Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Last Names Redux

I've written in great detail about my personal choice to not change my last name when I married. It was a really important decision for me and one that I made after lots of detailed consideration. So when I see someone talking negatively about this decision, I bristle. Especially when that judgement occurs in a feminist space.

Let me disclaimer: I love Persephone Magazine. A lot. It's a great community and a great blog full of fun feminism. But today they ran a piece about last name changes that made my head spin. New author, January, had this to say about the topic:

As a young lawyer, I adamantly did not want to take my fiancĂ©’s last name. I wanted my identity and my career to remain intact and separate from his. Fast-forward a few years later to a different fiancĂ©: I was giddy at the prospect of waiting on line at the DMV to get my husband’s surname emblazoned on my driver’s license. What changed?
 On the surface, I thought it was simply because my husband’s last name was monosyllabic like my maiden name. The ring of my name did not change. A deeper examination revealed that I was beginning a different phase of my life and evolving into a new (and hopefully improved) version of myself. I became softer. Maybe even a little more patient. I was growing up.
 Once I was frightened of becoming someone’s wife or mother. I never wanted to become someone else’s anything. I just wanted to be me. But slowly my fear of background relegation began to dissipate. I started to relish the idea of taking on the role of wife and mother. I was becoming aware of my true identity and, ultimately, my place in the universe. A transition such as this is often fraught with angst and fear as one struggles to pull away from the person formerly known as “me.” 
Consistently viewing this tradition as harmful to a woman’s individual identity is antiquated. Instead, the return to tradition should be celebrated as a marker of the strength of feminist ideals and achievements while simultaneously honoring family values.
 Women in America are successful...Professional women do not have time to focus on a symbolic gesture when this world has entrusted us with more important tasks. Women make discoveries in science and technology. Women mold our society with legal opinions and social commentary. Women produce legislation. Women color our world with art while providing the soundtrack to the stories we write.
 While doing all this, they continue to define our future as nurturing mothers. It is precisely because of this ability to create and nurture as applied to their roles in American society that women have also made more choice for themselves.
 When a newly engaged woman starts thinking about her surname, she has many options. Not only is it a testament to honor and tradition that modern women are adopting husbands’ surnames, it is also a wink and a nod to the notion that a woman’s identity inevitably becomes entangled with her husband’s. Instead, she can continue her life’s work while gracefully fashioning a coexistent life as a wife and mother. If power is choice, then the feminist name game proves just how powerful women are.
[Emphasis mine.]

To put my objections to what January has written here most succinctly: WTF?

To expand, I take a number of issues with the basic premises shared here. (I'm going to be borrowing some from the comment I left on the post.)

1. There is still a load of privilege given to women who conform to name changes. It's still considered the standard. I know this because not doing so is a choice that I am forced to justify by random inquiring strangers and new acquaintances at least once a week.

2. There is nothing more mature about changing your last name or, for that matter, choosing wife/motherhood. The first excerpt implies that getting comfortable with a name change comes with maturity and the preparedness of becoming a wife/mother. If that was the case for you personally, great, but there is no reason to extrapolate this to other women. There was nothing immature or fearful about my choice to keep my last name. And you can certainly be a mature person without ever wanting to be a wife or mother.

3. One person's "symbolism" is another person's extremely important choice. This sentence: “Professional women do not have time to focus on a symbolic gesture when this world has entrusted us with more important tasks” really strikes a condescending chord with me for those of us who do not consider name changes a “symbolic gesture” but something we feel passionately about. As a professional woman who is working every day to ensure that girls have less obstacles and more opportunities than I, I can say that I absolutely have the time to focus on something like this, while simultaneously focusing on those “more important tasks.” And who gets to decide what's important and what is not? If this is not an important topic, why devote a whole blog entry to it? Why not just make your choice and move on? It's very odd to me. It just ends up making me feel like January is working desperately to defend her choice and I'm not sure why.

4. Again, every choice is not automatically feminist. I do not follow the connotation that returning to traditional name choices is feminist. Choosing to change your name is fine--it’s something each woman can do or not do, but just because a woman makes a choice, doesn’t make it inherently feminist. Many things in our society are deeply rooted in patriarchy and we can acknowledge that. I'm not here to judge women who do change their last names, are stay at home moms, etc. In fact, I hope women do what works best for them. But I won't call their actions necessarily feminist. It doesn't make it bad or wrong...just not feminist when you take into account the cultural context.

5. This is not actually a choice for many women. In my experience, my peers are not keeping their names as they get married because they are just doing what is expected. They aren’t making a choice because they don’t know there is one. Honestly, when I have to explain our different last names, I’ve had people say, “You can do that??” You can't make a choice if you didn't know there were options.

6. I question the entire validity of the trends cited. (See the 4th paragraph of the linked piece for what I mean by the trends.) I simply don’t understand the idea that women are “returning” to traditional name changes, as if the majority have ever done anything but. Maybe I exist in a different world, but the vast, VAST majority of my peers changed their last names. In my world there was never a trend to nontraditional choices, so there cannot be a counter trend. I’m an outlier in my social circles.

