top of page

Sexism In Relationships*     (often called "tradition")

Photo from Women's March Chicago with sign saying "Teach girls to be somebodies NOT somebody's" page25image9587760.jpg

Photo from Women's March Chicago with sign saying "Teach girls to be somebodies NOT somebody's"

* Because sexism shows up most in heterosexual relationships, this page refers to relationships between males and females.

This, more than any subject, is often the touchiest for women because it often deconstructs choices they made or traditions they followed as younger women.


As a reminder, this site isn't about judging or regulating you or your children's behavior. It's about providing information that parents can share with their daughters to help them consciously decide who they want to be and what roles they want to assume.


When girls have the facts, they can make choices that better fit who they are and want to be.

The heightened importance of romantic relationships (for girls)


Girls, but not boys, are conditioned from birth to aspire to marriage. They come to learn it is a central piece of their identity.


Beautiful, feminine girls are the lucky winners of this prize and so begins the competition for these attributes.

Because romantic relationships are important to a girl’s sense of identity in a way they aren’t necessarily for boys, an automatic imbalance on the emphasis girls and boys place on their relationships is created.


Think about it: girls date and marry boys who have not spent years preoccupied with marriage, while girls’ spend years testing out how their first names sound with their latest crush’s last name.


If the institution of marriage matters more to girls than boys, then inequality is inherent in marriage from the beginning. No wonder women so often end up sacrificing too much and more of themselves than men. 

Girls learn early that a boyfriend's looks, smarts and status give them a leg up in importance and value. This can influence girls and women to choose a man based on how he makes her look rather than on how he makes her feel, or more specifically, how he treats her -- something that matters a lot once you’re past the lusty and starry-love phase.


Other important qualities for the day-to-day functioning of any long term relationship, especially if children are involved, like mutual respect, the ability to really hear what your partner is needing, and a willingness to be part of the hard stuff, as well as the minutiae, are secondary or not considered at all. This is misguided and probably explains a good chunk of why nearly half of every marriage ends in divorce.



Despite dramatically changing gender roles, heterosexual romance is often where double standards and sexist stereotypes are rampant. Chivalry goes in and out of fashion but seems never to die and is rife with expectations of girls’ passivity and submissiveness. Girls must wait to be asked out on a date, wait for doors to be opened for them, be driven by boys, and allow boys to pay even if the girl has more money than he does. The money part may sound especially appealing to some girls, but if money is power (and it is), then paying is a way to exert that power.


Chivalry is based on qualities of an ideal knight who is at the ready to help the weak. In the case of dating, the knights are active, competent males and the weak are passive, less capable females.

The marriage proposal






You’d think with changing gender roles and same-sex marriage on the rise, the male-led proposal would go the way of the dodo bird. Yet it seems as alive as ever and perhaps even more vibrant with the recent trend of viral marriage proposal videos.


Women expect to be proposed to and men feel the pressure to make it perfect. Indeed a study of students at the notoriously liberal University of California, Santa Cruz found the vast majority believed strongly that a man should propose marriage and a woman should take her husband's name (more on that below).


Just as on Valentine’s Day when men are allowed and encouraged to be tender, the male-led proposal is one of the few socially acceptable times for a man to show his love and devotion. Perhaps the image of a man bent down on one knee signals a man’s submission and a woman’s power. Yet this is a fleeting, if not a faux, signal. Most (though not all) men propose when they know a woman is going to say yes. And women often express feeling disempowered to make their wish to become engaged a reality because they “have to” wait for the man to decide when and where. He sets the pace of the relationship while she must hint at what she wants.


Most of us think of marriage as natural and romantic. But actually it's an invention. If we consider how and why it came about, we might better understand why it so often doesn't hold up today and allow ourselves to become more creative about what our relationships look like.


According to Debora Spar, author of “Work Mate Marry Love: How Machines Shape Our Human Destiny,” marriage is only about 4000 years old and can be traced back to agriculture and the invention of the plow (as Canadian theorist, Marshall McLuhan said, “First we build the tools, then they build us.”). Before that, we lived in tribes and tribes raised children together. With agriculture, came private property and the need for things and people to work the land. The only way to get labor in 6000 BC was by stealing other people (yup, slavery emerged right about then too), or by producing the labor. Women were needed to produce the children to produce the labor.


