It’s that time of life where everyone is getting married. My brother has had a wedding to attend nearly every weekend since summer began, and even my not-so-interested-in-marriage friends are starting to get engaged. And so comes the phenomenon of name changes, and with it the anxiety that I get when I see my friends choosing to give up an identity marker as part of their relationship. While conversation about name changing has died off somewhat in the feminist movement, it’s still easy to find articles arguing both sides of the issue: women should be allowed to have the choice, it’s not unfeminist to do what you want to, women need to demand that men change their names, what on earth do gay and lesbian marriages bring to this debate, and why is it that 90% of the country still thinks that women should change their names upon marriage?
There’s a lot of deeper issues that names tap into. In literature, philosophy, sociology, and politics, names have importance. They help us define something, give it identity, allow it a place in the world. Names ground things in history, they give us a shorthand way of understanding what something is (this is particularly true of minority identities: having a name for your identity goes a long way towards making you feel part of a community or towards having legitimacy). So while many people might say that a last name just isn’t that important, that’s simply not true. Practically speaking, changing your name requires rebuilding your name if you have a career or contacts, changing a whole lot of official forms and documents (passports, driver’s license, etc), and changing even the way you think of yourself. It takes work, and that work far too often becomes the woman’s work.
Mary Elizabeth Williams argues that she doesn’t think most of her friends who changed their names are “pawns of the patriarchy” or that they’ve given up something by changing their names. It’s true that there are absolutely circumstances where a name change can be an act of liberation (e.g. changing the last name given to you by an abusive father), but for most people who choose to do it simply to please their partner/family/society, it might be time to get a little more critical. I doubt anyone is suggesting that women shouldn’t be allowed to change their names, simply that there’s a place in the conversation to ask why it’s always women and to challenge women to question. Choice feminism is great, but even freely chosen actions can contribute to an overall milieu of sexism.
What strikes me most about these conversations is the fact that every reason to change your name feels like an excuse. Every reason or situation could be solved in some other fashion that doesn’t require a woman to join her identity to her husband’s but not the other way around. If a woman doesn’t like her last name or has uncomfortable memories with it, she doesn’t have to wait around for a marriage to change it: you can change your name at any point in time. In fact one of my close friends just recently did this, and she’s all the happier for it because it was a choice of her own identity rather than a switch away from a painful identity into another person’s identity. If you want a unified family, hyphenate or make a new last name. The only honest to god reason for wanting a woman to change her last name but not a man is sexism, whether it’s in the form of a man feeling a woman needs to commit or a family wanting to carry on their name or some other variation thereof.
Spoiler alert: nothing about a title or name should change how you feel about someone or your commitment to them. While names do have power, they don’t make or break a relationship. My mother didn’t change her maiden name. My parents have been together for ??? years, through some incredibly rough times. No one could ever accuse my mother of not being committed to her marriage and her family (and if you do I will personally rip you a new one). The only confusion that ever happened was that one of my Spanish teachers thought my parents were divorced. We all got a hearty laugh over that one. Sometimes my friends don’t know what to call her. It’s real tough for her to tell them “Kathleen”.
Stop expecting women to bear the burden of accomodation. I’ve heard a fair number of men say that it was important to them, to the integrity of the relationship, or to carrying on their family name for their wife to change her name. Can I just suggest that if your husband has cited any of these reasons you question your choice of spouse since that’s a whole pile of double standard he’s throwing all over you? Anything that says “women should do this, but men don’t need to,” is pretty textbook sexism. It doesn’t mean that you’re wrong for wanting to do it or a bad person. It means you’re participating in a sexist system and that we all need to learn how to question it. If you honestly feel that your marriage will be better because your wife changes something about herself, question that. If you feel pressured to change your name in order to be a good wife, question that.
There is absolutely no objective reason that a woman should be expected to behave differently when adjusting to married life than a man should, so let’s stop pretending it’s all for family unity and get to the heart of the issue: sexism. I don’t think every woman who takes her husband’s name is deeply hurt or oppressed by that decision. But I do think letting lots of little things slide reminds us over and over that we’re in a culture that values men and men’s identities over women’s, and that I have a problem with.