Friday, February 17, 2012

Oh, Last Names

This post is a part of my “Out of the Kitchen” weekly column at The Progressive Playbook in which various news and pop culture items will be examined through a feminist lens.

Birth control access controversies this week have given me enough fodder to write feminist blogs for years. Well that and Chris Brown. I've decided to rise above that bull and focus on something else right now so that I don't blow a gasket. That something else is the topic of last name changes.

I feel like this topic is pretty well worn territory and can sometimes be a big can of worms but regardless, I thought I'd throw in my two cents on the whole thing. For some background, almost three years ago, I got married and kept my last name. The subsequent three years have proven to me that while feminism has made significant strides in this area, it's still a highly contested subject. (Here I'd like to put the disclaimer that this entire discussion is super heterosexist, as my objection to name changes rests on the patriarchy of the tradition of male-female pairings. Plus, same sex couples are still denied their right to marry in most places.)

I guess before I go on, I might as well detail why I made the choice I did. For me, it was a process. I married Mr. Nerdy Feminist after being together for 6 years. Those 6 years were a critical time of learning for me and I went from a teen who was marginally interested in justice issues to a full blow feminist. My feelings about my last name corresponded with this transition into my full political identity; I started out as someone who didn't necessarily want to change my last name but figured I someday would, to someone who thought I'd hyphenate, to fully against the concept.

For me, if I would have changed my last name, there would be no way to remain critical of mindlessly patriarchal traditions if my own actions did not support this. It would be flat out hypocrisy. And I couldn't see any good reason to change my last name.

Here are some of the things that actual people have said to me on the issue in an attempt to get me to step in line with what is "normal" and my response (roughly paraphrased) to each suggestion:
  1. Why would you do that? CAN you even do that? --Yes, that's right. People don't even believe that this is a possibility and I have educated them about this fact as the very first person who ever brought it to their attention. The truth is that to keep your last name you -wait for it- do nothing! It's truly that easy. You get married and then you don't jump through all the hoops to update your name including social security, credit card companies, your license, etc. It's rather nice, actually.
  2. It's disrespectful to your new family!--Um, what? Is it disrespectful to my family that he didn't change his last name? NO? Well then I'm fine too. You know what's really disrespectful? Expecting me to follow something that goes against my values.
  3. Don't you want your last name to match your kids? If every family has just random different last names it gets so confusing for teachers. WON'T SOMEONE THINK OF THE TEACHERS?! --First, calm down. Let's think about each thing you've laid out here. It's just great how you've assumed that my kids will have my husband's last name. You've stumbled onto another patriarchal tradition and as we've already established, I don't like those. Funny though, because YES! I do want my last name to match my kids', and that's why these hypothetical future kids will have both of our last names. That's right, I plan on putting some hyphenates out there in the world. And they will be "Firstname Mylastname-Hislastname." And as for the teachers, I can speak as someone who ran summer programming at a youth center for a few years...even when over 60% of our kids have different last names from their parents, we pretty quickly learn who belongs to who. It's not that hard.
  4. You're going to have hyphenates!? That will be so hard for your kids when they're little. Besides, what will they do when they get married? Have four last names? --Hmm it seems all you can do is get a bit panicked about small things, like my hypothetical future kids learning their last names, which I can say won't be that hard for them. (Our last names are short anyway.) In fact, I'm seeing the trend here of you being overly concerned about my personal life, but because you kids' future marriages and their own name choices are really none of my business. I'll support them in whatever they'd like to do, be it keeping their own last names, changing them to their partners', or coming up with a whole new hybrid last name.
  5. Your hippie notion of what makes a "family" scares me. If it's not last sharing names, what is it?--No one has ever said this, but I do feel that it is heavily implied in these situations. I have no detailed answer to this, because...come on. We all know that last names aren't that important in the wide scope of what makes a family.
I guess I could summarize my feelings on this topic in one word: choice. For me, it really comes down everyone being free to choose what is best for themselves and their relationships. And in my case, it was a no-brainer. I could never choose to take my husband's name. Other feminists feel differently and while I will defend my position to the bitter end, I respect their choices too. At Feminists for Choice, Lindsay Marie McAllister wrote about her own decision.
The route I took may seem like the traditional option, but for a feminist it seems many people feel that I should have kept my maiden name. In my case, the change was not about living up to expectations, primarily from people who do not identify as feminists, of what a feminist SHOULD do. I changed my name to more accurately reflect how I feel about the new family I have joined. My in-laws are amazing people and I am thrilled to be joining their family, they have welcomed me with open arms, accepting me for who I am. They have treated my mother and my sister’s family with the utmost respect, welcoming them during the holidays and always treating them as equals.
While I do respect McAllister's choice, I do so because she has actually made a choice and did not mindlessly follow tradition. You see, at the center of any legitimate choice is (1) being fully informed and (2) having free will. If those two criteria are not met, you haven't actually exercised choice. If you change your last name because you've never considered anything else--it's not a choice. And if you change your last name because of pressure from your partner, your family, or society, again, you haven't actually made a choice.

My fear is that our culture is continuing to pressure women into last name changes, and sadly, research supports my concerns. According to MSNBC,
...researchers found that more than two-thirds of Americans in the study said that it's best if a woman takes her husband's name upon marriage. The researchers expected that a majority of Americans would feel this way...but they were more surprised to find that 50 percent supported a law requiring women to take their husband's name.
What could be less an exercise of free will than to have a law mandating name change? This is just nonsensical to me. Why would we ever need legislation to force this tradition? What is the public good to be gained by forcing women, like me, to take our husband's last names? I ask that in earnest: I can think of literally no benefits to doing so, and the result would certainly be a intrusion of the government on my life.

What it really comes down to for me is the ability to say that my identity matters. Everything I've done prior to marriage under my birth name is important to me. My marriage didn't change me as a person, it simply signified my commitment to my partner. Therefore, I  had no reason to change my name. My simple hope is that every other woman (and couple) introspect about this decision and come to a solution that works for everyone, regardless of what you are "supposed to" do.

1 comment:


    I'm a teacher who's planning to keep my own surname after marrying later this year.

    I do very well: a) not necessarily expecting that students will have the same surnames as their contacts/legal guardians (as well as not assuming that their legal guardians will necessarily be their parents); b) remembering last names of students, guardians, and who pairs with whom.

    I also have 200 different people responding to me as "Ms. Surname" on a near daily basis. That reason alone is enough to make me want to keep my own name. PLEASE, WON'T SOMEONE THINK OF THE TEACHERS?


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