What a difference a name makes

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I've been following a conversation on one of the feminist message board I frequent which centers around naming--specifically, it's been about what, if anything, women chose to do with their last names when they marry, and whose last name kids get. This is something I've pondered before, as I'm surprised that so many of my married/mommy feminist friends took their husbands' last names when they married and passed those names on to their kids. As we are all aware, I think, this is a patriarchal tradition. We can and probably do disagree about how important a tradition it is, but its roots are undeniably in the patriarchy, and I would think refusing to change your name upon marriage or assume your offspring will bear your male partner's name would be one way for heterosexual feminists to fairly easily usurp the status quo (though I realize that is easy for my unmarried, non-mom self to say). So I'm surprised by how seldom it seems to actually be done.

For the record, my plans are as follows:
1. Don't get married.
2. If I do get married, make no change to my name.
3. Don't have kids.
4. If I do have kids, hyphenate their last names, probably with my last name before the hyphen and Mark's after the hyphen, but that's negotiable.

For me, that's what makes sense. Mark and I are already the Mitchell-Harnett family/household. When I fill out paperwork for our dogs, I put Mitchell-Harnett as their surname. Why would it be different for children? I'm Mitchell, he's Harnett, our kids are Mitchell-Harnett. Seems easy enough.

But of course people have arguments against hyphenating. The most common one is that it isn't a long-term solution, as people's names will get too long if they keep hyphenating in future generations. And that's a problem, but all naming conventions I can think of have problems, and frankly, I'd rather let future generations work those out for themselves than keep on with an archaic tradition like the one we have now. Plus, as my friend Tishie pointed out, that problem can be solved by parents with hyphenated names choosing only one of their two names to pass on, thus passing something on from both sides.

If keeping your own name and hyphenating kids' names is so easy, though, why haven't any of my feminist friends done it? Generally, they give one or a combo of the following reasons for taking their husbands' names:
1. They don't care, names don't mean anything anyway, it's more important to him, since it's not important, it's not a feminist battle worth fighting, etc.
2. They want their whole family to have the same last name.
3. They want to divorce themselves from their former last name.
4. It's just easier.
5. You have a man's last name either way, at least your husband's is chosen (unlike, presumably, your father's).

As much as I admire and love and respect any number of women who have made this decision, and used one or all of the above reasons for doing so, the reasons just don't cut it for me. To begin with, I just don't get names as not being important. Names are, besides our appearances, our primary identifiers. They are ties to our families, our cultures, etc. And, if they really don't matter, why is changing them important? Why is it even a custom? I just can't imagine giving up my name and not feeling as if I've lost something.

In the case of women who have a specific reason for wanting to be rid of the name they've grown up with (often abuse, etc.), I don't understand why taking a different "by default" name (a husband's) would be preferable to choosing another name for yourself. I can totally see why renaming yourself would be an important part of healing and important way to sever ties with an abusive family, etc., but I don't see how this wouldn't be even more the case if you choose the name you change to, rather than just taking someone else's.

As far as families all having the same name, it probably is easier. But easier isn't necessarily better, and as often as not, easier reinforces the status quo. So why it may indeed be easier for an individual woman to take her husband's last name and pass it on to her children, minimizing confusion, etc., is it really easier for women as a class, in the long run? And as far as the family all having the same name, why do we assume that the only way for that to happen is to use dad's name? What's wrong with dad changing his name? The whole family choosing something new? Mixing names? Hyphenating? If having all family members have the same last name is really important to you (and it's not to me, but I grew up with a different last name than the people I lived with, so my perspective comes from there), there are lots of ways to do it.

Basically, I think women do themselves, if not as individuals, then as a class, a disservice by changing their names when they marry and not insisting that some element of their names be passed on to their children. In my mind, it ends up being one more way for women to subsume their own identities to those of men, and I don't like that.

6 Comments

why not make up a new name for you and your husband? i think taking a name you chose yourself instead of staying with some dude's name is better, for me at least it would be.

"If keeping your own name and hyphenating kids' names is so easy, though, why haven't any of my feminist friends done it?" Well, I certainly did it. And it hasn't been hard, but I've written about this often elsewhere so I won't repeat myself here.

I didn't realize that Sarahlynn, or I'd forgotten it. Did you write about it on your blog? I'll have to go look.

My grandmother changed her last name both times she got married. There is real question as to the proper spelling of her maiden name. One of the charming things about last names is the ability to trace lineages and feel an emotional connection - I don't love Jenny's solution because the last name is going to change with every generation. Grandparents would be pissed. I think the last name change should be based on whichever last name sounds snappiest or least lame when paired with their first name. So you wouldn't get people with alliterative names post-marriage, like Sarah Smith or Jenny Jones. Because that shit is just wrong.

I agree completely with this post, Grace. I'm not going to rag on anyone who chose to change her name after marriage, or call them bad feminists, but you know, it's just not a feminist choice, whatever excuses there are for it.

I used to get into frequent discussions about this on the Ms. Boards and The Phoenix. Since then, I've blogged about it a couple of times: http://sarahlynn.blogspot.com/2004_08_01_sarahlynn_archive.html http://sarahlynn.blogspot.com/2006/02/gender-traitor-name-thing.html

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