My Husband’s Name.” Electric Literature, 5 Apr. 2021, electricliterature.com/why-i-dont-publish-under-my-husbands-name/. 


Zaman, Mirel. “I Changed My Name When I Got Married, & I’ve Felt Weird about It Ever Since.” Name Change After Marriage: Women Share True Feelings, www.refinery29.com/en-us/2021/05/10412881/name-change-after-marriage-womens-feelings. Accessed 27 Feb. 2024. 

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