Excuse me while I play the cranky feminist for a minute, but I’m disheartened every time I sign into Facebook and see a list of female names I don’t recognize. You got married, congratulations! But why, in 2013, does getting married mean giving up the most basic marker of your identity? And if family unity is so important, why don’t men ever change their names?
On one level, I get it: people are really hard on married women who don’t change their names. Ten percent of the American public still thinks that keeping your name means you aren’t dedicated to your marriage. And a full 50% of Americans think you should be legally required to take your husband’s name. Somewhere upwards of 90% of women do change their names when they get married. I understand, given the social judgment of a sexist culture, why some women would decide that a name change is the path of least resistance.
But that’s not what you usually hear. Instead, the defense of the name change is something like, “We want our family to share a name” or “His last name was better” or “My last name was just my dad’s anyway” – all reasons that make no sense. If your last name is really your dad’s, then no one, including your dad, has a last name that’s actually theirs.
It may be the case that in your marriage, he did have a better last name. But if that’s really a gender-neutral reason for a name change, you’d think that men with unfortunate last names would change theirs as often as women do. Given that men almost never change their names upon marriage, either there’s something weird going on where it just so happens that women got all of the bad last names, or “I changed my name because his is better” is just a convenient and ultimately unconvincing excuse.
Not that I’m unsympathetic to the women out there who have difficult or unfortunate last names. My last name is “Filipovic.” People can’t spell it or pronounce it, which is a liability when your job includes writing articles under your difficult-to-spell last name, and occasionally doing television or radio hits where the host cannot figure out what to call you. It’s weird, and it’s “ethnic,” and it makes me way too easily Google-able. But Jill Filipovic is my name and my identity. Jill Smith is a different person.
That is fundamentally why I oppose changing your name (and why I look forward to the wider legalization of same-sex marriage, which in addition to just being good and right, will challenge the idea that there are naturally different roles for men and women within the marital unit). Identities matter, and the words we put on things are part of how we make them real. There’s a power in naming that feminists and social justice activists have long highlighted. Putting a word to the most obvious social dynamics is the first step toward ending inequality. Words like “sexism” and “racism” make clear that different treatment based on sex or race is something other than the natural state of things; the invention of the term “Ms” shed light on the fact that men simply existed in the world while women were identified based on their marital status.
Your name is your identity. The term for you is what situates you in the world. The cultural assumption that women will change their names upon marriage – the assumption that we’ll even think about it, and be in a position where we make a “choice” of whether to keep our names or take our husbands’ – cannot be without consequence. Part of how our brains function and make sense of a vast and confusing universe is by naming and categorizing. When women see our names as temporary or not really ours, and when we understand that part of being a woman is subsuming your own identity into our husband’s, that impacts our perception of ourselves and our role in the world. It lessens the belief that our existence is valuable unto itself, and that as individuals we are already whole. It disassociates us from ourselves, and feeds into a female understanding of self as relational – we are not simply who we are, we are defined by our role as someone’s wife or mother or daughter or sister.
Men rarely define themselves relationally. And men don’t tend to change their names, or even let the thought cross their mind. Men, too, seem to realize that changing one’s name has personal and professional consequences. In the internet age, all the work you did under your previous name isn’t going to show up in a Google search. A name change means a new driver’s license, passport, professional documentation, the works. It means someone trying to track you down – a former client, an old classmate, a co-worker from a few years back with an opportunity you may be interested in – is going to have a tough time finding you. It means lost opportunities personally and professionally.
Of course, there’s also power in a name change. Changing your name if, for example, you change your gender presentation makes sense – a new, more authentic name to match the new, more authentic you. But outside of the gender transition context, marriage has long meant a woman giving up her identity, and along with it, her basic rights. Under coverture laws, a woman’s legal existence was merged with her husband’s: “husband and wife are one,” and the one was the husband. Married women had no right to own property or enter into legal contracts. It’s only very recently that married women could get their own credit cards. Marital rape remained legal in many states through the 1980s. The idea that a woman retains her own separate identity from her husband, and that a husband doesn’t have virtually unlimited power over a woman he marries, is a very new one.
Fortunately, feminists succeeded in shifting the law and the culture of marriage. Today marriages are typically based on love instead of economics. Even conservative couples who still believe a husband should be the head of the household have more egalitarian marriages than previous generations, and are less likely than their parents or grandparents to see things like domestic violence as a private matter or a normal part family life.
Unfortunately, despite all of these gains, the marital name change remains. Even the small number of women who do keep their names after marriage tend to give their children the husband’s name. At best there’s hyphenation. That’s a fair solution, but after many centuries of servitude and inequality, allow me to suggest some gender push-back: Give the kids the woman’s last name.
Allow me to suggest an even stronger push: If it’s important to you that your family all share a last name, make it the wife’s. Yes, men, that means taking your wife’s name. Or do what this guy did and invent a new name with your wife. And women, if the man you’re set to marry extols the virtues of sharing a family name but won’t consider taking yours? Perhaps ask yourself if you should be marrying someone who thinks your identity is fundamentally inferior to his own.
The suggestion that men change their names may sound unfair given everything I just wrote about the value of your name and identity, and the psychological impact of growing up in a world where your own name for yourself is impermanent. But men don’t grow up with that sense of psychological impermanence. They don’t grow up under the shadow of several thousand years of gender-based discrimination. So if you’d rather your family all shared a name, it actually makes much more sense to make it the woman’s. Or we can embrace a modern vision of family where individuals form social and legal bonds out of love and loyalty, instead of defining family as a group coalesced under one male figurehead and a singular name.
At the very least, everyone keeping their own name will make Facebook less confusing.