Thursday, July 10, 2008

Tool of The Man

I got sucked into a rather contentious argument earlier this week on the common practice of name-changes at marriage -- more specifically, when women change their surname to be the same as their husband's when they marry. Not everyone does, of course, but the social convention for a long time in the US has been for the woman to adopt her new husband's last name. For a long time, it wasn't really an option to not do this, which is probably what set a few people off.

I had a ramble about this very topic back in January - about how it really is rather unfair that a woman changing their name at marriage is a no-brainer, while any other combination of things requires far more effort. Apparently, the discussion is still going on!

A question came up about "what name do your kids have, if you and your husband kept your last names?" and suddenly the initially polite conversation became one of "if you even consider changing your name, as a wife, then you are perpetuating a horribly and damaging sexist policy of the "Establishment" and patriarchal ownership and you should be ashamed!" from a couple of posters.

Wha? Apparently, the only reason (according to one of the arguers) that married couples might share a last name is to perpetuate and support a historical context of female subservience. We wouldn't even be thinking about it nowadays, if the tradition hadn't been instituted to enforce a husband's "ownership" of his wife. She had to take his name, so everyone would know to whom she belonged.

If you change your name, then you obviously fully accept and buy into this concept. There is no other option. By sharing a last name with your spouse, you accept that women are subservient and that is ok.

Uh., sorry. No.

And - even better, this logic is just painful -- if you don't change your name, you are also just recognizing the de-facto social oppression of women, by not going along with it. Same for suggesting that the husband change his name.

Well, which is it? Changing your name is supporting oppression, or not changing your name is supporting oppression? Add in a soupcon of patronizing and insulting commentary about "how it's really hard for some people to buck conventions, tsk tsk", and it erupted into a kerfuffle.

I didn't realize that by wanting to have a common surname, and making the explicit decision to change my name, that I was suddenly assumed to have condoned, nay, supported, the historic denigration of women throughout history. Wow. Because what I call myself, what name I have, is obviously of such world-rocking importance that I need to carefully weight my impact on society.

As I noted before, it important to me that a married couple (me, again) have the same last name. Kind of a "unit" thing, presenting a unified front to the world. I don't expect anyone else to do this, but I must admit that I prefer it to the bothersome proliferating hyphens. People aren't any more or less "married" based on name, but I like the symmetry. This is apparently righteously offensive to the self-identified feminists on the discussion board.

Sure, it's frustrating that women who don't change their names are still faced with criticism from some people. Maybe you need a bit more documentation of your relationship in certain circumstances (for example, travelling with a child who does not share your name in this new TSA regime), but no one really pays that much attention anymore.

Unless everyone makes up a new name, there would be no way to make this person happy about naming choices, though. My surname was passed to me by my father, so it's no more "my name" and out from under the thumb of the patriarchy than my husband's name. Keeping my maiden name would not be any different than choosing to adopt the surname of my married family.

I'm actually all for making up new names. It could be fun. It would freak out the geneaologists to no end, but it could be fun trying to figure out who everyone was and who they were related to. "Hi, my name is John Snufflebooger and this is my wife Jane Gugglewhump, my son Jack Moof and my two daughters, Jill Zappa-Tweet and Jillian Smythe"

Can you imagine the name-tags?


Laura said...

I have to show documentation that Sunny and Ace are my kids since we have different last names? Hm, maybe I should be sure to put their middle names on our travel documents. Good grief.

You are right, though. Feminists, anti-feminists, and those in the middle sure get passionate about issues like this (yes, I include myself!). Everyone else is WRONG and they (whichever group) is RIGHT. Kinda entertaining to watch when you can step back a bit as you have done.

Anonymous said...

I agree with both of you. I had the choice to change my name or not, way back in 1960. I decided to change my name in honor of changing my life so dramatically. The new name did not have the unhappy memories from my previous life. A completely new life accompanied by a new name! It was self-affirming to me.