Saturday, January 11, 2014

"[A] damn good answer"

Yet another article, this from Australian writer Zoe Holman, insisting that women - or just women who identify as feminists? - who change their names when they marry owe their feminist friends an explanation. Holman, when she musters up the courage to ask, "will expect a damn good answer." Friends-of-Holman, you'd better start coming up with one.

I suppose I prefer the approach that involves telling women generally not to change their names. It's the one-on-one aspect of this I find unsettling. On what basis is Holman owed an explanation? She writes,

The choice to marry is deeply personal. But when publicly performed, it becomes a statement of implied social values and virtues. And when we are asked to participate in this ritual, to bear witness and to endorse it even in the face of our disagreement, the least we can ask for is an explanation.
Is that really how it works? By attending a wedding, are you really endorsing anything beyond your friendship with, or sense of obligation to, one or both spouses? If you attend a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew, are you owed an explanation of the Jewish spouse's thoughts on intermarriage? (If you get really lucky, you could be handed a 500-page dissertation...). Or if you're at the wedding of two white people, should you revisit the "Girls" critique and ask why it didn't work out with anyone of color, or did they even date anyone of color prior to getting married, hmm? Or maybe, by attending a wedding of any kind, you're owed an explanation of why these two people are heading like sheep to a patriarchal form of commitment?

If these are close, current friends whose actual weddings you're attending (as vs. people whose name-changes you've learned of through social media - and with all the pseudonyms on Facebook, we're really turning Facebook name-change into a feminist issue? the maiden name's usually still visible, but maybe a perk of name-change, for some, is that frenemies from middle school won't track you down), sure, if you're curious about something they've done publicly, ask. If it turns out your friend is in an abusive relationship and has been forced to change her name, do what you can to help. If, however, it's that your friend just feels like Mrs. Her-Dude (or, as is common in the States these days, a Ms. Her-Dude), what then? If your friend identifies as a feminist, she's probably aware of that a certain, vocal branch of feminism is fixated on trappings, and disapproves.

I suspect Holman doesn't want an explanation, but an apology. Or a squirmy, defensive, unsatisfying explanation for her to deem unacceptable.


caryatis said...

She knows it would be rude to demand an explanation, and probably doesn't have the courage to actually do so of her friends, but she's too controlling to just accept her friends' bad choices. I completely understand.

Phoebe said...

If one looks at the essay as a rhetorical device - as the author saying something generally that she'd never say to an actual, individual friend - then I, too, understand, even if it's not a stance I share.

But it's a weird rhetorical devise, because the thing that stops us from self-righteously objecting to friends' symbolic decisions is respect for our friends. The idea that what stops rudeness here is a lack of "courage," that I don't get. Nor that this is about "bad choices" in a way where it makes sense for friends to intervene. If a friend is getting into trouble, making a bad decision with consequences, it may be awkward, but you should speak up. However, given the many, many, many women who've changed their names when they married and gone on to/continued with high-powered careers, etc., you can't, in good faith, tell a woman who's doing this that she's throwing her life away, that she's now owned by her husband.

I mean, I'm not even sure how this would play out. You'd almost have to condescendingly assume your female friend had never ever even heard of name-change politics, and sit her down for an explanation. Which would make sense in a milieu where name-change is universal and women really don't know there's another option. But if your friend has thought about it, you're unlikely to come up with a new reason against that she'd never thought about. It's certainly not going to be 'but what if people don't recognize me on Facebook.'

What rubbed me the wrong way with this article, to be clear, was really just the attitude it expressed, not the underlying belief re: name-change. If you want to register your disapproval of a specific friend's name change, do that (even if it's not really your business), but don't pretend that you're interested in an explanation. Or if you do want an explanation, you have to be open to the possibility that the explanation will reveal that your friend made the right choice, for her.

Moebius Stripper said...

The "if you attend a wedding between a Jew and a non-Jew..." comparison is interesting, because if the "you" in question is (are?) an ultra-Orthodox Jew, then "you" wouldn't demand an explanation, but instead just not attend the wedding, and disown/excommunicate the Jewish bride/groom. If Holman has a similarly fundamentalist view of feminism, then she might avail herself of that option, but as you say, she's probably not interested in an explanation so much as an apology (or, I suspect, for the bride to say, "by gum, I never even gave a moment's thought to the implications of changing my name; now that you bring up the issue, I've reversed my decision").

But feminism-as-a-whole is more similar to Judaism-as-a-whole than to ultra-Orthodox Judaism, in that its adherents have generally given up on living 100% by the book. Judaism, notably, is anti-evangelical; its ultra-Orthodox branch maintains its large numbers mostly via its high birthrate. Feminism doesn't have a high birthrate, nor does it exert a significant amount of social pressure to prevent people from leaving the fold, so I don't know what makes Holman think that asking her friends to account for an (every?) insufficiently feminist decision is going to do anything other than drive people away from feminism-as-she-practices-it.

Miss Self-Important said...

I like the idea that feminism is an evangelical religion.

caryatis said...


"The idea that what stops rudeness here is a lack of "courage," that I don't get."

Ah, but as an judgmental person, you really feel that you *should* say something when someone near you is being stupid. I know because I am like that. And in my mind there's no real distinction between someone making a harmless choice that bothers me for symbolic reasons and someone making a choice which could result in actual harm. E.g. my Facebook friend who feeds her infant breast milk she gets from strangers on the internet. Drives me crazy, but no more so than someone changing her name.

Some of us can accept what we cannot change and tolerate individual idiosyncrasies, and some of us are utterly baffled by the existence of people who disagree with us. That's where the judgmental attitude and need for "explanation" comes from.

Phoebe said...


Yes. If you disagree with a wedding on principle, you don't attend, but probably wouldn't have been invited in the first place. And, as we're both saying, it's not at all clear what Holman expects to happen. She might turn a friend off feminism, more likely off friendship with her. It's also not clear what the issue is - can Holman not be friends with a woman who's changed her name, or does she just want to revoke that woman's feminism card?


Alas, I don't think it is one though. As for what it is, I tend to think it's a lot like being a Zionist, in that if you say you're this thing, everyone assumes you're the most extreme version of it.


"Some of us can accept what we cannot change and tolerate individual idiosyncrasies, and some of us are utterly baffled by the existence of people who disagree with us."

I guess? Perhaps I'm just judgmental of the judgmental. Although this seems like something beyond judgmental. Lots of people will object to something like a friend's name change, or an intermarriage, or a wedding in a church whose policies they disagree with. And they'll say something about this to a closer/non-mutual friend or to their own partner, or just think it silently. You can have opinions on people's choices and still pick your battles. It seems more strategic, but also more pleasant, to stay friends with people whose views are different from yours but not abhorrent, and to, in your presence, offer up an alternative approach to whichever issue.