At a party this weekend, two recently engaged female friends discussed taking their husband’s surnames. Both plan to, although one will probably continue to use her own name at work, and the other will keep her last name as a middle name. I said nothing. Wouldn’t do it myself. Hate the tradition. Am too lazy to deal with changing official documents. But that’s just me.
The same weekend, the Guardian ran an op-ed by Rupert Myers—obnoxiously titled “Take Me, Take My Name”—in which a twentysomething English barrister Mansplains to us the whys and hows of women and name-changing. While I found his twentysomething lawyer tone predictably pompous, many of his observations aren’t far off the mark. Problem is, for a lawyer, Rupert’s surprisingly obtuse about why women are still changing their names (hint: it’s still spelled P-A-T-R-I-A-R-C-H-Y), and doesn’t want to do any real analysis of what he’s mansplaining (shocking, right?)
There’s nothing wrong with a man saying that his wife should adopt his surname when they get married. While this is quite standard practice in Britain, the history of surnames is one of paternalism, discrimination, and the handling of women in a manner akin to property. Perhaps because of this, indignant feminist friends have recently forced me to defend my expressed preference for patrilinealism.
Ooh, those feminists! Always getting indignant over something! Honestly, Rupert, if the long ugly history of women being treated like chattel doesn’t make you indignant, there’s not much hope for you. But now that you’re forced–forced!–to defend your viewpoint, let’s have at it!
While it’s irrefutable that two people in a marriage are equal, they are still, typically, predisposed to have different priorities. As Germaine Greer wrote last week, “every new generation of women struggles to define itself … There is no need for today’s women to march to a 40-year-old feminist drum.”
If, as Greer writes, change is a feminist issue, then it is also a masculist one. Men have typically displayed a preference for women taking their surname. While in theory the choice between the male and female surname is an equal one, the distribution of preferences is uneven. This may be based on characteristics that are intrinsically masculine flaws – pride, territorialism, a desire for family, even jealousy or possessiveness – but these traits are widespread, and to a great extent they may always be with us.
Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean anyone has to like, encourage or unquestioningly submit to those traits.
There lies the justification for the practice: all other things being equal, and the alternative considered, masculists want this more than feminists don’t.
Uh, no. I know you think that’s a good soundbite, Rupert, and I applaud your deft shifting of the blame onto women–we just don’t have the willpower!--but it’s not quuuuuiiiitttteee that simple. Here’s why: even when feminists want something–and want it really, really badly–overturning the status quo requires a hell of a lot more effort on the part of women than complacently maintaining the status quo requires from men. This has been true for every single “women’s issue” from suffrage to equal pay to reproductive rights. It’s not a question of women’s not wanting it; it’s a question of wanting it AND overcoming all the cultural and bureaucratic hurdles, and doing that in addition to tackling the many, many other pressing issues facing women–like reproductive rights and pay equity–which might seem like a more important investment of our time and effort.
Even among women, I think it’s easy to oversimplify the name-change decision and see it as a”feminist vs. anti-feminist” dichotomy. In pratice, it’s not; some feminists take their husband’s names, some anti-feminists keep their maiden names. For some women, taking their husband’s name is not a huge deal–after all, we all make bargains with the Patriarchy and this one can seem relatively harmless. Plus, many married women like having one common family name, and want to have the same last name as their children (like my own feminist mother). Others might be happy to discard the name of their birth fathers or families, for a variety of reasons. Myers notes that:
The choice is whether to identify with our family of origin, or the family we are beginning. That choice should equally be faced by men. (ed: it’s unclear if by “equally faced” he means he thinks men should also change their names, or if they should merely participate in a conversation about it). Straightforwardly, my bias is for the new family, the identification between adults and the children they raise being perhaps the most crucial element to this, as well as the collection of these people within the label of the family name.
Of course, while Patriarchy is everywhere, not all cultures require women to completely give up their name and not pass it on to their children. In Hispanic culture, for instance, children have both their parent’s surnames (e.g. Juana Garcia Sanchez is the daughter of Mr. Garcia and Ms. Sanchez) and a woman only adds her husband’s name to her own, linked by an unfortunately possessive “de” (e.g. Ms. Sanchez would be known after her marriage as Ms. Sanchez de Garcia). And there are governments that require women to keep their birth name regardless of marital status, as in Quebec (thanks to PSoul for explaining that phenomenon). I’m not aware of any societies where husbands traditionally take their wives’ names, though.
Personally, my name will be exactly the same on my death certificate as it is on my birth certificate, no matter how many times I might marry or how many children I might have. I come from a blended family where my immediate relatives have a variety of names, so I don’t buy into “we all need to share a name!” school of thought. Nor do I feel that women need to change anything in their public personas simply because they are married–it’s really no one’s business whether I have a husband or not; my marital status shouldn’t change how people relate to me. I also just find the custom too ickily chauvinist for my comfort. I don’t judge women who want to do it, though. I just think they should be aware of the tradition’s patriarchal origins and respectful of why other women choose to reject it. And needless to say, men should be equally aware and respectful. Rupert’s not quite there, yet.