Friday, March 08, 2013

A contrarian, devil's-advocate-ish post on marital name-change

Name-change and marriage is back in the news, with Jill Filipovic's straightforward, largely unapologetic demand that women cease to take their husbands' names. It's not an essay I entirely agree with (and I'll get to why in a moment) but I liked it all the same - Filipovic says what she thinks, and doesn't hem, haw, and fuss about possibly offending the vast majority of women. And this is as clearly-put as I've ever seen the traditional feminist case against name-change (and choice feminism more broadly): your name is your identity, when you think you're choosing you're really just passively surfing the wave of the patriarchy. I think lots of women probably agree with this, even women who've changed their names or would do so.

Filipovic asks why, despite the growth of egalitarian marriage, this one holdout persists. I'd ask, meanwhile, whether perhaps the egalitarian-ish nature of marriage means that name-change wasn't, all along, the problem. I think there's a growing if largely unspoken understanding that gender is here to stay, but that what we want is equality, not 100% blurring of lines. We don't object to the tendency of women (even staunch second-wave-variety feminists) to wear their hair long, to wear dangly earrings, etc. Heels and makeup get debated, but we don't assume that for a woman to be a feminist, she must cross-dress. (Nor, I think, do we assume that a woman in a men's suit is wearing it to make a feminist point. We assume she just feels like wearing it, or is more comfortable dressing as a man.) What matters is who can do what professionally, who gets paid what, who gets taken seriously. Which is why, on some level, arguments about symbolic trappings fall flat. It really does seem that they can be kept around (and explored by same-sex couples as well) without this necessarily meaning the era of "Leave it to Beaver" has returned.

Anyway, Filipovic allows that name-change can be empowering, giving the example of transgendered individuals, whose original first names never matched their identities. She doesn't give the example of ethnic name change, likely because doing so would bring about WWPD levels of digression, but I will say that those are probably some mix of empowering and internalized-oppressive. But she does explain that in marriage, name-change is oppressive because it refers back to the bad old days of marriage, where the woman was property.

Here's where I'm not convinced. Marriage, name-change or not, refers back to bad old days, feminism-wise. Using feminine pronouns to describe half of humanity points back to less-enlightened times. But the anti-name-change argument seems like yet another case of a common-enough feminist error: that because something is 'what women do,' it's necessarily the inferior situation. Getting paid less, that's definitively worse. Obviously, very very often, the women's version of whichever lot in life is straight-up worse. But, consider makeup. Is it oppressive because men don't (generally) wear it? Or is it oppressive to men that if they want to experiment with their looks, or enhance their beauty, this isn't an option for them? Whatever penalty exists on (some) women (in certain circumstances) who don't wear makeup, it's zilch compared to that on men who do.

So. The line of thought - expressed by Filipovic and many commenters - that you never hear men saying they just thought their spouse's name sounded better, my thinking is, maybe this isn't about women giving some silly reason as a pretext for the 'real' one (patriarchy!) and actually more about the rigid gender roles men must contend with. A man might want to change his name - and for all these reasons: preferring his fiancée's name, wishing to set himself apart from his birth family, not feeling particularly attached to his name - but not see this as a viable option. Women experience some pressure to change their names, but it's probably nothing compared with the pressure men feel not to do so.

26 comments:

Amber said...

I posted long ago about my intention to not change my name, and then when push came to shove I did. My husband didn't really want me to (he didn't fight it, but he was surprised and a little ambivalent). And a good part of my motivation was that this was an opportunity to cast of a name that I didn't especially care for (my mother's third husband's) without the perceived flakiness of name changing for changing's sake. Some of it was also probably vestigial antediluvian gender-role sentiment, but I did grow up in Texas.

Phoebe said...

Maybe the most accurate answer here is, these things are a mix of gender-role obedience and the fact that men who could give or take their mothers' third husbands' last names don't have much of an option of chucking them. I found it fun to pick a name that represented something I'd actively chosen about my life. It didn't feel especially submissive. A bit contrarian, maybe, on account of I didn't grow up in Texas. Most women I know have probably kept their names, although there's also the fact that many of my female friends could give or take marriage altogether.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

In early modern England, women retained the highest-status name they ever had title to: so, if they married down, they kept dad's name; if they married up, they took husband's; if they re-married a man of lower status, they kept first husband's; if husband received some accolade that made him higher-status, wife changed her name. It's still quite patriarchal, but with more inflection than a blanket "women have traditionally taken their husbands' names."