As women's reproductive power became valuable, men started to control it. Young women began to be given away to a man, sometimes in exchange for a bride price or dowry, with the promise she'd create children for him and only him. A man who would one day be handing down his land to his children needed to know his children belonged to him. He needed to know that his woman had only had sex with him. Her value lay in her reproductive abilities and if she didn't produce children, she could be given back or killed.

The marriage contract -- very similar to buying a sheep or goat -- was born, as was the cult of virginity and fidelity.

While marriage looks different in many ways today and women have more reproductive freedom (which they must continue to fight for), it struggles mightily to free itself from the shackles of control and role division whence it came.

Giving up last names
While options abound these days for unifying marital names -- hyphenating, combining, choosing a new one -- most modern-day brides still take their husband’s last names. Below we’ll take a good hard look at what it means to willingly subvert our names in our primary relationship to a man, and where this tradition comes from.

It’s time for The First Dance at the wedding reception and the DJ or maybe the best man introduces the newly merged couple as “Mr. and Mrs. His_Name”.  Just like that the name this woman has had her entire life -- the name associated with all her achievements and social media accounts -- is erased and is followed by champagne and exuberant applause.


It’s really no wonder everyone is confused about male-female relationships. We make a huge statement when we abandon a part of our identities in favor of a man’s. We may believe we’re signifying unity and family but we can’t ignore we’re also signalling submission to our man. And if we’re willing to do that in our primary relationships, where do we stand in our other connections with men?

Women in many other countries don’t change their last names when they get married.  Women in the United States have for a long time and if you ask them why, they will tell you that taking their husband’s name makes them a family unit; it makes it easier to know what to write on the birth certificates if they ever have children; it’s a tradition.

While traditions can be wonderful giving us a sense of belonging and continuity, in this case, this tradition comes from a darker place and time. It’s based on a law called Coverture. Coverture held that no female person had a legal identity. Take a minute to re-read and absorb that statement: 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 bride gave up her name to symbolize the surrendering of her identity. Becoming one meant becoming the husband, who by law (if not always in practice, of course) was the master of her wages, her body, her safety and their children. Because they didn’t legally exist, married women couldn’t make contracts which meant they couldn’t own property or own or work in businesses, they couldn’t vote, and they had no rights to their children.


Basically, she was her husband’s property and he could do with her what he wanted. Marriage was equivalent to unlimited sexual consent so rape wasn’t legally possible and beatings within marriage were acceptable if they didn’t go too far. The expression rule of thumb has become associated with wife-beating (whether it was originally intended to refer to wife-beating isn’t clear) because there are several cases from the 1800’s in England in which men were found innocent of whipping their wives because they followed the rule of thumb by using a switch no thicker than their thumb to do it. 


Some women cite spiritual reasons for taking their husband’s name. Indeed, the bible sees a woman’s giving up her own name and using her husband’s as a symbol of a man and woman’s legal and spiritual unity. But why then doesn’t the husband take the last name of his wife? We believe things are better for women because now it’s a choice to give up our last names. Yet why is it only women who must grapple with this so-called choice to sacrifice?


While there has been progress in gender equality, the woman is still first and foremost a wife while a man simply goes on his merry way and remains himself without anyone raising an eyebrow or treating him like a disruptive teenage rebel for doing so. ​

It's no longer universal for a woman to give up her last name, but it's still rare for her to pass on her name to her husband or her children, just one of the many ways women disappear.


Even though there are many ways to put a positive spin on giving up your name, we can’t ignore what it really means. When girls see their names as temporary, as less important than the name they will finally be given — their husband’s — it decreases their sense of being whole and important in of themselves, with or without a husband. It signals their submission to their husbands, and reinforces to their own children the idea that women are inferior to men. None of us can live free of history. At the risk of being a romance killjoy, celebrating, even symbolically, a tradition in which people legally control other people seems ludicrous to me. 


Darn it - my intention isn’t to be that person who judges or takes away anyone’s choice. It’s just that the stubbornness of the tradition and its wretched history get me fired up. If you’re someone who says screw the symbolism, I don’t care, or I have my own reasons for taking his name, consider the practical implications. Changing your name means changing your driver’s license, passport, and any other official documentation. It means you won’t turn up in a google search by an old classmate or boss looking for you with important news or a fabulous job lead. Sure, it might be a good way to distance yourself from that humiliating picture or post floating out there in cyberspace but it means lost opportunities personally and professionally. 




Romantic Proposal
Feminist Parenting
bottom of page