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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What's in a name? A lot's in a name.

A discussion today on Twitter amongst several feminists I know and respect has really stuck in my craw. Kicked off by the above tweet, the notion seems to be that if you are feminist, you absolutely will not take your husband's name if you get married. Lots of replies and discussion broke women into two categories: "changers" and keepers. And, maybe it makes me a bad feminist to say so, but I think they're wrong.

Yes, I understand the connotations of ownership and patriarchy behind the tradition of name changing. And, duh, I disagree with them! But isn't marriage itself an institution based in a lot of those same beliefs? Plenty of feminists still make the choice to get married. And I think that deciding whether or not to take your husband's name is another choice that a woman has to make for herself, without having her choice made for her by anybody else -- either her fiance, her family, or the feminists she aligns herself with.

And that name you're hanging on to? It's not like it's fresh and clean of any patriarchal influences either. At some point, probably just one generation ago, you got it from a man. I hate these arguments that make me sound like I agree more with established ideas than I do. Let me be clear: I 100% support anybody's decision to keep the name they were born with from cradle to grave. But for me, feminism is having the ability to make choices for yourself, and to take the same opportunities anyone else has. And the idea that Good Feminists would never make this particular, very personal, choice seems too prescriptive to me. So I 100% support people who decide to change their names, or to hyphenate, or to redefine the whole deal completely, too.

This argument is, naturally, rooted in the idea that names have power. That they connote identity. And I definitely agree with that! I have a pretty badass last name that I love, and that will happen to run out, as far as my family lines are concerned, after this generation if I do decide to change my name (if I do decide to get married). But just like I think that there are a lot of positive reasons to get married that are not associated with ownership or other misogynistic traditions, I think that it's nice for a family unit to be defined by something so simple and unifying as a name. Mostly for the sake of children.

And there are other reasons too! If you came from a family with a terrible last name that has been making you cringe for as long as you can remember, and you are lucky enough to fall in love with someone with a melodic and lovely, or even a delightfully simple, last name, why not seize the opportunity to rid yourself of that name-weight and trade up? If you hate your family and long ago distanced yourself from them of your own volition, and now have the opportunity to do it on paper, why not? What about any of these factors, or just for the sake of likeness, as they apply to same sex marriage? These are all choices women (and men!) should be free to make for themselves.

Will I change my name? I don't know! Depends on a lot of factors that I'm not in a position to weigh just yet. But it will never be because I'm sacrificing any part of myself for my husband. Because I will never marry someone who believes that marriage indicates any sort of ownership over your wife. Nor will I likely marry anyone that would be offended by my choice not to. If and when I meet Mr. Future Husband, he's going to be someone that supports my ability to make choices about myself and my identity.

Please let me know if I'm making an argument that is terribly archaic for reasons that I'm unaware of. But at the end of the day, I believe that these choices are mine to make and no one else's. Does that make me a bad feminist?


Anonymous elizqueenmama said...

hallelujah! amanda i think this is a well thought out assessment of, and opinions on, the issues around changing one's name.
as one who actually did change my name, but not until six years and two kids later, i can attest to the many factors that go into the internal debate.
one thing missing from you musings, though, is that to change one's name also serves to exhibit publicly that two people have bound themselves to each other. yes, traditionally the reasoning was different. and that reasoning is reflected in the fact that it is women who generally do the changing. but for my husband and i to have the same name, together, is important to me. my husband in fact offered to change his name, but really i didn't actually want my old name anymore. for some of the many complex reasons you suggest.
of course now i've burdened myself with a name that i have to spell for everybody, or else they spell it wrong, but at least that is a bed i've made for myself. . .

9:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It takes a lot of rationalization to keep believing that the past was evil, evil, evil(!), when you clearly have some inkling that maybe your wymn's studies professor wasn't giving you the whole story.

11:41 AM  
Anonymous kate said...

let's drink some drinks and get into this, and engagement rings, which mix my emotions like nothing else on earth. whisky's going to send us down the right feminist path, i'm sure of it.

10:29 PM  
Blogger Missy said...

I agree! As someone who has five days left until they're married, this was a decision I seriously went back and forth on for almost the entirety of my engagement, and I'm the kind of person who makes every decision in like two seconds as a rule.

I agree with all your points. I'm not changing my name, but it really was a personal choice above all else. The biggest factors were A) I would be keeping my byline regardless, so I felt like it was dumb to have two different names (who was going to call me my married one; my doctor?) and B) Intangible, emotional stuff. I had almost decided to change it, but had so many second thoughts that I just felt more comfortable and at peace going in the other direction. Plus I figured, I could always change my mind and change it when I have kids. But right now, I just feel more like "Missy Frederick" than "Missy Porvaznik" and don't feel like forcing the issue or deeply figuring out exactly why.

(A lot of people think I'm changing it because I'd be inheriting the clunky "Porvaznik" if I did, but honestly, the idea of being the only "Missy Porvaznik" on Google was more appealing than not, just because it's original.)

What really annoys me now that I've made the decision is so many people act like I'm in their camp, and try to take ownership of my choice. "YES!" with a fist pump, says my feminist editor. "Good, you made the right call" from another coworker. Dude, I'm not doing it for you. I'm doing it for me. And it's not a political statement, even if I generally identify as a feminist. So irritating.

3:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, its much more feminist to take your father's name. Sheesh.

10:25 AM  

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