Why are women still not persons in their own right?
Several years ago a friend invited us to dinner at his country club. We’re not really country club types, but he’s a nice guy, so we accepted. As I stopped by the Ladies' room after the meal, I noticed a wall full of photos of all of the winners of the women’s golf tournaments. Each one was labeled like this:
- Mrs. John Snow
- Mrs. George Jones
- Mrs. Robert Jameson
“For fuck’s sake,” I thought to myself. “They each won a tournament, and are ostensibly being honored for that, but still don’t even get their own identity. They don’t exist as stand-alone people, but merely as antecedents of their husbands — not in 1950s America, but in the present day. One more reason not to join the country club!”
I guess I shouldn’t have been so shocked to see this since there are still golf clubs in America in 2020 where a woman cannot be a member unless it is as a part of either her father’s or her husband’s membership. Augusta National did not allow women to be members until 8 years ago when two women (Condaleeza Rice and financier, Darla Moore) were invited to join. But I was shocked.
I didn’t change my last name when I got married, although, in truth, I have no problem with women who want to take their husband’s name. It’s simply the most usual way for everyone in the family to have the same last name, although that wasn’t a choice that I made for myself. I was 28 when I got married and just starting to really claim myself as an individual who was distinct from the person that I thought I was supposed to be in order to meet societal metrics, and I didn’t want to lose that newfound identity by slapping someone else’s name on it. My husband didn’t care and doesn’t even mind when he still occasionally gets referred to as Mr. Beau. On legal documents, my husband’s last name is sometimes listed for me under “other names used” even though I have never, ever used that name in any capacity, and I don’t really like that, but I do see how other people might assume that my last name was his, so it’s covering all the bases, legally speaking.
The issue isn’t with men’s last names, but with men’s first names to indicate the women who are affiliated with them. Those golf club tournament winners had first names of their own. Why couldn’t they have been listed as Mrs. Katherine Snow, etc.? Why is it still in this day and age more proper, in some circles at least, to associate a woman with her husband rather than to allow her to be a person in her own right?
In the early 1990s, I worked for one of the bureaus of the US Department of Justice in a personnel office. As a junior employee, it was my job to go around and ask each of the women who were going to be given a length of service award how she would like to be addressed in her commendation letter — as Miss or Mrs. Many of the women I asked wanted to be addressed as Ms. and I had the delightful task of telling them that this wasn’t one of the options. They were going to be honored, but not in the way that they wished to be. No need to ask the men. They were all just Mr., but somehow a woman’s marital status was deemed to be important to know and she wasn’t allowed to pick her preferred honorific.
I’m a firm believer in addressing people in the way that they’d like to be addressed. Nothing is ruder than persisting in calling Charles Chuck, as was mined for comedic effect in M*A*S*H. But when you are insisting that a woman adopt a traditional honorific, rather than the one that she actually identifies with, you are also imposing your own values on her. (The same goes for transgender or non-binary people who want to choose their own pronouns, but that’s another story). It’s saying, “Your identity or wishes don’t matter because you aren’t enough of a person to warrant that. You will do what I tell you.”
The one that really tripped my trigger was a few years ago when I was planning a trip to celebrate my birthday. My husband and I were going to a cool rock-and-roll hotel in a city known for its live music — a place where musicians often stay. I filled out the reservation form online, listing myself as the primary guest and my husband as the additional guest, although since we don’t have the same last name, there was no indication that he was my husband. I gave my email address, which is my name@gmail, and paid for it with a credit card in my name. A little while later, a confirmation email came through to my email address, Dear Mr. Husband’s Name, we are happy to confirm your reservation.
I was so mad that I just cried in frustration. I felt totally and completely erased as if I didn’t even exist at all. After I calmed down a little, I wrote them a civil but scathing reply letting them know that I didn’t appreciate being treated in such a disrespectful manner and that I’d like them to change the reservation and the confirmation letter to my name, since I was the one who made it and was paying for it. The hotel is owned by a lesbian couple, so I think it was a choice that was made by the person on duty at the desk that night, and not some kind of hotel policy, but I was still quite surprised that a young woman at a cool boutique hotel in a very progressive city would have done such a thing.
I don’t like it, but I am used to bank managers or car dealers assuming my husband is the client if we go into their place of business together. I’m slightly more put off by plumbers and the like who just assume that my husband keeps the checkbook and believe that even though I called them or ordered the new garage doors, that I won’t be the one who is paying for them. It annoys me, but then again, women weren’t accepted into Columbia University until 1982, and most other Ivy League universities were only 10 years ahead of them. It hasn’t really been all that long since these attitudes were just a part of the fabric of society. Still, I guess I believed that we’d come a little bit further than we have around seeing and treating women as real people with equal standing, and not as social children.
But if somebody really wants to be known as Mrs. John Snow, then that’s her prerogative, although I’d probably ask her if she was younger than 80 why she wants to be viewed as an antecedent to someone else rather than a human being in her own right. However, it is not alright to marginalize whole groups of women by institutionally depriving them of their own identity, just because our grandparents thought that was appropriate.
Private clubs that do not serve the general public are not subject to Federal civil rights laws and can have policies that discriminate by gender, race or religion, as was the case of Augusta National, which only changed its policies around African American and female members fairly recently, and in response to pressure from the outside world. So, I’m not saying that a private country club should have to start treating its women golf champions as individuals and call them by their own names, rather than their husband’s; I’m just wondering why they wouldn’t want to?
What’s the real upside of saying, “She only exists as an extension of him?” Maybe that keeps her in her place, but are you really so weak and fragile that you need to make sure a woman understands that she is not actually your equal so that you won’t feel threatened by her? How pathetic and kind of unmanly is that? It certainly doesn’t exude self-confidence. Sure, it’s traditional, but we do all kinds of things that our parents and grandparents never dreamed of, and why would we want to preserve disempowering traditions?
I don’t expect all of this to be cleaned up in my lifetime, but I sure would like to see some more progress made. Every person matters; every person is an individual. A woman’s marital status is irrelevant to the general public and she damned sure has a name of her own. Ask her how she’d like to be addressed. It’s a sign of respect that transcends rules created long ago, and you can never go wrong with respect.