Recently, The Frisky wrote about a new Facebook study that found more young women choose to keep their maiden names compared to older generations. Digging a little deeper, it turns out this isn't true: younger women may be keeping their names on their Facebook profiles, but not in real life.
But that's besides the point I want to make here.
The point I want to make is that by taking your husband's name you are either actively choosing or passively acquiescing to a patriarchal, and hence sexist, tradition. And then perpetuating it. That's a fact, not my opinion.
This is how this all came about.
I left a comment on The Frisky article:
"I never even for a second considered taking my husband's name when we got married. I've always thought that was a strange, patriarchal, even misogynist tradition. My name is my name, his name is his name."
Another reader responded to my comment:
"Kudos to your feelings, but do you tell women those feelings if they personally want to change their names? I mean, your reasoning is a bit of an attack on them don't you think?"
Let's take a more detailed look at the facts and my opinions on the matter.
The tradition of women taking their husbands' names in marriage stems from a patriarchal system of social values and norms. Patriarchy (for those who need a definition) is a social system in which the male is the primary authority figure in social organization, political leadership, moral authority, and control of property, and where fathers hold authority over women and children. Patriarchy implies male rule and privilege, and entails female subordination, hence it is sexist and misogynist by definition. In that sexist system, women used to change names because they didn't have another choice. They weren't independent economic entities - they were practically owned by their fathers before they married, and by their husbands after they married. I don't think anyone with basic knowledge of history can deny this.
The fact that some women today feel like they are actively "choosing" to change their names without being directly forced to doesn't make this tradition any less patriarchal and misogynistic. It just means that these women have either fully internalized or at least acquiesced to those values and are now choosing to publicly perpetuate them.
This is true even if they are doing it for seemingly non-patriarchal reasons. There's the: "Because I really love him," or "Because it's a new start for me", or "Because it's part of the transition from 'me' to 'we'. Yeah, but there's no natural law that compels you to express your love for your partner, or to reinvent yourself, or to become a couple with someone, by the act of shedding your last name and taking on theirs. It's a specific cultural tradition that has taught you that that is one way women express love for their (typically male) partners, or start anew, or become a couple. And that tradition is adamantly patriarchal, and hence, sexist.
This is true even if they are doing it for purely practical reasons, like avoiding conflict with family, keeping their partner happy, keeping the family under a single name, making things seemingly easier for the children, etc. All of these may be good reasons for making that choice given their specific life situation, but that doesn't change the fact that by making that choice, they are publicly accepting and perpetuating a sexist tradition.
It's like Muslim women "choosing" to cover themselves - sure, they may not be actively forced to do it, but they are doing so because they are internalizing or acquiescing to an unquestionably patriarchal and misogynistic practice. And then perpetuating it.
Please don't get me wrong - women who change their names (or Muslim women who cover themselves) have every right to do so and I'd never take that right away from them. Everyone should make the choice that is best for them given their individual, familial, and social circumstances.
What I hope, however, is that they are aware that by making this choice they are publicly accepting and perpetuating patriarchal (i.e., sexist) values. If they are aware of this and they are OK with it, then fine. There are many women all over the world who seem to be agreeing with or at least accepting patriarchy rather than gender equality as a social value and lifestyle. Those women and I clearly disagree majorly about the role of women and men in the world, but they have a right to their opinion.
But if women take their husband's name thinking they are not aiding patriarchy and sexism, I'm sorry, but they are either actively lying to themselves or they are confused and/or ignorant about what their values are and whether their actions are consistent with those values. Perhaps they should re-examine their values and actions. (At least I would if I were them, my painfully logical mind can't take cognitive dissonance.)
As a liberal feminist who believes in gender (and any other category-based) equality as the most ideal social system, I find the perpetuation of this antiquated sexist tradition distasteful at best, offensive and belittling at worst. As Jill Filipovic argued a few months ago in the Guardian, taking your husband's name is giving away your identity, subsuming it under your husband's, allowing yourself to be defined - by yourself and everyone around you - by your role as his wife. It is hard for me to understand how a 21st century woman can still choose to do this, or perhaps worse, do it without realizing she's doing it. Because I fiercely want women to be more than someone's wife, I want them to have their own unique identities that go way above and beyond their marital status. And I want them to want it and take the necessary steps to accomplish this. Keeping their own names is one fundamental step in this process.
As for myself, I never considered taking my husband's name in marriage. That thought is so foreign to me that it never, not once, crossed my mind in my 30+ years of existing on this planet. Nor did I expect or want my husband to take my name. His name is his as much as my name is mine, and I would never want him to give it up. We never had a conversation about it when we were getting married. The first time I heard the question of whether I'd be changing my name was by the City Hall clerk when signing the marriage papers. My husband and I looked at each other in disbelief, as if that was the most ridiculous question anyone had ever asked us, practically laughed in her face, and said "No" almost in unison.
But back to the commenter's question: Are my opinions an attack on women who choose to change their names? It depends on what you mean by attack.
Am I attacking their right to choose to change their names? No, absolutely not.
Am I attacking the merit of their sexism-perpetuating choice? Absolutely. Just like I would attack the merit of someone's (active or passive) choice to perpetuate racism or homophobia.
And, for the record, yes, I do tell all my female friends who want to change their names the way I feel about the practice.
You believe in name choice equality? Support the Lucy Stone League, keep your name, and spread the word.
Originally published on Pervertically Virtuous.
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