Putting this up on a Friday evening because it’s already causing Outrage on the Guardian, Twitter and my personal Facebook account: Women shouldn’t change their names when they get married.
I’d like to skip over some of the basic objections and hopefully steer the conversation here toward something more interesting. My Guardian column was purposely a bit hyperbolic and strongly-worded, intended as a push-back on I CHOOSE MY CHOICE! feminism, or the idea that just because a woman chooses something, it’s a feminist choice or even a neutral one. I make anti-feminist choices all the time, so I’m not saying that you are a Bad Feminist for changing your name. And yes, some women don’t have a choice to change their names or not, and social pressure to change your name is enormous, making it at the very least an incredibly coerced choice. But I rarely hear recognition of that; instead, it’s just “well feminism is about CHOICE and I CHOSE!” Ok. Well, we also need to look at what’s going on when 90% of women change their names upon marriage (more now, by the way, than 20 years ago) and when 50% of the American population thinks women should be legally required to change their names upon marriage. Yes, if you’re one of the 90% of women who changed your name, you may feel judged when a feminist is like, “Don’t change your name.” But in the rest of the real world, it’s the 10% of women who do change their names who get a lot more push-back. And of course people have all sorts of reasons for changing their names and of course they’re a little more diverse than “I want to subsume my own identity into my husband’s.” But in the tradition of heterosexual marriage, that’s what name-changing was. That is, quite literally, what name-changing still is — it is changing your identity. And taking your husband’s. Also everything Kate Harding says here.
But I suspect feminists are never going to agree on this one, because it is very personal. What’s more personal than your name, after all? (Exactly, the cranky feminist says). What I’d rather focus on here is this:
Identities matter, and the words we put on things are part of how we make them real. There’s a power in naming that feminists and social justice activists have long highlighted. Putting a word to the most obvious social dynamics is the first step toward ending inequality. Words like “sexism” and “racism” make clear that different treatment based on sex or race is something other than the natural state of things; the invention of the term “Ms” shed light on the fact that men simply existed in the world while women were identified based on their marital status.
Your name is your identity. The term for you is what situates you in the world. The cultural assumption that women will change their names upon marriage – the assumption that we’ll even think about it, and be in a position where we make a “choice” of whether to keep our names or take our husbands’ – cannot be without consequence. Part of how our brains function and make sense of a vast and confusing universe is by naming and categorizing. When women see our names as temporary or not really ours, and when we understand that part of being a woman is subsuming your own identity into our husband’s, that impacts our perception of ourselves and our role in the world. It lessens the belief that our existence is valuable unto itself, and that as individuals we are already whole. It disassociates us from ourselves, and feeds into a female understanding of self as relational – we are not simply who we are, we are defined by our role as someone’s wife or mother or daughter or sister.
I’ve never been able to find a study on this, but I have to think that there’s some psychological consequence of raising half the population with the idea that the primary name for themselves is temporary. You don’t escape that on an individual level by not changing your name, although we do shift the culture when a critical mass of women stop changing their names. But I think there’s something to the idea that an understanding of one’s own name as temporary feeds into an understanding of one’s identity as less fully developed — that when women are collectively raised in a society where we get our “real” names only after we find someone to marry us, that we understand our own identities as inherently tied to someone else. And so yes, name-changing is a “choice” and people should do whatever they want when they get married and etc etc. But the normalization of marital name-changing isn’t just a long-time sexist practice; it influences our basic understanding of ourselves and our roles in the world.
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