Monday, October 26, 2009

Changing Last Names

Over at Feministe, Jill has tackled the idea that women should change their names upon marriage in The Name Game. I like the piece a lot, probably because I agree with it wholeheartedly.

There are any number of unfeminist choices I make on any given day. I wear high heels a lot. That is partially because I have always walked on my toes, so having high heels takes away from my weirdness when I'm in a professional environment. But it is also partially because I like high heels; I like the different styles and I like how they look with skirts, and I like the few extra inches they give me. And yet, all of those things I like about high heels doesn't stop my continued wearing of them to be an unfeminist choice.

But getting married, changing my name, are not unfeminist choices on my list. At the moment, I'm not for getting married. Weddings, and their cost, kind of freak me out. It isn't that I don't like being the center of attention. I so do. It isn't that I don't like pouffy dresses. I like 'em a lot. It isn't that I don't like fancy parties with dancing and sit down dinners. All of those things are cool, too. But what I don't like is the idea that participating in a ritual somehow makes my relationship more meaningful than it was the day, week, or month before.

But if I were to ever get married, I wouldn't change my name. I'm a big fan of my name. I like the people who have my last name. I like the life I've had with it. I like how my first and last names go together. I like that people can find me with it.

But more than that, there is this nagging thought in the back of my head, and it is best summed up in this comment by Another Jill on the (long, long) Feministe thread:
more than that– there are some compromises that aren’t fair. Sometimes someone has to lose in order to to accomplish what both people want.
And the nagging sensation in my head is the one that asks, "And why is it that, in most circumstances, it is women who lose?" A while ago, my ex and I were having a theoretical conversation about marriage, and I told him I wouldn't change my name. He was, in a word, appalled. And at some point, I asked him why he wouldn't change his name to mine. "I like my name" was his answer. Exactly. For those women who want to keep their last names but change them for the ease of compromise, I understand that on the individual level, it is an individual choice. But on the whole, if women are the ones expected to acquiesce in this matter whether or not they wish to keep their own last names, and if the option is a completely foreign one to most men, then the individual decision relates to the system as a whole.

I'm not looking to get married, not now and probably not ever. But if I do, at some point, end up getting married, I'm keeping my name. If I have children (which I'm also not planning on), I'll want to give them my name. Because it is mine, and I like it, and I want it to continue on. I want my children to have my name (although some days, I think about playing around and giving my hypothetical boy children my name and my hypothetical girl children their father's name, or vice versa). It is a selfish desire, to be sure. But just because it is selfish doesn't mean it is wrong. Because Another Jill is right; there are compromises that have to be made in any relationship. I just don't think I'm automatically the one to make them in these specific matters. (Other matters, yes.)

That doesn't mean every woman should keep her name and give her children her name (if she marries at all). What it does mean is that, at this moment, my (theoretical, subject to change) choice is considered radical and/or political, whereas taking your husband's name or giving your children their father's name is considered normal. I want to live in a world where both options are considered normal, where there is a fair mix of husbands taking their wives' names, wives' taking their husbands names, husbands keeping their last names, wives keeping their last names, children getting their fathers' name and children getting their mothers' name.

I think SarahMC summed it up well on the thread when she said,
Men have bad relationships with their dads, shitty memories of nasty childhoods, unfortunate initials and cumbersome surnames just as often as women do. But you don’t see them ditching their names at the rate women ditch theirs. And that’s because adopting one’s husbands’s name is a patriarchal tradition, and yeah, we still live in a patriarchy. Until we no longer live in a patriarchy, that tradition will be loaded.

One reason men rarely think to drop their surnames is because, from the time they are born, their surnames are treated as though they belong to them. EVEN THOUGH they get their surnames from their own fathers JUST as baby girls do. And yet women still claim their surnames are “really their fathers’.” If that’s true, then the same can be said of men.
Exactly, and yet it isn't. And yet, women's names are still the only ones that are transient, when all names should be potentially so.

Edit-
Alara Rogers' comment managed to articulate something that was sort of there for me in my head but almost completely absent from this post, and it adds more (and needed) nuance to SarahMC's point:
One thing I would like to note is that because feminists have fought so hard to give women the option of *not* changing their names, women actually have more options in this regard than men do. The female headspace includes both “change name” and “don’t change name” as reasonable options. And sometimes, as many posters have pointed out, “change name” is a great option to take, because if you do it when you get married, it’s free and it’s symbolic of your Great Love For Your Spouse rather than your Great Hatred Of Your Dad. But men don’t typically have that headspace available to them, and that’s because feminism has opened up options to women, but no one has really pushed on opening options to men. (Largely because the options men already have are the ones labeled as more powerful or better to have, and people don’t think in terms of “you know, it would be really great if I had the option to be weak and subsumed into someone else’s identity!”… but there are actually men who would take that option if they thought they could easily do so.)

