What’s in a name?

So, as many of you know, I’m in the US this week for a wedding. Not only am I really excited for the happy couple, but I’m also excited because I’m running the ceremony. Yup – I went online, got ordained, and am now an official minister of the Universal Life Church. Thanks, interwebs!

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I could probably do a whole post on wedding-related stock photography!

Obviously, being a feminist involved in a wedding has had me thinking about a lot of different issues: the wedding-industrial complex and the patriarchal values built in to the ceremony are just two. But the wedding-related topic that I’ve seen cause the most kerfuffle on feminist blogs is the issue of the name change.

A friend of mine once told me that for him, a woman not wanting to change her name would be “a deal-breaker,” since he was the last male in his family, and he wanted the name to carry on. Now, even if you ignore the obvious fact that she could keep her name and the kids could have his, the idea of “carrying on the family name” is one that baffled me.

Unless your surname is SO unique that your branch of the family is literally the last one to have it, or it’s associated with an illustrious ancestor, or you’re royalty and it’s important when passing down land and titles, it seems kind of archaic (and even in those cases, it’s still totally patriarchal if we’re only considering a man’s family name but not a woman’s).

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I hate that we’re supposed to think this is romantic.

Now, my perspective on this issue may be a little different from some people’s because my mom didn’t change her name when she got married. For her it wasn’t a feminist statement; when she got married she already had a career, and changing it would have been a bit of a hassle. But since this is how I grew up, maybe I’m more used to the idea of a woman not changing her name as a potentially normal thing.

I think that a large part of my opinion on the name-change issue stems from the fact that it makes me really uncomfortable that getting married is still supposed to be such a huge deal for women, and just another life event for men. It bothers me that there are still so many visible signifiers of a woman’s marital status (engagement ring, name change, “Mrs.” Instead of “Miss” or “Ms.”) but not a man’s. It bugs me that a woman’s marital status is seen to be an important part of her identity, but a man’s isn’t.

Defenders of the name-change cite the potential trauma and discomfort a child will go through if his or her mother has a different surname. However, I personally experienced no such things. When childhood friends found out my mom’s last name was different from mine, the conversation went something like this:

“Are your parents divorced?”

“No, my mom just never changed her name.”

“Oh.”

It was a little awkward trying to figure out what my friends should call my mom; she wasn’t “Mrs. MyLastName” or “Mrs. HerLastName,” and “Ms. HerLastName” didn’t seem to work. We jokingly settled on calling her by her first and last names, run together into one name, and it stuck. Sometimes, if she’s feeling feisty, she’ll refer to herself in the third person in that way.

However, the only time that I can recall our names being an issue was when my mom took me to get a tattoo. I was seventeen, and therefore needed a parent or guardian’s signature to have the tattoo. Because my mom and I had different last names, the man at the tattoo parlor refused to tattoo me. We had to drive ALL THE WAY home to pick up my birth certificate.

And there you have it: the extent of the trauma our different last names caused.

The argument about trauma or bullying is also unfair to kids whose last names differ from their parents’ for other reasons. Kids whose parents are divorced and/or remarried or whose parents are gay may legally have a different surname from one or both of their parents. I’m sure there are other situations that I’m not thinking of where this may be the case as well.

I’ve noticed in the comments sections of articles on the name change that women who have changed their names can get really defensive when someone suggests that changing your name when you get married is not a feminist thing to do. The majority of the defenses seem to fall into the following categories:

It’s my choice! Feminism is about choice!

Well, to some extent, yeah. But the idea that feminism is about choice has gotten a bit twisted. It doesn’t mean that every choice a woman makes must be considered a feminist choice. It means that we should be working so that all women have equal choices, and that those choices are the same as men’s. So as long as there is a cultural expectation and pressure that women change their names, (in 2009, a survey showed that 70% of Americans thought a woman should take her husband’s name) and a stigma against men changing theirs, it’s hard to argue that this particular choice is a feminist one.

It was really important to me that I have the same last name as my children / that we all have the same last name.”

I can see the appeal of all having the same name; for some, it might feel like having a team identity. But until this thinking results in equal instances of the man changing his name, the kids getting the mom’s last name, or everyone in the family getting hyphenated names, I don’t think you can argue that changing your name for this reason is a “feminist choice”.

I have no relationship / a bad relationship with my father, so I’m happy to get rid of his name.

Names are really important (they must be, if they create this kind of controversy), and a name change can be a great way to move away from a painful past and toward a happy future. On a personal level, this can be a really empowering move, and I can’t imagine anyone judging a woman for making this choice. Let’s hope we get to a point where men who have experienced abuse or neglect from their fathers also feel comfortable taking this kind of step.

Well, if your current last name is your dad’s name, then it’s already patriarchal so you might as well change it to your husband’s.

Well, yeah. But since it’s the name you’ve likely had since birth, it’s not just your father’s name – it’s yours. It’s the name with which you learned to walk, lost your first tooth, had your first crush, and accomplished all of the things that you’ve accomplished in your life up until that point. Your name, to some extent, is who you are. And for a woman who changes her name, that changes when she gets married. This change can cause confusion, both personally and professionally.

If newspapers see keeping their names as a sign that women are embracing feminism, I have to wonder if the implication is that changing it is a sign of rejecting feminism. While no feminist is going to be 100% feminist 100% of the time, I do think that this issue is one worth addressing.

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One response to “What’s in a name?

  1. Personally, I would like to see more men taking their wife’s name.

    I’ve been married for 18 years and my wife took my name. However, since my wife is Hispanic, she uses her last name when she is in Central America. My parents have passed away, but I grew up in a dysfunctional family. In hindsight, I really wish I had taken my wife’s name as I consider her family to be my family. I have told my wife that would like to change my name and take her last name.

    She’s not too enthused and says I should have done that when we were married if that’s what I wanted. She thinks it would be confusing for the kids, etc. I’ve told her the kids could keep their current names if they wanted.

    I think she finds the whole thing amusing but does not take it too seriously.

    Like

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