Note: This essay is from the Winter Issue of the print version of Katastrophic Thoughts. Due to a mistake in pagination this article was printed and mailed to readers with two missing sentences. In the interest of getting the whole story, it is re-printed here in its entirety. Issues #1 and #2 are still available, please contact me at kathleenerindavis at gmail dot com if you are interested in a single issue or a subscription.
In the last issue I wrote about your new feminist best friend (from the 1800s) Lucy Stone. She was an awesome woman who was both a suffragist and feminist as well as an abolitionist (which is more than can be said of many of the other more well known suffragists). One of the things that Lucy Stone was most known for keeping her own name when she married and fighting for other women’s right to do so. This woman was born nearly 200 years ago. Two Hundred.
Yet, as recently as 2011, according to an NBC poll, 50% of Americans believed that women should be legally required to change their last names to their husbands when they get married. That’s not 50% that believe that women should do it – there are no doubt even more than 50% of people ready to tell women what they should do – that’s 50% that believe there should be a law that requires women to change their names.
This is, I hope we can all agree, completely preposterous. There are many things people should be legally required to do: not murder people, stop at red lights, refrain from robbing banks. Why anyone would care what someone else does with their own name is insane. People name their children after fruit and consumer goods or characters in tween vampire romance novels. I would think keeping the name that you have lived with for 20-40 years or more would be among one of the most benign things a person could do. But I would be wrong.
So since we can all agree that legally requiring women to change their names is crazy pants, let’s back up and get the origin of that other thing that many more people believe: That women (and only women) should do it.
The story of this tradition goes back to the bible, upon marrying Abraham, his new wife no longer existed as herself but as the “wife of Abraham.” This kind of shit went on for a really long time and has been used to justify some of the biggest battles that feminists have fought: one of the pieces of logic keeping women from getting the vote was that most women were married and they would just vote the way their husbands did anyways.
Women couldn’t own property because they weren’t real people, husbands could rape their wives because their wives where essentially their property, and even as recent as the 1970s a woman couldn’t get a credit card without her husband’s permission. Fast forward to 2015 and married women receive mail addressed to Mrs. Her Husband’s name, as if we’re all still just “wife of Abraham.”
If you think that a married woman is still a person, the logic behind why women should change their last names seems pretty flimsy.
The other reason for the existence of the tradition stems from having children (something we all know not all married couples do). The child was given the father’s name to prove that he was the rightful heir and not “a bastard”, this is the same logic I would assume that’s vaguely behind the propensity for unmarried women to give their children the father’s last name even when the father has no role in raising the child.
Just as we all agreed a few sentences ago that married women are in fact still human beings, can we now all agree that there is no such thing as an “illegitimate” child? No matter what’s going on in your parent’s life when you’re born or trendy thing they name you after you are still a person and still part of family.
So we can hopefully all agree that the tradition as a tradition is pretty ludicrous. But most traditions come from places that are irrelevant to our lives today. And this one is one that’s holding on. More than 90% of women change their name when they get married (statistics of men who change their name when they get married are so slim that their basically never reported on).
Now for the not-at-all-surprising news that I didn’t change my last name when I got married. It was a decision that I made when I was a little girl and one that I shared with my husband early on. He response was something like “Well, it’s your name.” I know there is part of him that would have liked me sharing his last name, but it was a pretty easy thing for him to get past. I am no less part of his family for having my own name, just as he is no less part of mine for keeping his.
A person’s name is the most fundamental marker of their identity and although the majority of women who change their names when they get married do not associate themselves with surrendering their identity to their husbands and certainly view themselves as individuals not property, that’s still what’s at the heart of altering your identity on the most basic level.
Once you start considering it there are so many reasons why a woman would want to keep her own name: in an age when women are getting married later in life and building careers, changing your name erases the most searchable marker to your past accomplishments, plus changing your name in the modern world is a pain in the ass (in fact there is so much paper work involved with getting a new version of everything that entire companies have been built around helping women navigate the process).
All that said, I don’t think that women should keep their names or even that men should change their names. When it comes to personal choices that don’t hurt others I am all for freedom of choice. If you want to take your husband’s last name, who am I to tell you that you can’t? You can change your name to Scrimhorn Shacklebot for all I care. I just hope you have a good reason for doing so, one that you’ve come to on your own rather than just following what every one else made you believe you should do.
Changing your name when you get married and giving babies their father’s surname is so staggeringly unquestioned. And that’s all I’m really making an argument for – a little critical thinking about the most visible symbol of personal identity.
And that goes for men too. In the United States, only eight states have an official name change for a man as part of their marriage process, others may petition a court. So few men even let the issue of name change cross their minds. For a world of true equality to happen all couple would start at zero in the discussion – his name, her name, any combination there of, a new name all together – everything should be equally considered if everyone is truly equal.
There was an excellent article by Molly Caro May for The Hairpin a few months back titled “What Happened When We Gave Our Daughter My Last Name” (spoiler: people acted shocked but the world did in fact keep spinning). She says:
I would never advocate for all children having their mother’s last names. But imagine if 50% them did. Imagine the social impact on our collective unconscious. It would be a movement requiring no money, no lobbying, no elbow grease. It’s a choice anyone of any background can make—harder for some, I know. And our naming system would actually be diverse. No one gender would occupy it.
People might say these are small peanuts, but language is never small. Language shapes how we view things before we even know we are viewing them. How we name something determines how we value it. If women’s last names are consistently absent from history, never passed down, then where is their—our—value?