Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Feminist traitor here

When I got married recently, at the now-oh-so-young-sounding age of 27, I opted to change my name. My husband expressed no opinion either way, and my mother as well as some friends, as well as one especially opinionated bank employee, objected. It sounds like something very much not done in academia, yet in my (ambitious, I promise) cohort, there's one changed name and one soon-to-change. In other words, no one made me do it, nor was I under overwhelming pressure not to do so.

It's true enough that for women who consider themselves feminists - and I consider myself one - there's no way to explain why you went this route without coming across as defensive at best, hypocritical at worst. But the same is true of everything to do with weddings and marriage - every attempt at a run-down of how a decision (getting legally married to a man, wearing a white dress, wearing an engagement ring, having a big party) was made comes across as, the woman is clearly dealing with two conflicted selves, the Good Feminist and the Closet Bridezilla, and clearly the latter self won out.

For just this reason, my approach thus far has been to not care what others think about it, and thus not to offer explanations. I know my reasons. But in the interest of providing Flavia with another data point, and now that this decision's behind me (so no one thinks I'm putting my name up for bloggy debate), let's all know my reasons:

I wanted to. That was the main reason. So the reasons below are more like why I didn't not want to.

Career-stage, of course, matters, and ancient as I may be, I'm still a student. Whether or not I end up in academia - and that's still the plan - many people I will meet in the course of my career will not even know which name I started out with. As for my other life as a blogger, I generally just go by my first name anyway. If tragedy of tragedies, not knowing my original last name keeps some Googlers away from my Chicago Maroon archives, so be it, but I will use maiden-as-middle for all subsequent writing in which my last name is necessary. But my first name's uncommon enough that I'm still easy enough to track down, but my Facebook and Google+ (is this going to stick?) identities include both names. (Oh, and my name is Google-unique in any of the permutations.) Like Flavia said, women who've "changed" their names kind of end up with this these days by default, even if the court procedure to get the maiden-as-middle officially tagged on (thanks a bunch, New York, for allowing only hyphenation) is too much of a hassle. I suspect this is true even for women who opt to keep their names, that they'll end up getting this lineup of names and having to correct people, the way a straightforward name-swap used to be assumed. At any rate, if your great fear is invisibility, Facebook will take care of that and then some. Friends from middle school won't lose track of you.

Like I said, I consider myself a feminist. And I do see how, given that feminism is largely about rejecting the notion that the most important point in a woman's life - but not a man's - is marriage, anything that reinforces the idea that marriage is a bigger deal for the wife than it is for the husband is - as we say in such discussions - problematic. I also get that saying that there's no problem as long as each woman has a choice isn't sufficient, because the same could be said of dieting unnecessarily or getting loads of cosmetic surgery "for yourself," when even if no law orders this, women often do so because they don't think they have the option of not doing so. For these reasons, I wouldn't claim that it's as feminist to change your name as to keep it. As for whether I lose sleep over this, I suppose I've lost more metaphorical sleep over being a Zionist but not living in Israel. As inconsistencies in my life go, this is a minor one. If you want to get me on the defensive, ask me how I could find Herzl so convincing, yet be typing this in New York.

On that note, my main qualms about name-change were unrelated to feminism. I think if my maiden name had been really identifiably Jewish, I might have felt some political need to hang onto it. But... not so much, Ellis Island took care of that, leaving something vaguely German-sounding in place of the much-cooler Muczadski (among so many possible spellings). Meanwhile, my new name is... actually kind of awesome for someone who studies 19th C French literature, especially when paired with "Madame." This is, I realize, a Francophilic-Zionistic aside of relevance to probably no one else, ever.

But to return to the more general-interest feminist angle, changing my name didn't feel terribly inconsistent to me. Feminism in my own life means earning money and having a career. It means my husband and I both do chores. It means - and this one I'll accept is a bit outside the typical feminist list - having chosen a spouse in part on the basis of looks, and not apologizing for that. It also means not spending excessive amounts of time or energy (and this is of course subjective) fussing about my own looks, in particular not engaging in weight-think. Oh, and birth control was a good invention. These are the first-world, day-to-day feminist issues that I've come to see as important. My new last name has yet to cause me to get one taco rather than two if it's two I want (and it's two I want). By the end of the week, the relevant bureaucracy should be in order, meaning that come the fall, when I'm on fellowship again, neither the paycheck nor the work-itself aspects will be affected. And, again, I suspect it's not going to destroy my career in French that I now have a French last name.

What feminism hasn't meant, for me, is wheel-reinvention. In other words, I do not lose sleep over the fact that I do not defy gender norms in all areas. I recognize that it's convenient to say the least to identify as the gender you were born. I don't think that my relationship with my husband is something so complex and unique and snowflake-ish that the word "marriage" fails to describe it. I'm lucky that the kind of relationship I wanted is the one society wanted me to have. So the fact that wife-takes-husband's-name is how it generally goes was not in and of itself a reason, for me, to be suspicious of it.