It’s never a feminist act to change your name to your husband’s. It may not be a *sexist* act, it may not be a misogynistic act, it may not be an oppressive act, and you can commit that act and still be a feminist. But it’s never a feminist act. That being said, yes, there are good reasons to do it sometimes. The problem is that these good reasons are only perceived by women. Men hardly ever see these good reasons; thus men don’t have the option of cutting ties with their abusive fathers, or escaping the pressure of being a Junior (sweet jesus, I really don’t understand why there aren’t hordes of Dude Name Jr. changing their names to Dude Wifename because my god, exact same name as your father! *My* dad goes by Tetter, pronounced Teeter, to all his friends because his first and last names are the same as his father’s, and he’s not even a full Junior. And how much would it piss off the dad that you hated if you gave up being a Junior so you could carry your wife’s name? But few guys do it, even though there should theoretically be *more* men motivated to do so, as women don’t formally do the Junior thing.)

My ex wanted to change his name because he didn’t even know his dad. But he didn’t want to change it to mine, he wanted both of us to take a new name together, and I told him fuck that noise, my name is my name. You want a new name, great, but I won’t change mine. (In the end we never got married anyway.) My husband already *has* changed his name, to his adoptive father’s, when he was old enough to decide for himself that he would rather be New Dad’s Name than Old Dad’s Name, but this has made him even more attached to his name and he wouldn’t change it for anyone. So I do know men who have wanted to change their names to escape their biological fathers, and funnily enough, neither of them took their wife’s name or wanted to. It’s just not in the repertoire that little boys are raised with.
Emphasis mine. I highly recommend reading her entire comment, as this is only an excerpt from it.

11 comments:

John said...

I'm fine with a wife not wanting to take her husband's last name, but when kids come into the picture it starts to get confusing. If both parents have equal power in the relationship, how do last names get decided? Do you have to claim it like the shotgun seat in a packed car? "I call dibs on our first-born's last name"?

Also, men treat their last names as not only something that belongs to them, but as a trusted family heirloom to care for (or a debt that must be repaid.) Admittedly the importance of a family name has dwindled over the centuries, but it is still taken as seriously as ever by many people. That's why it's so important for the son(s) to get married and have as many children as possible as quickly as possible, so that the family name does not perish from this Earth. It's even worse if the full name is passed from father to son (I know a guy who is "Dude Name the Tenth!")

Personally, I probably wouldn't change my name upon marriage unless my wife-to-be has a cooler sounding last name. The genetic and socialization lines are way more important than the name line anyway. I've seen Idiocracy enough times to believe that the smart, reasonable people of the world need to start having lots and lots of smart, reasonable babies, or society and life as we know it is doomed.

petpluto said...

Also, men treat their last names as not only something that belongs to them, but as a trusted family heirloom to care for

Yeah, but that doesn't mean that women shouldn't do that as well. Hell, that's one of the reasons I want to keep my name. I'm one of three girls. My name is a part of a family I am extremely close to; my name is my tie to my parents, to my grandfather. I want to share my name with them, and I don't want to give it up because the guy thinks his name should take precedence, or his family heirloom is more important or deserving than my own.

If both parents have equal power in the relationship, how do last names get decided? Do you have to claim it like the shotgun seat in a packed car? "I call dibs on our first-born's last name"?

Sure.

Or, you can be all, "You went through the 9 months of pregnancy and labor, honey. How's about you get the first one?"

Seriously though, I think there are multiple ways of dealing with it. Giving the children the father's name, giving the children the mother's name, giving the children a hyphenated name, giving the girls the mother's name and the boys the father's name or vice versa, all work. What is important is having an honest discussion, and discussing what the names mean to the individuals involved. And recognizing and dealing with the fact that some choices are more patriarchal than others.

But I think we do need to move toward both men and women having options with the name things, because it isn't fair to women and it isn't fair to men. And if we trend toward men and women being prepped to think about what their names mean to them and the possibility that those names may change - depending upon their relationships - then the whole who gets what name thing will be less political.

Ms. Judice said...

I didn't take my husband's name for a few reasons...we work in the same place and I was already established as Ms. Judice, his name is Biggs - and since I'm short, I'd rather not go there, and I am used to Judice and didn't want to go through the hassle of changing my last name on everything. My middle name is my mother's maiden name, which is a tradition that I'd continue if I ever had kids...although, Judice as a middle name is pretty grim. A hyphenated name may be the best way to go....

MediaMaven said...

