Apparently 70 percent of Americans believe that a woman should change her name when she marries, and 50 percent believe it should be required by law. While I would expect most Americans to favor name-changing, I didn’t expect that it was that high, and I certainly didn’t think that so many people believe it should be legally mandated. I was also suprised that only 5-10 percent of women keep their own names.
I’m not married and so I recognize that this is an easier calculus for me to make now, but I have never even considered changing my last name. I don’t think I ever would consider it. My mom, like many women of her generation, took my father’s name — it’s just what everyone did, and it was easier. My best friend, who was raised in a pretty religious home, took her husband’s name when she got married — I don’t know that she really gave a lot of thought to the whole process. It was just what you did.
Where I actually felt the shock of the name-change was seeing a list of female names I didn’t recognize on Facebook, then clicking through and realizing, oh, that’s someone I’ve known since the 5th grade. Except not really, because I always knew Jane Jones and now she’s Jane Brown. Or maybe she’s Jane “Jones” Brown with her former name in quotes — because, I dunno, it’s a joke? I suppose I’m sheltered, but I assumed that the majority of my female friends (and especially college friends and acquaintences) would keep their own names. I was stunned at how many women I knew changed their names when they married.
What throws me off even more is when I see feminist-minded or liberal women take their husband’s name, and then defend it with “Well it’s my choice” or “My last name was my father’s anyway” or “I don’t care about my name.” I can understand the name-change part, even if I don’t like it — it can almost be more of a hassle to keep your own name than to take your husband’s once you’re married, especially if you have kids. People may criticize you for keeping your own name. In a lot of communities, it is what everyone does. Your husband may even be upset if you don’t want to take his name (although I’d say that’s a pretty good indicator that he’s kind of self-centered and you probably shouldn’t marry him).
What confuses me (and gets under my skin) is the justification — or at least, the justification based on things other than the very real, tangible sexist reactions that married women face when they keep their own names. Things like, “Well, it was my father’s name.” Well, sure, but what does that mean? That no woman ever has her own name, unless she was born into a culture where naming is matrilineal? Or, “I like his name better.” Ok, but do men regularly change their names just because their partner as a “better” name? I’ve come across maybe one man in my whole life who has done that — I somehow doubt that it just so happens that 99 percent of people with the “better” name are male. Or, “I want our whole family to have the same name.” Again, understandable, but how come he didn’t change his name? Or you can both change your names.
I wish we could have a more honest conversation about name-changing. Instead, women like me who find name changing really, really problematic are cast as simply mean and judgmental, and women who do change their names are just exercising their “choice.” I’ll cop to being judgmental here — this isn’t one of those situations where I think every choice is equally good and it’s a simple matter of preference. That said, there are very real reasons why married women may change their names, and I can certainly understand and empathize with making certain compromises and just not having the desire or energy to fight every feminist battle. I don’t think it calls your feminist creds into question if you change your name. But I admittedly do wish that more women would keep their names. I wish more women felt like it was a valid and accessible option.
Names and naming matters. It is bigger than just an individual, personal choice. While I certainly respect the rights of people to make their own choices when it comes to their names, and while I can’t fault women who decide that keeping their own name is not a battle they want to fight, let’s not pretend like these choices exist in a vaccum, or like they don’t have a wider impact when it comes to normalizing sexist cultural practices.
I’ve been to a couple of weddings in the past few months, some where the bride changed her name and some where she didn’t. I’ll admit, on a very basic level, that I felt a little ill when the name-changing couples were announced as “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith.” The woman was totally erased; she entered into what I would like to think of as a partnership, and instead she was just absorbed into her partner.
I don’t think I’m alone in that feeling. That’s apparently what a lot of Americans believe a name-change represents — they just think it’s a good thing:
When the respondents were asked why they felt women should change their name after the wedding, Hamilton says, “They told us that women should lose their own identity when they marry and become a part of the man and his family. This was a reason given by many.”
There is a loss of identity when you change your name. For a lot of people, name-changing in a non-marital context is entirely about changing who you are, or selecting a name that better represents the person you’ve become. It can be a great thing when it represents a personal evolution, or a more accurate reflection of who you’ve always been. But when it represents losing your own identity so that you can be absorbed into your husband and his family? No thanks.
Name-changing also reinforces hetero marriage practices — after all, this would be a very different debate if people were allowed to marry any consenting adult, regardless of gender. And name-changing does help to reinforce cultural assumptions about marriage that make the fight for marriage equality even more difficult — the assumption, for example, that the man is the head of the household and the woman is absorbed into him.
I’m not exactly on the marriage-and-babies track, but should either (or both) ever happen, my name is staying mine — and if I’m the one giving birth, you can bet those kids are getting my last name as well.
Now start the countdown until a conservative blog describes me as a selfish shrew for wanting to do no more than what men have always done.
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