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28 Feb 2014 00:00
The word “feminist” has become something of a dirty word, entangled with stereotyped images of angry lesbians with hairy legs. (Reuters)
I wonder how many South African women will keep their surnames in 2014, or become Mrs So-and-So. While “Miss” is the title given to an unmarried woman and “Mrs” to a married woman, the elusive title “Ms” (pronounced “mizz”) denotes marital status unknown.
The usage of “Ms” can be traced back to as early as the 17th century, as a title derived from the then-formal “Mistress”, which, like “Mister”, does not indicate marital status.
Historically, a woman’s name change from Miss to Mrs Somebody Else was no more a signifier of an exchange of property from her father to her husband.
A favourite schoolgirls’ pastime is the surname matching game. Pick a boy and place his surname with your first name to see if it “goes”. If it doesn’t “go”, you are not destined to be together, so you move on until you find a name that rings, then proceed to giggle whenever he’s within your visual parameters.
My mother and my aunts kept their surname when they married, and so I found the schoolgirl fantasy game bizarre. I knew a few other kids, maybe five in a class of 25, whose mothers’ surname was different from theirs. Our mothers were considered strange by our peers, other mothers and our teachers, who automatically addressed our mothers as “Mrs So-and-So”. Our mothers would correct them.
Fast-forward more than a decade later, and the “norm” of women taking their husbands’ surname is no longer taken for granted. According to statistics from the United Kingdom, one in three new brides will keep her birth name, with only 62% of wives in their 20s opting to take their husband’s name. This rises to 74% for women in their 30s and 88% for those in their 60s. I have no idea of what the statistics are for South African women, but I suspect that we’re not far behind.
In 1921, the Lucy Stone League was founded as the first women’s rights group to fight for women to be allowed to legally keep their birth name after marriage: “A wife should no more take her husband’s name than he should hers. My name is my identity and must not be lost.”
The league arose during the women’s suffrage movement.
History has seen some incredible changes dating back to the late 19th and early 20th century, later termed the “first wave” of feminism; the vote was the biggest issue. In the “second wave” of the 1970s and 1980s, the focus shifted to the right to self-determination and economic freedom.
Today, however, the word “feminist” has become something of a dirty word, entangled with stereotyped images of angry lesbians with hairy legs; man-haters, baby-haters, career-women and women who need to demonstrate they are better than men.
At the root of the problem of the fluidly contested ambiguity of “feminism” lies in a claim made by gender theorist Joan Scott: “Those who would codify the meaning of words fight a losing battle, for words, like ideas and things they are meant to signify, have a history”.
This leaves us in a mess with problems of displacement presupposed by a false sisterhood upholding universal women’s interests. Outside of academic circles, alas, feminism is regarded as a joke.
One of the reasons for the problems with “feminism” is that we don’t have a fixed meaning for it. Yet it is underpinned by the concept of the right to self-determination, the cardinal principle in modern international law. This advocates freedom from external coercion; it promotes political, social and economic freedoms on the grounds that one is free to determine one’s own life course.
Perhaps the negative association of the word “feminism” and the reluctance of women today to self-identify as a feminist can be attributed to a lack of the coherent vision the movement once expressed.
It won some incredible victories on the course of a turbulent history. Perhaps we need to consider rethinking feminism by finding a new way of owning it, by moving away from the baggage of the past. I have no idea what that looks like or how we get there; I just know I want to be a part of it.
Alexandra Willis is a 21-year-old student of politics and anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand
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