Dr Rebekah Wilson
A Name of One’s Own: Identity, Choice and Performance in Marital Relationships (awarded May 2010 at the London School of Economics)
Supervisor: Professor Rosalind Gill
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.
Rebekah conducted PhD research at the LSE’s Gender Institute between 2005 and 2010. Her doctoral research comprised a critical examination of the practice of surname change by married women – and alternatives to this norm – by exploring personal accounts and public attitudes. Her research stemmed from her interest in gender relations, feminist thought, women’s history, social change, life-course transitions, and changing family forms and relationships. Additionally, between 2001 and 2010, Rebekah worked as a researcher at the National Foundation for Educational Research. She has also taught ‘Issues and Methods of Social Research’ at the LSE and ‘Gender and Education’ at the University of Westminster.