Andrew Stevens said...

Dame Eleanor: yes. Moreover, sometimes the husband took his wife's name and the children took their mother's name as well. I am descended from Anna de Charlton (b. bef. 1380, d. by 1399) of Apley Castle, only child and heiress of her father, Thomas de Charlton. She married William de Knightley who himself took the name Charlton and their son was known as Thomas de Knightley de Charlton, but his son was simply known as Robert Charlton and the de Knightley name was dropped since the Charlton name was higher status.

caryatis said...

Phoebe, my question would be: what do you gain by changing your name? The arguments that "I just happen to like his better" or that all members of a family must have the same last name to be unified don't work because they don't explain why men don't change their names. So what positive reason remains for a woman to change hers?

caryatis said...

Other issue that so far has not even reached public consciousness enough to be controversial: children's names! Why is it that, even when a married couple keep their names, the children still get the father's last name? This bothered me even when I was a child. Why does my name imply that my mother is less important?

Phoebe said...

Dame Eleanor, Andrew,

This is interesting, but I'm wondering what the implications are. Are you (either of you) suggesting we move towards something along those lines? Dame Eleanor's way would seem to retain the fundamental aspect feminists object to - the impermanence of a woman's name, but not a man's. Andrew's way could work, but would seem to invite some other isms in place of sexism. As in, the spouse with the most Anglo-sounding name would win out.

Caryatis,

"The arguments that "I just happen to like his better" or that all members of a family must have the same last name to be unified don't work because they don't explain why men don't change their names."

As I tried to explain in the post, the former reason would apply to many men, if there weren't such a taboo against men changing their names. And as I got into as well in my response to Amber above, what a woman gains (apart from whichever individual concerns re: the name itself) is, she gets to have a name that announces something about her life that she chose. It's the sort of thing where, if men were doing this, we'd be asking why women didn't get to. It's not - to repeat myself - like the 'privilege' of earning less for the same work.

Re: kids' names, this does kind of jump out among otherwise feminist women who wouldn't have dreamed of changing their names. I believe the argument is something like, what matters is for a woman to hang onto her own identity. Which, fair enough, but it does seem like unfinished business. Maybe female children could get their mothers' last names? Or - as I suggest in the post - maybe name-change could be understood as cosmetic, and not the site for quite so much angst.

The other angle I didn't get into yet, but should have, is that an aspect of all this that is a pain for women is that whichever way you go, you'll find yourself called the other. (Some) traditionalists will deem you Mrs. X, whereas (some) feminists will make a point in calling you Ms. Maiden-Name, as if a name change was simply unfathomable and can therefore be ignored. Non-name-changers will get all this mail for Mrs. X, while name-changers will deal with a massive bureaucratic hassle.

caryatis said...

So the positive reason is that some women like to announce via the name that they are married to men they like?

It seems unlikely that there are a lot of men dying to change their names because they're ugly but prevented by the patriarchy. I think the woman who says she hates her name is really just trying to come up with an excuse for doing something anti-feminist. How people feel about their names reflects how they feel about themselves.

The fair solution for kids' names would be to give half of them each name if you have an even number, and just flip a coin if you have one. And perhaps use the middle name to incorporate the other parent's last name.

I don't think an egalitarian marriage is magically going to become sexist if the woman changes her name. But not doing so sends a good signal to other people --and to yourself and spouse-- and advertises that this is a feminist relationship.

Phoebe said...

Caryatis,

"I think the woman who says she hates her name is really just trying to come up with an excuse for doing something anti-feminist."

Well, that's Filipovic's argument. It's got something to it, but I do think we need to consider that men don't even see name-change (or makeup, for example) as a possibility. Why couldn't both of these things be possible?

Phoebe said...

I mean, another way to think of it is, while sexism is real, so too are other isms. Do we really think Mr. Rabinowitz marrying Ms. Jones isn't tempted to become Mr. Jones? Mr. Cho marrying Ms. Astor? Are such men keeping their names because they enjoy the male privilege of doing so, because of ethnic pride, or because rigid gender roles prevent them from doing what they might otherwise?

Andrew Stevens said...

I was just commenting on Dame Eleanor's post. Obviously nobody could be advocating such a system in a country without a hereditary aristocracy.

