I’ve been wanting to write on the topic of marriage/name changing for a long time, and I’ve had a lot of reservations about it, because, after all, I know people who have gotten married and changed their names (and no, they aren’t all heterosexual). The issue actually makes me so frustrated that it almost renders me inarticulate. Almost. The brilliant, sassy Fat and the Ivy has some thoughts about this, and here’s the result of our collaboration.
Fat and the Ivy: Two couples from high school got married last weekend. Both women changed their last names. (Not even a maiden name as middle name deal.) Everyone who I know who’s gotten married has dropped a name. This makes me sad. And way less likely to ever change my name. Ev-er. I know that I shouldn’t judge people who decide to get married early, but I have a hard time understanding it. You’re in love; you want to spend the rest of your live together; you get married. That I can understand. But every single one of my friends who’s gotten married has abandoned their own last names. As far as I know, this is not a way to distance themselves from a tragic family past. I get wanting to be a family, and one last name makes it easier, but I can’t get over the roots of marriage. Marriage is not about love and happiness– it’s about the exchange of property. A father gives away his daughter to a man. A woman changes her last name because she now belongs to another man. I’m happy to show up at your wedding and support your decision to get married, but why are you giving up your name? Why are you giving up your identity? Are you afraid of being your own person? Are you afraid of being alone?
Me: I found out a few years ago that a guy I dated, who considers himself to be a feminist, would want his wife to take his last name; hyphenated last names were too complicated. I was totally, totally shocked. Why had this never come up?
I have a lot of friends who have taken their spouse’s name, and it makes me insane. I literally do not understand. Some have told me that it’s about “feeling like a family,” so everyone should have the same last name. I don’t really understand why that means it has to be the Dude’s last name. Also, that is a pretty fucking narrow definition of family. One told me that her last name is ubiquitous in her culture, and her husband’s is about to die out, so they made the decision that she would take his. It’s such a hard thing to criticize, it seems like a very personal choice, and yet i’m left with the same question: WHY ARE WOMEN ALL MAKING THE SAME CHOICES? No one makes choices without the impact of the dominant culture affecting us, so really, when we say we’re making a choice, we actually aren’t.
Fat and the Ivy: Decisions don’t take place in a vacuum. Every individual might have a well articulated explanation for her decision, but that doesn’t negate the fact that this collective action exists and means something. Even if you’re rejecting the marriage as property exchange paradigm, changing your name is a living echo to the property status of women. I also wonder if it’s about “feeling married.” Marriage is a bid fuckin’ deal. It’s an exclusive club– and it’s the job of every women to work her way into that club. Changing your name is validation in that sense. It’s about making sure that everyone knows that you’re different now. You’ve done it; you got yourself married. I suppose I should buy a dress, drive to a really pretty far away place, buy you a gift or twelve, and be really fucking happy for you.
Me: I am, in general, skeptical of the concept of life long monogamy, so in that sense, marriage is problematic to me, but I also find it incredibly sexist, paternalistic, etc, and probably needless to say, I would never choose it for myself. I think it goes to the heart of misogyny, it’s an example of how women are still second class citizens, how we’re property, and how we give ourselves away as property. This is part of how sexism works-making women feel badly about how they feel or don’t feel about marriage-nothing is ever good enough.
Fat and the Ivy: I think of marriage more liberally than many. Marriage means a lifelong commitment– a life partner, co-parenting, jointly filed taxes– but I don’t think that a marriage requires sexual monogamy. I know that’s what a lot of marriage look like, but I (perhaps naively) like to think that people do exciting things with new people with the loving consent of a partner. Dan Savage talks about this a lot, and I think he hits the nail square on the head.
Me: I’ve literally never considered marriage without sexual monogamy, which I think is just proof as to how I’ve been indoctrinated with a certain, limited concept. I have almost no role models who are in non monogamous relationships, so it always makes me think that people have just bought the one person, only one person for the rest of your life thing. I don’t find it even remotely healthy or practical or appealing. It seems like something you’d have to do without really thinking about it, the greatest leap of faith, which is maybe romantic? Maybe I’m supposed to think that? I don’t. There are many ways to create a family, name changing has nothing to do with anything, except an assertion of ownership and patriarchy.
Fat and the Ivy: All family and community are artificial. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t real– it means that they’re only real if we make them real. Some families suck, so we create our own. I consider some of my close friends more family than my racist uncle who thinks that women belong in the home raising the babies. Having different names don’t make you less of a family; having the same name doesn’t make you more of a family. My dad has his dad’s name, but I’ve never met the guy. I know and love my dad’s mom and the new family that she’s created with family and friends. In short– the “being a family” thing is bullshit. My fourth grade teacher got married and changed her name. Half way through the school year. My AP English Language teacher did too. My third grade teacher did, but that was while I was in fifth grade. In fourth grade, I was mostly confused. The concept of changing your name but still being the same person was hard for me. I knew that women did it often, but I never thought about changing my name and asking people to start calling me Jessica or anything, so why would my teacher. In high school, I was just disappointed. This teacher had led really progressive discussions in class about women and sex– things that are hard to do with 15 and 16 year olds. And then she changed her name.
Me: My mother considered returning to her “maiden” (ew) name when she divorced my father. She always signed her name, Elizabeth L.N. Dubofsky. The N is for Nathan, her name before marriage. She never changed it back, but the impulse always struck me as deeply important and feminist, even if she didn’t think about it that way.
Fat and the Ivy: My mom changed her name. I like having my dad’s name more than my mom’s name because I identify more with my dad’s family than my mom’s family (since my mom’s family is racist…), but I wish my mom would have kept her name. Or at least for work. Or something. I know my mom is fierce, and changing her name doesn’t question that, but really Really?
Me: My question is, what are we going to do? I always hear folks say that it’s too complicated to have separate names, or to hypenate (see my ex-boyfriend), because then, what will your kids do? I maintain that when your kids grow up, they can make their own damn decisions, it’s not an excuse to perpetuate patriarchy if you can avoid it. So many people don’t even think about the name change, they just do it, and they don’t consider it/recognize it as part of a system of oppression. If we don’t question, how will anything change? If we don’t model the change, if we don’t demonstrate that it’s possible, then it won’t happen.
Fat and the Ivy: My conclusion goes back to individual v group problems. There’s nothing “wrong” with changing your name for any myriad of reasons, but it’s unsettling when everyone is doing it. It makes it hard to blame people or problems and hard to find a solution. But it’s still a problem because we have an unequal society. Women are systematically oppressed. Name changes are emblematic of this. And like so many sexist problems, women are buying into it making it hard to attack and harder to fix. If we lived in an equal society, I wouldn’t care who changed what name. I might change my last name to Starbucks if that meant free coffee. But because my gender is not valued equally, I’m keeping my name in a small manner of a protest. Not that I’m getting married any time soon– if at all.