One angle that's often forgotten is that if you keep your name, you're probably keeping your father's name, not your mother's, and any children you have will probably have your husband's name, not yours. My thinking here was, I'm not sticking it to the patriarchy all that much if I keep my father's name and give Theoretical Future Offspring (and poodles count) my husband's. Hyphenation, unless we-as-a-society figure out a new way, just seems like deferring the question to the next generation, often enough with a nicely hyphenated name being swapped for a husband's in due time. (Here, I've got some anecdata.) Part of why younger women may be more likely to change their names is the question of how feminist or not it will feel to have nobly rejected sharing a name with your new family. The younger you are, however professionally ambitious you are, the more likely kids are on the horizon. It's not necessarily about being a future SAHM or a professionally-unanchored ingenue marrying a much-older financier.

Then, setting aside the question of theoretical babies, there's the fact that, in an age of individual spousal choice, there's something to be said with picking a name that represents independence, a part of your life you made for yourself. (I bet there are some men who wish it were more socially acceptable to announce that kind of break with their childhoods.) This continues to be true even if - Marie, I'm getting to your comment - the marriage ends. It's still a record of a part of your life you chose.

And on that cheery note, there's something to be said for behaving in symbolic ways that make a statement about your confidence in your marriage's capacity to withstand the test of time. If you think marriage means, yay, now I don't need to work, now I can get super out-of-shape and stop all pre-existing grooming routines, then yes, you are screwing yourself over until the covenant-marriage types get their way. Now, I certainly don't think keeping your name is announcing that you're not confident in your marriage's future. It doesn't cut both ways. But I suspect that for me, as for other women whose marriages were preceded by a significant premarital monogamy-and-cohabitation stage with the now-husband-then-boyfriend, a name-change is a way of marking a difference between two things that don't really feel that different.


eamonnmcdonagh said...

apart from banks/the university, what are the actual practicalities? Do you have to tell the US govt, for tax purposes or whatever? And what about your passport?

Here in Argentina, land of compulsory ID cards, some women do as as you have done and start using their husband's name as well as their own on, as it were, a social basis, but you can't change your legal name without convincing a judge something's wrong with the one you have, that you aren't going to commit the fraud of the century etc.

Phoebe said...

There's a checklist available online all over the place (including NYT) that you can follow. Yes, Social Security needs to know, so that everything's lined up right. And as I understand it, you can use whichever reasonable name if you use it consistently and not with intent to defraud. Using your maiden name as your middle name isn't exactly going around claiming you're a Rockefeller.

Amber said...

. It means - and this one I'll accept is a bit outside the typical feminist list - having chosen a spouse in part on the basis of looks, and not apologizing for that.


Contra my 2004 (!) blog post, I'm changing my name. As you say, it's your father's name (or in my case, my mother's third husband's) and as such is not a reflection of volitional affiliation.

Flavia said...

Yeah, I find the no-decision-can-be-made-outside-of-patriarchy argument pretty compelling, and though I feel very attached to my (father's) name, I know lots of people who don't. Since getting engaged myself, I've also felt more powerfully the appeal of changing one's name as a way of announcing a new, freely chosen identity--aligned with a new family and a freely-chosen partner.

(And I agree that men might wish to have the option of starting a new life, namewise, as well: I have a male former student who recently changed both his first and last names, since both belonged to his deadbeat father.)

Andrew Stevens said...

I was best man (one of them, the bride had a man standing for her as well) at a wedding where the couple both changed their last name to a brand new last name they both liked. I hesitate to mention it, though, since they're divorced now. I know he's still using that name, but I'm not sure if she is. (She may have remarried by now, since her desire for children and his lack of same was the reason for their divorce.)

In that wedding, it was my friend who was the great feminist. She'd have been happy to take his name, I think.

X.Trapnel said...

The reasons articulated in the last 3 paragraphs--father's vs. husband's father's name; shared family name; volition; marking a break--are all solid reasons, but to my mind, they all point pretty firmly towards doing what Andrew's friend did, and having both spouses take a new name. (Or *flipping a coin*, and using that to decide whose father's name gets used for everybody!)

Still, to the extent that feminist social pressure ought to be applied here, it ought to be applied to the men, not the women, who deal with enough of this no-win bullshit anyway.

Phoebe said...


Where would we be if we had to stand by everything we thought in 2004?


Part of why I can't get worked up as a feminist about this issue is (as I get into more in my response to X.Trapnel) that I'm not entirely sure men have the better deal under the traditional-model-as-applied-to-modern-day-peer-marriages.


