Sunday, October 20, 2013

"The bride, 27, will take her husband’s name. She flies the RC-135, a reconnaissance aircraft. She graduated from the Air Force Academy."

This, from today's NYT Weddings pages, jumped out at me because I'd had open, in another window, the latest Facebook thread about women, marriage, and name-change. This is a subject of endless fascination to many women (and some men) my age. We have on the one hand the contingent convinced that marital name-change is a self-evident evil, and on the other, a whole bunch of seemingly reasonable - even, at times (see above example) quite impressive women taking their husband's names. There are also women who are not living their lives at all along feminist lines, of course, doing so.

Has anyone ever looked into whether there's a relationship between traditional gender roles within a marriage (i.e. who makes the most money, who has the gendered-male or gendered-female career, who does most of the housework/childcare) and whether the wife changed her name? Because my anecdotal evidence is a whole big pile of there being no particular relationship between these things. It seems as though whichever cultural-values thing is governing whether a woman chooses to change her name is different from the one that determines how to approach life in other areas. 

What tends to skew the conversation is that the women whose voices are heard most loudly in cultural discussions are ones who happen to work as writers, and who have really made their names already, in a way that doesn't correspond to how most lives go, where it's really not such a big deal to learn that Ms. A from Accounting now goes by Ms. B. (Miss and Mrs. seem to have gone out of favor.) Even established writers who would be open to taking a husband's name are still writers, coming at the question from the perspective of someone who has a name that means something already to a great many strangers.

My own thoughts about the compatibility of feminism and name-change, which I've probably already discussed here, are as follows: The performance of gender is something we all must do along the lines we feel comfortable with. If someone born male feels female, she's a woman. If someone born female feels female but prefers pants to dresses and short hair to long, this variant of female self-presentation should be accepted. These are not statements about financial independence or lack thereof, career ambition or lack thereof, but seemingly superficial trappings with which we demonstrate gender identity. 

It follows that if a feminist woman wants to play 'the woman' in one or more ways consistent with traditional gender norms (and that could be name-change, makeup-wearing, etc.), she should engage in a bit of hand-wringing over whether this is really her desire or social norms, but may end up concluding that this is how she feels comfortable. And then that's what she has to do. Depending her milieu, she's either doing what everyone hoped she'd do anyway, or feeling as though she must defend her decision to disappointed peers. That's where the whole 'it was my father's name anyway' or 'his name just happens to be nicer' discussions arise. 'I choose, in this area, to play the woman' never seems to be an option, even if that's probably closest to the truth.

When someone's gender-self-presentation matches up with traditional expectations, these things can never be separated out entirely - what's culture, and what's me? Where we want to get, as a society - and here I borrow from Dan Savage, who explained this so well in a recent interview I'm forgetting where - is to a place where the boys who play with dolls are accepted, but so too is the likely fact that most people will feel the same drive to perform the expected gender-roles (at least to a degree) as that boy does to play with Barbies. Of course it's all subjective - of course if we lived in a society with different naming systems, there wouldn't be women performing femininity by changing their names. But we live in the society we do, and that's what's going on.


Petey said...

"The bride, 27, will take her husband’s name."

Well, if one has suffered through life with the name '27', perhaps taking an opportunity to change it is a bit of a no-brainer...

Phoebe said...


Unrelated: What I didn't clarify in the post, but should have, is that the analogy doesn't extend to there being some great plight of the gender-conforming, that in any way matches that of the gender-non-conforming. My point is simply that the urge to gender-conform is also plenty real, and not just social construction or fear of consequences of breaking whichever rules.

caryatis said...

I agree that the urge to play feminine is real. Disagree that it's morally neutral.

Phoebe said...


Care to elaborate? Is it immoral for a man to "play feminine," or only a woman?

The analogy isn't perfect, because a playing-feminine man is up against societal expectations, whereas a playing-feminine woman, even if her own milieu is ultra-progressive, ultimately is not. But a significant part of what makes many woman "play feminine" is the very same sort of urge as drives a far smaller subset of men to do so. It isn't just social conditioning.

I see the value in urging women not to "play feminine" in the sense of, say, going broke for life-threatening cosmetic surgery. Also of reminding women that husbands may leave or lose their jobs and you want to be able to earn a living of your own. But I can't say I see any reason to tell the women whose superficial acts line up with 'the woman part' to do otherwise. Why would we? Out of some kind of deference to the community, to show that it's possible - to stick with the present example - for a woman not to change her name when she marries, or - to diverge - that we should fault all makeup-wearing women for making it harder for women who wish not to wear makeup to do so? It may be - and again, this is Dan Savage's point, if paraphrased - that the gender-non-conforming, even in conditions of total acceptance, will always be a minority. The goal should be total acceptance of the gender-non-conforming, without placing unrealistic demands on the happily-gender-conforming. Yes, there needs to be more reflection if what you think you want coincides with what society expects. But that's all.

One place to draw the line, I'd think, is whether the thing in question is something men might plausibly envy. I'd say that the ability to alter one's appearance with cosmetics, while it can place a burden on women when it becomes an expectation, is something plain-looking men (or just men who'd enjoy the theatrics) lose out on. Along the same lines, while the history of the practice isn't remotely feminist, if it were more socially acceptable for them to do so, I'd expect more men would change their names at marriage, because there is something nice about a new name to mark a new life stage, and sharing a name of a person you've chosen. It's also a subtle way for a woman with a difficult to pronounce or 'ethnic' name to change that - something many men might want to take the opportunity to do, but wouldn't be able to do discreetly upon marriage.