I don't consider wearing high heels to be an unfeminist act, and you don't need to justify wearing them. Men are rarely asked to justify wearing their particular clothes, why should we?

In my office, I noticed most of the women take their husband's name unthinkingly, and I'm annoyed that they didn't at least consider not changing their name (and then they bitch about the hassle). I very much consider it "pride of ownership", a part of your identity, which is what you say. The new name is a new identity, which some women acknowledge; they take it as part of the ritual of being married, of the whole "this is a new chapter in my life, I have tied myself to this man".

giving the girls the mother's name and the boys the father's name or vice versa

Yes, obviously a discussion of these matters would be paramount. But this option to me comes across as a giant headache not only for the family but for the schools, etc. involved. I know that there are plenty of people who deal with this (especially with stepparents and the like), but this, while very egalitarian, loses out on practicality. But then again, you could say the same thing for not taking your spouse's name...

petpluto said...

his name is Biggs - and since I'm short, I'd rather not go there

Hee! I completely understand.

My middle name is my mother's maiden name, which is a tradition that I'd continue if I ever had kids...

That's a pretty cool tradition.

A hyphenated name may be the best way to go....

I like hyphenation. It doesn't eliminate either parent, and sometimes the names that come out of it are pretty cool. There's a family in my town who hyphenated, but without the hyphen so it was just two names separated by a space, and they have an awesome last name. The only trouble with hyphenation (with or without the "-") is whether or not the names fit well together.

I don't consider wearing high heels to be an unfeminist act, and you don't need to justify wearing them. Men are rarely asked to justify wearing their particular clothes, why should we?

Well, that's a whole other blog post right there, but the short answer is high heels are, for most women, impractical, cause physical maladies, and are utilized in the pursuit of conforming to beauty norms. That doesn't mean that women shouldn't wear them, but it does mean that "I think they're pretty" doesn't always suffice.

Also, I think one of the things about comparing women's choices to men's is that things are rarely tit-for-tat in that regard. Men face certain societal pressures, and women face other societal pressures.

Also, I think some men do have to justify what they wear, if they go beyond the norms provided. Wearing pink, for example. I know it is becoming more and more acceptable, but when one of the men in my office wears his pink striped tie, it is still a huge ta-do.

I know that there are plenty of people who deal with this (especially with stepparents and the like), but this, while very egalitarian, loses out on practicality.

Sure, when almost everyone's doing A and you decide to go with B or C (or BC), it loses out on practicality because the system is designed for A. But the way we change things like systems is to go with B or C (or BC) and make it easier for the next person who decides to go with NotA. It becomes about what is important to you, is it worth it to you to fight the fight? At this moment in my life (and this is easier since I'm sans kids and a husband) it would be worth it to me to fight the fight. Because the current system rubs me so terribly the wrong way.

MediaMaven said...

Well, that's a whole other blog post right there, but the short answer is high heels are, for most women, impractical, cause physical maladies, and are utilized in the pursuit of conforming to beauty norms. That doesn't mean that women shouldn't wear them, but it does mean that "I think they're pretty" doesn't always suffice.

A lot of people, men and women, do things that are impractical, unhealthy, and risky, and they do it for dumber reasons than “looking pretty”, which isn’t always the (or a) reason why women wear them. (Just ask any female who’s bitched about wearing heels to a fancy occasion.)

I was listening to a Bitch podcast today, and they talked about the apparently negative reaction to Jessica Valenti ‘s getting married last week, how some viewed it an unfeminist act. And Andie Ziesler, the founder of Bitch, answered the way she does when asked if other activities she does (knitting, crafting, what have you) are unfeminist: they are not. Like wearing heels, these are not expressly meant to be political actions; participating in a tradition or activity, be it wearing heels, getting married, or knitting a sweater, is done because the person wants to, not as a political statement.

petpluto said...

was listening to a Bitch podcast today, and they talked about the apparently negative reaction to Jessica Valenti ‘s getting married last week, how some viewed it an unfeminist act. And Andie Ziesler, the founder of Bitch, answered the way she does when asked if other activities she does (knitting, crafting, what have you) are unfeminist: they are not. Like wearing heels, these are not expressly meant to be political actions; participating in a tradition or activity, be it wearing heels, getting married, or knitting a sweater, is done because the person wants to, not as a political statement.

I don't think that is true. I'm a fan of the personal is political, that personal decisions are influenced by the greater culture, and that you can choose to do something for a wholly and completely unique reason - like taking your husband's name or getting married - and the outside world will not know your reason and interpret it as holding up societal norms. And that in turn reinforces societal norms.