Too bad it didn't work out for them, but no need to hesitate - I don't dance around the fact that marriage isn't always forever in my post, and that does sound a good reason to end things, if not a difference great enough that if known ahead of time should have stopped them from going ahead with it to begin with. My question, then, would be whether you think it's particularly upsetting for the ex-husband that he still has this new name. If he was a "great feminist," and still is, what's the problem?

X. Trapnel,

At a time when everyone's incredibly easy to track down, and when it's the custom - as Flavia notes - for maiden names to stick with you, and both of these whether you-the-individual like it or not, it doesn't strike me that name-change is a battle worth fighting. Now, I absolutely think couples and individuals should be able to do what they want, taking into account whatever they want, including career stage and interest in a break from the past. But this particular issue strikes me as... very much something out of my parents' generation's feminism, in that the trappings of a certain kind of problematic set-up were condemned, at times in place of condemnation of the set-up itself. Name-change did used to go hand-in-hand with a certain form of marriage that was far from equitable. But what needed to change was the dynamics within marriages, something far more fundamentally impacted by whether or not both spouses work outside the home than by which partner had to wait his or her turn at the Social Security office to make the switch.

Anyway, what I was getting at re: these last few items was not that they add a silver lining to the otherwise massive sacrifice that is changing your name as an adult. Rather, my point was that there are plusses and minuses to both, and the original big minus - the loss of premarital identity - is now somewhat obsolete. It could well be that knee-jerk adherence to tradition on this matter leads to a result more pleasing to the wife than to the husband. One aspect of feminism is promoting gender-neutrality, a world in which if one spouse wants to change name/stay home more with kids/cook dinner most nights/etc., we don't say it has to be the woman. But cases in which it's not clear which gendered role is the better deal strike me as a whole bunch less pressing than ones where the "woman's role" is pretty straightforwardly worse. The fact that women are expected to weight-obsess is a clear example of men getting the better deal, as is the fact that women are expected to choose life-long romantic partners without consideration of physical attraction, whereas men are presumed entitled to a spouse who does it for them physically.

I mean, it's not even just about what's more and less pressing. It's that gender-non-conformity (that is, discomfort with gender roles even when neither gender has the objectively better deal) is something most feminist women can support at most as allies. To feign discomfort about roles you are comfortable with is... fauxbivalence. Just be a supporter of those who aren't. Whereas stuff like body-image, mate-selection, these are applicable across the board, and if anything especially so for women who are comfortable with their gender.

Andrew Stevens said...

He thought he wanted children when he married her and then changed his mind. As far as I know, he's perfectly happy with the new name and it's certainly not upsetting to me that he still has it, since I frankly couldn't care less. I imagine it's just a bit odd is all - keeping a name which was created for a marriage which no longer exists.

X.Trapnel said...

I'm not entirely sure where you're going in the last paragraph. This is about symbolism, not roles; or rather, the roles within a particular, symbolic ritual (the changing of names, or not). There are different interpretations one can make of the symbolism, obviously, but some of those (ie, leaving your own to join your husband's family) are interpretations that it's entirely reasonable to be uncomfortable with, even if one is otherwise perfectly happy with UHB companionate hetero marriage.

A symbol can make you uncomfortable even if the role that it's typically paired with does not--possibly because of the way that symbolism is used by those who apply it to entirely different, and distasteful, roles. Maybe I'm misreading you, but you seem to think it almost illegitimate to be bothered by the symbolism if one has an otherwise not-particularly-radical marriage, but I don't see how this follows at all. If your claim, instead, is that it's not okay for you to be made uncomfortable--well, okay; I stand by what I said about it being wrong to make women (as opposed to men) feel bad about the decision either way. But I do think it's important that the symbolic space remain open--it saddened me to read that comment on the FeministPhilosophers' thread about meeting a women who hadn't realized not taking a husband's name was possible.

Phoebe said...

X. Trapnel,

(First and I promise incredibly articulate response eaten by Blogger, so...)

I absolutely think that if a man or woman objects to whichever symbolism (name-change, white dress, engagement ring, etc.) another road should be taken. What I don't think is that women who don't object should feel the need to feign ambivalence (thus: fauxbivalence) in order to show that they're somehow more intelligent/feminist/snowflakey than the sheep-like generic female masses. I think a lot of feminist energies get channeled into what women think they ought to be symbolically worked-up about, when they really should be directed towards, on the one hand, issues of great significance to gender-conforming sorts (such as: weight-think, the right to choose a partner in part based on physical attraction), and on the other, supporting women (and men) who are not privileged with gender-conforming inclinations.