Point being, if it's a burden for society to force you to do X, but it's a near-equivalent burden for society to compel you not to do X, then women who've thought about it and decided they want to do X shouldn't need to not do X to make some kind of point.

caryatis said...

Well, playing feminine is a broad term. It includes things I certainly think are morally neutral, like wearing a dress (which I'm doing right now.) But as you acknowledge, it also includes very problematic acts like being economically dependent on a husband, staying with an abusive husband, or even just not being assertive enough at work. So as you say, "there needs to be more reflection if what you think you want coincides with what society expects." Or if what you think you want turns out to harm you.

I think where we disagree is on the question of whether changing one's name is "superficial," as you say, or a disturbing symbolic invocation of the days when women lost all their rights and their legal identities upon marriage (as I say). Yes, if men were just as likely to change their names on marriage to mark a life stage or discard a name they don't care for, the symbolism would cease to be sexist. But that's not the world we live in.

Flavia said...

What I think is really smart and useful about this post is its suggestion that many women are, on some level (probably sub- or semi-consciously), balancing the ways in which they do and don't align with gender norms.

Of my friends who have kept their names, one is an extremely domestic stay-at-home mom. Several who have taken their husband's names have high-powered jobs, in some case more immediately impressive than their husbands'. And though I've never thought about it this way, it's totally possible that one reason keeping my name matters to me is that my self-presentation (makeup, clothing) reads as pretty femme. Retaining my name is--among many other things!--a signal that my gender politics can't be assumed.

In most cases, these are all independent decisions. But I don't think any of us makes any decision in a vacuum, and I like the idea that there's some calculus that many people perform subconsciously.

Petey said...

Worth tangentially noting that, given our current radical right Supreme Court, changing your name at marriage is an excellent way for
women to disenfranchise themselves at the ballot box.


I can understand keeping one's name, and can also (to a lesser degree) understand taking one's spouse's name. It's the hyphenates who are the real enemy. A fifth column in our midst...

Phoebe said...


As you yourself say, name-change is symbolic. Financial dependence and the rest are not, and it makes sense to call certain choices less feminist than others (even while we want to avoid overly blaming individuals for what's partly the result of social structure). A woman who changes her name doesn't, in doing so, take a vow of dependence.

All symbolic conventional femininity (dress-wearing included) harkens back to a less-enlightened time. And since we're not at full parity yet, may seem to announce a desire for continued inequality. And yet, that's not how gender works - a woman may wish to perform femininity in a large part because that is her gender identity. Must she self-present elsewhere on the gender spectrum for as long as women earn less than men, or are more often victims of domestic violence?

Where I think 'choice feminism' does make sense is when it comes to these symbolic choices. A performance of femininity, from a woman, isn't inherently anti-feminist. And just because another woman's performance isn't what yours is doesn't mean that there's anything to be gained by declaring your way the true feminist one.

Phoebe said...


Thanks. You've explained my own argument back to me in a way that makes more sense than my original argument!

But yes, that's the idea - that we're all influenced by an impossible-to-separate mix of social norms and our own inclinations. This is, paradoxically, much easier to comprehend when the two differ greatly. But when a woman embraces any form of conventional femininity, is she doing so as a willing victim of the patriarchy, or for the same ingrained and futile-to-fight reasons as a feminine man or transwoman would?

The answer is, I suppose, both. But because it's both, it seems wrong to condemn symbolic acts along these lines as anti-feminist. Just because a gender performance is encouraged by society doesn't make it any less real.

(A very flawed analogy: society expects men to be attracted to women, women to men. But we don't generally say that heterosexuals are expressing desire only because that's what's expected of them.)

Phoebe said...


Perhaps something to consider, but that seems a better argument against voter-ID laws.

Petey said...

"Perhaps something to consider, but that seems a better argument against voter-ID laws."

No doubt. It is indeed tangential. But I just learned about it today, and you've got this thread up.

It's an evilly clever way to restrict turnout among another Democratic-leaning demographic. Disenfranchise blacks, poors, olds, and now women?!? Party like it's 1919...

(And FWIW, arguments against voter-ID laws are pretty much moot until/if a Republican Supreme-o dies with a Democratic President in office.)

caryatis said...

"All symbolic conventional femininity (dress-wearing included) harkens back to a less-enlightened time."

There's symbolic femininity that announces one is different from a man, and symbolic femininity that announces one is less than a man. My dress is actually quite comfortable. It's not sending a message that my identity is of less worth than that of a person wearing pants.

And I don't think keeping one's name is at all a way of "self-presenting elsewhere on the gender spectrum."

Phoebe said...


Re: your second point, no, keeping your name isn't gender-bending, any more than it is when a woman, in 2013, wears slacks. Sometimes the performance of femininity is doing X, but not doing X isn't, correspondingly, a performance of masculinity. There we're agreed. But yes, thanks for the opportunity to clarify that point!

I think, though, we've reached-agree-to-disagree on the topic of whether name-change is about being less-than.

Alyx said...

I don't have much to add to the conversation, but I've been following your blog for the past year and as a born-"male" female who is currently trying to tease out what her gender performance is like (among other things) your musings on gender and femininity and such have been pretty invaluable. So just, thanks I guess. :)

Phoebe said...


Thank you!