NatWest has apologised after a bank employee allegedly told a woman that she should have taken her husband’s name – and refused to change the name on her account.
Choosing whether or not to take your partner’s surname after marriage is a deeply personal decision. Should you keep your own name or renounce it altogether? Use your name for work and your partner’s everywhere else? Go double-barrelled, or merge your surnames together to create something entirely new?
In an ideal world, it’s a decision women would be able to make without fearing or facing judgement from others. But that’s often not the case. Some women worry they’re seen as bad feminists if they take their husband’s name, while those who do keep their own name after entering into a heterosexual marriage may have to deal with archaic assumptions about their relationship. A troubling study published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal earlier this year revealed that men whose wives keep their own names after marriage tend to be viewed as more “submissive” and “timid” than those whose wives take their names, reflecting deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes towards the names we choose after marriage.
And the thing about patriarchal attitudes towards surnames is that they can often result in genuine bureaucratic headaches. This week, a British woman spoke out after her bank refused to update her account with her new double-barrelled surname after she got married – and a bank employee told her she was “supposed to take [her] husband’s surname”.
Gem Winterburn-Smith, a 28-year-old civil servant from Cambridgeshire, said that she took her marriage certificate into her local branch of NatWest to get the name on her account updated.
However, a female bank worker told her it wouldn’t be possible unless she changed her name by deed poll. The NatWest employee also informed Winterburn-Smith that it was “not the done thing” for women to double-barrel their surnames after marriage.
NatWest has since apologised for the employee’s “inappropriate” comments, and said that Winterburn-Smith should have been allowed to change the name on her account based on her marriage certificate alone.
“In this case Mrs Winterburn-Smith received incorrect information on our procedures when she presented the correct documents in branch, and the request should have been processed when she was in there,” a spokesperson for the bank said in a statement.
The spokesperson added that the bank had updated its internal guidance notes “to ensure that this situation does not happen again”.
According to the UK Deed Poll Service, financial institutions do have the right to demand to see a deed poll before they change the name on a bank account. So if NatWest had doubled down and refused to change the name on Winterburn-Smith’s account without a deed poll, they wouldn’t technically have been doing anything wrong.
However, that doesn’t mean that this story is insignificant. The bank employee’s comments show that women in modern Britain still face judgement if they decide against taking their husband’s surname after marriage. And the administrative quagmire experienced by Winterburn-Smith highlights the fact that British bureaucracy is still not set up to accommodate the different name choices women might make after marriage.
We saw more evidence of this last year, when Labour politician Tulip Siddiq was stopped at UK border control with her 18-month-old daughter because she didn’t share her child’s surname. The MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, who kept her maiden name after getting married, had to wait for her husband to join them before passport regulations officials accepted that she was her daughter’s mother.
“Things are changing and the law needs to catch up,” said Siddiq. “I don’t know why I should be penalised for not changing my name. I got married aged 30, I lived my life, I had a reputation under my maiden name.”
The MP said she understood that border control had to be vigilant about child trafficking. But this shouldn’t result in women who keep their maiden names being treated like potential criminals when they travel alone with their children, she argued.
“I don’t want to stop anything that prevents abuse of children. But what I do think is that the law needs to recognise more and more children will not have their mothers’ surnames.”
According to YouGov research, more than a quarter of women in England and Wales do not want to take their husband’s name after marriage: some 14% would prefer to keep their original names, and 12% would like to combine their surnames. This figure is likely to increase over time, as traditional attitudes towards marriage shift and change.
Let’s hope that we’ll soon reach a point where women can choose whatever surname feels right for them – without worrying that they’ll be judged or punished for it.
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