As for the woman who didn't know it was possible to keep one's name at marriage... I don't know the thread you're referring to, and thus I don't know how old this woman was, from what cultural background, where/when this happened, etc. Given that plenty of much-married female celebrities keep their names (Britney Spears comes to mind), it's hard to believe that this is knowledge specific to academic elites. I wouldn't get too sad over what is, I suspect, a non-problem.

Phoebe said...

Or look at it like this: name-change is something that poses a problem not because it's inherently negative - it's clear it has its plusses and minuses - but because it symbolically reminds us of a form of marriage feminists today rightly reject. In this sense, we might look at name change as something a bit like (and yes, imperfect analogy) a woman having long hair and a man having short hair. The feminist ideal should be for women who want short hair and men who want long hair to be able to go that route if they so desire without having to deal with oppression. It need not be a world in which gender has no relationship to hairstyle. In other words, it's possible to be OK with an overall pattern of names being passed down the male line, as long as those who wish to break from the norm (including gay couples, who kind of have to) are legally and socially allowed to do so.

Meanwhile, when it comes to issues where the "woman's role" isn't symbolic of something negative, but is in fact day-to-day crapola, it's a feminist issue simply that women have to deal with X whichever percentage more of the time than men do.

David Schraub said...

I find the idea of changing one's name a bit strange, mostly because I wouldn't want to change my name, so why should someone else have to change their name to mine? I mean, it's my name! I've had it my whole life! I have a distinctively illegible signature associated with it! Am I just supposed to unlearn that? (This is actually the 94% serious most interesting question for me -- how does one go about learning a whole new signature?).

Jill was originally inclined to change her name when we get married, because, she said, she was worried she wouldn't be accepted as Jewish with a name like Rodde (I rejoined that "Schraub" isn't exactly "Goldstein" -- or Maltz, for that matter, which sounds very Jewish to me, probably because my home Rabbi is Maltzman). She's now changed her mind and is going to stick with Rodde.

Of course, if one wants to change one's name, there's no intrinsic problem with that (I was just in a wedding where the groom has changed his name from Tyler to Bob, just because he likes Bob better. It's not his middle name or a family name or anything like that. He just prefers Bob). But totally not for me. But I think I would find it so alienating for myself that it's hard for me to ask someone else to do it.

Phoebe said...


"I find the idea of changing one's name a bit strange, mostly because I wouldn't want to change my name, so why should someone else have to change their name to mine?"

I don't understand how people sit through (insert sporting event here), but the world contains sports fans. But I don't find sports-fandom incomprehensible. Along the same lines, can't you not want to change your name, but put yourself in the shoes of someone who would? (And if your signature's sufficiently incomprehensible, this is a non-issue.)

Also, if you want to continue being a data point... If there are kids, will they be Schraub?

Re: the "have to" bit, I certainly don't think it's a great sign if a man tells a woman that she MUST take his name. Expressing an opinion is fine, as is not expressing one. It's kind of a decision that must be come to together, though, because if a man really objects to what he feels name-change signifies, he's going to be dealing with a woman going around named Mrs. Him.

Re: Maltz, I've known basically no one outside my family with that name or close, and because there's no -berg, -stein, or -witz, because it's not Cohen or Levy, my sense is it's not doing much signaling to people whose rabbis are not Maltzman. My mother's last name, however, leaves no Semitism to the imagination. But that's not a name I was given. Regardless, Maltz will still be on things I write, so for whichever tiny percentage of the population it does announce something, it will keep on announcing. I just think if I'd begun with Goldberg, I'd have had political qualms with doing anything de-Goldbergifying. Schraub... I guess like Maltz is a name that sounds German and that, in a context where a Jew is likely (someone I've 'met' through Israel blogging!), and paired with a first name like David, signals Jewish identity. But a Patrick Schraub, a Kevin Schraub, I don't think I'd assume a Jew.

PG said...

I also had an epically long comment eaten by Blogger. Summary:
I see the attraction of name-change as a demarcation between the marriage-like status of living together and the status of actual marriage. However, being conservative in temperament, I like the continuity and stability of my name's staying the same forever, especially in this era of frequently-shifting residences and relationships. I stuck to the plan I made around 1999 (!) that I'd keep my name if I published in my field before I got married.

My father's name is my name, and my sisters' names, not a solely dude possession and thus not something I write off as the patriarchal equivalent of taking my husband's name. My surname is more ethnically signifying than Maltz apparently is (though for that matter, so is my first name compared to "Phoebe"), and changing it to my husband's would make obvious that I was married, and to someone of the majority racial group. While this is of course something I'm OK with people's knowing (if you google my name, one of the top hits is for a site with a Godawful number of my wedding pictures), it's not necessarily what I want to have going through someone's mind when they're analyzing the name at the top of a resume.

That said, if my husband had suggested a new last name for us both, I'd have considered it. It's the solution most favored in Elizabeth Emens's article on the subject, which I read while engaged.