7. Post-feminism is bullshit. All this talk of what women have accomplished certainly feels like a post-feminist argument, which I flat out reject. Have we made strides? Yes, absolutely. Are we at all anywhere near an egalitarian society where there is no sexism? Ha. Please. Unless and until we are there, it's ok for me to worry about "symbolic gestures" which have a sexist history, like last names.

8. I'm not convinced the author has ever considered that people might not want the same things as her. There are references to her personal process as universal. In her idea of marriage, a woman's identity becomes "entangled" with her husband's so that's how we all are. Notions of maturity and success mean being a wife and mother for her, so that's how it is for all women.

I know that in the wide scheme of sexism, it certainly seems nit-picky to focus on last names, but it is simply something that matters to me. I can't stand reading something like this from another feminist which seems to so strongly strive to invalidate (or at least condescend) women who made a different choice. I mean--do we really need more voices making sure that women know that changing their last names is ok? Is there really a void in that realm?


  1. What last name will your children have? I agree with you about the Persephone article. However, I know several other women who've kept their own names, but they all plan to give their children the father's name, with theirs as a second middle. Will your children have your name as a LAST last name? If not, why not? However you answered that question, take all your numbered objections above and test them against that.

    1. Hi there--

      First, did I say I will have kids or did you assume that? A child is in my current future plans, but I don't think I mentioned that above...If you have seem me write about this before and know I do plan to have a kid someday, my apologies for being indignant at this question, but I really dislike how it is always assumed that women want kids.

      Anyway, our plan is that our kid will be Firstname Middlename Mylastname-Hislastname. My husband and I have chosen my last name to come first as a sign of respect to me for birthing them and because we have found that our friends who are hyphenates end up dropping their second last name in common use for simplicity and we wouldn't want my last name to be the one dropped.

      We both have very short last names so this will not be cumbersome for them. Often people then say, "But what will your kids do when they get married?" to that I say: that will be their choice to make someday, not mine. I choose the name the start with, they can change it later however they'd like.

      Furthermore, I'm confused. Why do you want me to reconcile my choice to give my kid both of our last names with the list I wrote above? That list is narrow tailored at my objections to the very self righteous piece posted at Persephone.

  2. I could not agree more! Almost all of my American female friends (I'm originally from Iceland, where women do not change their last names and in fact we don't generally have family names, it's a different naming system) changed their names to their husbands' names when they got married. One friend really hated her maiden name, and loved the sound of her husband's name, and says that was the reason behind her choice, which I don't mind at all.

    But I had another friend who listed this whole slew of reasons and tried to justify it to me, then dressed her argument in the idea that, like you say in this piece, any choice you make is feminist because it's your choice. Well, sure, I can choose to chain myself to a stove and decline my own right to vote, or deny myself equality in any way I like, but just because I choose to do so doesn't make those choices feminist. The nature of the choice you make is not necessarily feminist just because you are female while making the choice.

    The writer in Persephone does sound condescending (and, frankly, downright Stepfordian) about how she justifies making a non-feminist choice about her name. That friend of mine I mentioned also wore black the day before her wedding to symbolically "mourn" the end of her single life and became obsessed with talking about her "transformation" into motherhood (admittedly a very big life change, but she talked about it to the exclusion of *everything* else), studying her husband's religious beliefs (which are vastly different from her own), etc. Basically, attempting to justify her systematic disassembling of herself in order to mold into a person who fits more seamlessly into her husband's world.

    Personally, I'm married (I did surprise myself by buying a big ivory gown because I happened to look fantastic in it), I was raised to uphold the tradition of keeping my last name (which I also morally believe is the correct thing to do in my own right), and my husband is a feminist who does not need to change any aspect of who I am in order to love me (although I think if he could make me into a morning person, he would), and that is a huge part of why I married him in the first place.

    I'm always shocked and disappointed when I see so many (although, thankfully, not all) of my friends morph into a different person once they start answering to their husband's expectations. It's so much more than just a name change, but the symbolic action of giving up your former identity and taking on your husband's as your own is insidious and -- they really need to face it -- not at all feminist.

    And yes, as far as any potential children having one or both last names... I know people who give one child the mother's name an another the father's, depending on what sounds best with the child's first name. In Iceland your last name is your father's (or mother's, depending on what your parent(s) choose) first name, with the suffixes that mean -son or -daughter at the end. So if your dad's name is Johann Petursson (because his father's name was Petur) and your name is Eva, your name would be Eva Johannsdottir (Eva, daughter of Johann). There is a growing trend of women, particularly single mothers, who use their name instead of the father's, so if your mom's name is Margret you could be Eva Margretardottir (Eva, daughter of Margaret). So siblings of different genders have different last names, because the suffixes are different, and each parent has their own last name, and there's no question of family unity or confusion due to the surname.

  3. SoooOooOO just randomly reread this piece and if gotta say, I'm genuinely confused how the Persephone author said "professional women don't have time for symbolic gestures blah blah" but they have time for the really complicated process of name changing??


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