Were I to actually advocate a system for genealogical purposes, it would probably be hyphenation of husbands' names with wives' and wives' names with husbands' (so you would be Maltz-Bovy and your husband would be Bovy-Maltz or vice versa, just so long as it's consistent for everybody, so everybody knows at a glance which was your birth name and which your married name) with children taking the surname of the mother. Or father - mother is preferred due to the greater certainty of maternity compared with paternity, but it really doesn't matter much and I don't have serious objection to the patronymic naming convention - again, just so long as it's consistent for everybody.

I should stress though that this system only works well if everybody's doing it and it would be hard to get universal buy-in. Given that, I favor keeping to local custom, which is the least confusing method genealogically.

Andrew Stevens said...

By the way, I do believe all siblings should have the same surname, so I do object, on logical grounds, to Caryatis's proposals. I'd be absolutely fine (and even find it slightly preferable) to have all children getting the woman's surname, but I have a very strong preference for all children (of the same couple) getting a single surname over assigning them by gender or (worse) randomly. Patrilineal may be second best, but it's also what we've got and superior to any alternative other than matrilineal.

caryatis said...

Andrew, do you have a reason for your strong preference?

Many siblings have different last names, often because of multiple marriages. And if a traditional-minded woman changes her name on marriage, then she no longer shares her brother's name anyway.

Phoebe said...

Caryatis,

What I'd be curious to see your response to is my suggestion that, given that name-change persists even in egalitarian marriages, we at least consider the possibility that it is not a sign that feminism has failed, but rather that people - women! - have decided that this sort of thing is cosmetic, aesthetic, whatever, and not central to feminism, any more than the author of this essay's choice to wear her hair long for her headshot. Not, in other words, like questions of who cooks, cleans, and looks after the kids if there are any. Are women who change their names bad feminists (or otherwise good feminists who've slipped up in a key area), or is there some unspoken understanding that it doesn't really matter? Matrilineal traditions, after all, don't necessarily indicate egalitarian anything. (See: traditional Judaism.)

Moebius Stripper said...

I'd ask, meanwhile, whether perhaps the egalitarian-ish nature of marriage means that name-change wasn't, all along, the problem.

I like this a lot. And similarly, on the other side of the coin, for women who do change their names, the name-change could be a convenient expression of wanting a more traditional marriage, as opposed to the other way around. And likewise for women pressured to change their names.

(Amusing anecdotal support of that last point: some years ago, a bride I know opted to keep her name. The groom's family was A-ok with this - in fact, groom's mom had kept her name when she married in the 70's, and had received no small amount of flak - but the bride's family was very upset. Bride, not wanting to start a political discussion, gave some fairly inoffensive justifications for her decision (among them: her first name with her husband's last name just sounded goofy), but her family wasn't buying it. Finally, she found an explanation that worked: "I really, really wanted to change my name, but my husband wouldn't let me, and he's the one who has the final say." Her parents and extended family were satisfied with this; obviously, the important thing, to them, was that their daughter be a traditional wife.)

caryatis said...

Phoebe, to answer your question, I don't know. I don't think we've had feminism long enough, or it hasn't become central enough to the culture, to tell what women will do when they are no longer motivated by sexism.

I agree it's symbolic and not as concrete an issue as who does the dishes. But I also think symbols are useful in reminding us and others what kind of relationship we want to have. I mean, did you promise to obey your husband when you got married? I certainly wouldn't, even if I thought he had no intention to hold me to it. It's a symbol, but a repellent one.

I'm afraid your reference to Judaism, like most references to Judaism, went straight over my head.

Phoebe said...

Moebius,

Not sure I follow, but I'm also half in a 19th C chapter, so it could well be my fault.

Caryatis,

My point re: Judaism was that traditionally, one is Jewish if one's mother is, and one's father's religion doesn't enter into it. Yet traditional Judaism is not exactly a haven for feminist ideals.

caryatis said...

Thank you.

Phoebe said...

And... re: obedience, I think that's more than a symbol. It's a vow. It's pretty spelled-out, even if the vow isn't adhered to. Name-change is a symbol because it might symbolize more than one thing, and certainly doesn't need to symbolize that one is now owned by one's husband.

Other than that, I don't necessarily agree, but see your point.

Andrew Stevens said...

Andrew, do you have a reason for your strong preference?

Yes. Families are much easier to track if they share the same surname.

Many siblings have different last names, often because of multiple marriages. And if a traditional-minded woman changes her name on marriage, then she no longer shares her brother's name anyway.

