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 fiancé’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 fiancé: 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?