There is a difference between unfeminist and anti-feminist. I don't think weddings are inherently antifeminist. I don't believe that knitting, cooking, wearing skirts, wearing make up, or any traditionally female acts are antifeminist. I just don't think you can make many (or any, though I'm less sure about that) of those acts feminist. Because just because a feminist does X,Y, or Z, doesn't make X, Y, or Z a feminist act; it is just an act a feminist did.

And that's fine. Not every act a person makes has to be feminist. We all live in a not-feminist society, and sometimes we make decisions based on what is easy or what we want to do - and sometimes those decisions are going to feminist neutral. Some acts can and should be that. Some acts are for us as individuals, but just because they are the things that fulfill us and make us happy doesn't mean that automatically gets a feminist stamp

But wearing high heels? That isn't feminist. I don't count it as an antifeminist choice, though some other feminists do differ. I think it is an unfeminist choice. I'm okay with that, because I like heels, and I'm good enough with my feminism to know that my wearing heels is neither an affirmation nor a denial of my feminist principles.

MediaMaven said...

Because just because a feminist does X,Y, or Z, doesn't make X, Y, or Z a feminist act; it is just an act a feminist did.

And that's fine. Not every act a person makes has to be feminist. We all live in a not-feminist society, and sometimes we make decisions based on what is easy or what we want to do - and sometimes those decisions are going to feminist neutral. Some acts can and should be that. Some acts are for us as individuals, but just because they are the things that fulfill us and make us happy doesn't mean that automatically gets a feminist stamp.


Exactly. I was not clear in my meaning. I included the Bitch podcast because she did a great job of articulating my point while providing other examples.

Emily said...

I've been thinking about this name change thing a lot lately, probably because friends of mine are starting to get engaged/married, and I've been really surprised at how many of them are changing their names. I honestly thought by the time I got into my 20's, almost no woman would do it anymore.

I've heard some reasons that make some sense, like "it'll be easier when we have kids," and others that I had a different reaction to, "I'm doing it to please my husband."

Honestly, none of these reasons convince me that changing my name when I get married will be worth the hassle. I'm speaking from a lazy perspective here, not yet my feminist perspective. I avoid red tape like the plague as it is, why go through the trouble of changing my drivers license, college degree, Social Security, several bank accounts, credit cards, etc? Sounds exhausting.

From my feminist perspective, I see it like this. Women used to change their names because they were property of their husband. Plain and simple. This is no longer the case, obviously- so why are women doing it? Even the "easier for the kids" excuse- if more and more parents showed up at back to school night with different names, teachers will get used to it and it will no longer be considered weird or radical, just normal. And if more kids had hyphenated names...well, would that be so terrible, really?

An ex of mine once said that if a woman doesn't take her husbands last name it's "disrespectful." I think it's disrespectful for someone to expect me to change a part of me that I've always had and goes back generations, and which (after me and my two sisters pass on) will be gone.

So, as it stands, although I'm the furthest from the aisle as can be, I'm keeping my name forever and ever.

petpluto said...

friends of mine are starting to get engaged/married, and I've been really surprised at how many of them are changing their names. I honestly thought by the time I got into my 20's, almost no woman would do it anymore.

I completely know what you mean. It is so odd to get friend requests on Facebook, and not recognize the name. I'm also really surprised by how many women do change their names.

An ex of mine once said that if a woman doesn't take her husbands last name it's "disrespectful." I think it's disrespectful for someone to expect me to change a part of me that I've always had and goes back generations, and which (after me and my two sisters pass on) will be gone.

Wow. Other than the fact that I (obviously!) completely agree with you, I'm appalled anyone would say that. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, but, yeah, I really am.

MediaMaven said...

I've been thinking about this name change thing a lot lately, probably because friends of mine are starting to get engaged/married, and I've been really surprised at how many of them are changing their names. I honestly thought by the time I got into my 20's, almost no woman would do it anymore.

Honestly, none of these reasons convince me that changing my name when I get married will be worth the hassle. I'm speaking from a lazy perspective here, not yet my feminist perspective. I avoid red tape like the plague as it is, why go through the trouble of changing my drivers license, college degree, Social Security, several bank accounts, credit cards, etc? Sounds exhausting.


I agree. A lot of women at my job have recently gotten married, and I was completely surprised that they all changed their names. One women goes by First Name Maiden Name Married Name, but most people still refer to her as First Maiden, even though she’s been married for a few years. What shocked me is that none of these women ever considered not changing their names; they dismissed it so easily!

As such, I’ve seen the hassle they go through in trying to change their names on everything, and it’s really not worth it. Really. It’s such a pain, it involves a lot of time, energy and people, and it takes a long time for a lot of things to go through.