It is different when you're talking about surnames which differ because the siblings are not full siblings. In that case, there is a logic to it. (Generally, however, I do oppose changing a child's name through adoption by a step-father, though I understand why people do it. I'd have preferred if Bill Clinton had stayed William Blythe and Gerald Ford had stayed Leslie King.)

I'm totally with you on women changing their names and causing confusion that way, which is why I suggested joint hyphenation (either birth first or spouse first for both spouses, so they'd each have slightly different last names) rather than the current complete name change, though it needs to achieve a critical mass before it would be actually useful. English and U.S. records are horrible because they used to ignore women's maiden names (though they now always include it). German records were better; in at least some German provinces, church records recording births for children almost invariably included the mother's maiden name. English and U.S. records almost invariably left it off.

Having said all that, the current chaos, where everybody does their own thing (particularly if it were also applied to children as Caryatis suggests) is much worse than any system, no matter how illogical. I'd prefer everybody adopting Caryatis's system than some people doing it and others doing something else and still others doing some third thing.

caryatis said...

Easier to track? Why does that matter?

I can see why chaos is a problem, because, as Phoebe says, it leads to both women who change their names and those who do not being questioned or addressed wrongly, and confusion over who is the parent of whom. But, you know, that's sort of the price of living in a large pluralistic society which is culturally, racially, and religiously heterogeneous.

Moebius Stripper said...

Phoebe -

rereading what I posted...it's not you, it's me. And I don't have a dissertation to blame.

I think I was trying to go for some variant of "I agree, name changes (or lack thereof) aren't necessarily indicative of one's commitment to an egalitarian marriage", but even I'm not getting that out of what I wrote. Blame Friday.

Phoebe said...

Moebius,

Ah, got it!

Caryatis,

One more thing (and then I will probably run out of things): It doesn't seem, from reading comments here and there about international name-change traditions, that there's much of a relationship between women's status in a society and what happens with her name upon marriage. Wikipedia would seem to confirm. Which is why I think our reason for thinking name-change is bad feminism comes out of two tangential factors: its embrace as a symbol by second-wave feminists, and the corresponding interest on the part of some misogynists in making sure women do change their names when marrying.*

From these factors, that is, and not from any actual logistical self-harm or on-the-ground rejection of feminism involved in women changing their names. Are women who've changed their names untraceable? In this social-media age, not really, unless they're going out of their way to be. Maiden names tend to stick around informally, and online, of course, one might be known by a pseudonym anyway.

Part of what skews this conversation is that the women whose arguments about this we hear are women who publish articles, who have by definition made names for themselves in ways that those in many other professions have not. I remember in school, having to switch from calling a teacher Miss A to Mrs. B, and this not being confusing in the least.

*I wouldn't say that all such insistence is rooted in misogyny. I agree with you that it's good for all options to be on the table, but I could see an argument along the lines of, rather than the great hassle and ambiguity of the current system, women's names could automatically change upon marriage, and the bureaucracy would be streamlined accordingly. Not, again, that this is what I'd argue for.

Andrew Stevens said...

Caryatis: Because I am arguing for genealogical logic. I have no opinion in the debate about what one should do to be a good feminist or a good supporter of the patriarchy or whatever. My interest is only in whether the system is logical, not in how it makes people feel. (I'm sure a lot of men would object to a matrilineal naming system, but those are just psychological objections, not logical ones.)

Maya Resnikoff said...

Phoebe- I think your comment about ethnicity is another big factor, at least for those of us with ethnic or religiously linked names. It wasn't a big issue in my marital name-change, my husband's name is just as Jewish as my maiden name, but I've known people who were planning to take their spouse's name because their own name was so lacking in identification with their own community. And those of us with longer last names just can't hyphenate reasonably in the way that folks with short Ango-Saxon names can choose to do. Sometimes feminism sees as options things that are only realistic options if you come from certain sorts of privilege (for lack of a better word in this instance).

Phoebe said...

Maya,

Good point re: the various manifestations of ethnicity and name-change. With Jews, I have anecdotal evidence for both wanting to have a more and identifiably Jewish last name. In terms of hyphenation, I've seen plenty of long, Jewish-sounding hyphenated names, but that doesn't rule out the possibility that others resist doing so. Ethnicity definitely enters into it, though, and I suspect more often than not, there'd be a temptation towards assimilation, not ethnic pride. But you never know!