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Name Changes and Privilege

August 2, 2010

This post is by Ashley Lauren. Ashley, 26, is many things, including a high school English teacher, a feminist blogger at Small Strokes, founder and executive editor of the education blog Equality 101, and a fiancée planning a big white wedding in October 2010.  She received her bachelor’s in English Literature and Creative Writing in 2006 and her master’s in English Studies in May of 2010 after writing her thesis about literacy in the feminist blogging community.  Now that she’s done with her master’s, she has all this free time to read, write, and finish up her wedding plans – all while beating her fiancé at Mario Kart Wii.  You can follow her on Twitter @samsanator or e-mail her at samsanator(at)gmail(dot)com.

The other day, Emily from Gender Across Borders graciously allowed me to cross post her article about changing her name for my series about feminism and relationships to my blog, Small Strokes.  My readers were very nice in the comments over there.  Emily wasn’t so lucky with her commenters here at GAB.  (Check out the comments here.)  And, while I normally would not take the time to write a full-out post inspired by commenters, I do feel that this issue needs a little more attention.

Let’s be clear before we go any further: I have written before about how I’ve decided not to change my name when I get married.  But I’m not one of those feminists who think that any woman who does change her name is reversing decades of feminist activism.

There are people out there, though, who do believe that women should absolutely never ever change their names – apparently for any reason whatsoever.  And some of those views were reflected in the comments on Emily’s GAB post on Friday.

Honestly, deciding to change one’s name isn’t just about “the feminist choice” versus “the traditional choice.”  People change their names for a multitude of reasons, not just because they’re getting married.  And those reasons, no matter what they are, are almost always intensely personal.  To say that one should use that personal choice to make a larger, political statement because it would be “perverse” (taken from the comments of the original article) not to is, simply, ignorant of any variants of the man-and-woman-getting-married scenario.

Sure, you could argue that anyone has the choice to change one’s name, but what happens when real life kicks in and that option isn’t really viable anymore?  What about someone like the woman who sat next to me in my grad class who couldn’t get a job and felt she had to change her surname to her middle name to avoid racial discrimination?  What about a queer couple giving a big middle finger to the patriarchy that has more or less excluded them from marriage that wants to be recognized as a unit and, therefore, one person takes the name of the other?  What about any of the instances in this Tumblr discussion, which I’m linking to because I don’t think I could ever say it any better.

The fact of the matter is that simply having the choice to change one’s name upon getting married is a privilege, and the very discussion itself almost reeks of upper-middle class, heterosexual, cis, white privilege.  Think about it: To even suggest that someone, anyone, should keep a name with which they do not identify – whether that is because they’ve married a man and want to take his name or because their family name was changed at Ellis Island before they were even born and they want to go back to the original family name or for any of the other plethora of intensely personal reasons out there to change one’s name – just to make a political statement is simply reciting dictum from a feminist textbook and ignoring the larger issues and nuances of life.

And, frankly, if a woman does decide to make that name change to her husband’s name, to say that she is “subservient to your husband’s needs” or “losing your identity” (again, from the GAB comments) are such gross over generalizations.  And assumptions!  You can change your name and still be your own person.  Gosh, so many of us write under pseudonyms on the internet (I do!  I’ll give you a hint: My last name is not Lauren); do those pseudonyms make us any less us when we write?  Absolutely not, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference if we chose to legally change our names to our pseudonyms, either.  It’s all about what you identify with, and, really, by changing your name to one that you identify with, you might just be gaining your identity rather than losing it – and isn’t that really what feminism is all about?

Personally, I identify with my last name, which is why I’m keeping it.  It isn’t some broad, political statement.  It’s simply because this name is who I am, and Tim (my fiancé) loves me – all of me – as a whole person, and that love includes my name and my desire to keep it.  And I feel the same way about him and his name, which is why, when he offered to change it for me, I said he shouldn’t do that unless he really identified with my name or a hyphenated/combo variant.  (He decided he didn’t identify with my name or a variant of our two names.  Hence, we are keeping our own.)  But, again, the discussion was about identities, not traditions and politics.

I do understand that the scenario of a woman changing her name to her husband’s name is completely different than someone changing her name to reflect their ethnicity or queer or trans* people changing their name to another in any situation.  I’m just trying to reinforce two things here: 1. Any kind of prescriptive feminism can be dangerous. When someone says “don’t ever change your name! It’s YOURS!”, they don’t often take into consideration other contexts. Yes, those contexts are totally different, but feminists telling other feminists what is the feminist thing to do often ends up being just as restrictive as the patriarchy we’re fighting against. And 2. Any choice is usually very personal, and if someone makes that choice after careful consideration of politics, larger moral issues, and smaller personal ones – which I believe Emily did before she came to her decision and wrote her post – and comes to the right choice for them and their identity after all that careful consideration, that should be ok. It’s when we start blindly making choices that it becomes a problem, whether those choices are made blindly reinforcing the patriarchy or blindly following “feminist doctrine.”

  1. August 2, 2010 1:26 pm

    I agree that there is no point being prescriptive about this issue, that

    For me changing your name when you marry a man (presuming you are a woman, because same sex marriage does come with other baggage) is not just about identity. Politics and tradition are a big part of the debate and definitely have informed my decision never to change my name in the unlikely event I’ll get married (my partner and I aren’t very enthusiastic about the institution), more so than identity. If you are getting married and make a considered decision to change your name – well that is your decision. But for a lot of women it isn’t an issue they examine, it’s an act they undertake by default. Personally, I could never change my name not because I have an aversion to my partner’s name, or that if I do I’ll feel that he has some sort of literal dominion over me or that I will lose my identity, but because I object to the tradition and what it represents. I can’t see how its sexist symbolism can be ignored.

  2. August 2, 2010 2:05 pm

    What I wonder about is why there are no male sites with endless discussions whether men should abandon their names when they get married? Why is it still exclusively a female issue? Isn’t that inequality? What kind of a relationship can be built between two people where one is free from worry on this subject, while the other has to think, worry, argue, etc.? The whole idea that name change is for women only is humiliating. How can so many people who call themselves feminists not see that?

    • August 2, 2010 2:58 pm

      Unfortunately name-changing is almost exclusively an issue for women because our society has told us that men should not think about this. You said:

      What kind of a relationship can be built between two people where one is free from worry on this subject, while the other has to think, worry, argue, etc.?

      Are you saying that only some heterosexual relationships leading to marriage have to think about this? Only those who are “not feminist”? Not true at all. This is something that all women have to think about when she’s getting married (for heterosexual relationships). This decision is not avoidable because our culture has imprinted this standard on us.

      FYI the hoopla around Chelsea’s wedding is exploding–and some people are wondering–will she change her name? Or won’t she? Either way, the media is 1) not asking whether or not her husband will change his name; 2) will judge and attack her no matter what choices she makes. And THAT right there is sexism.

      What I didn’t mention in my post on Friday, was that my fiance offered to change his last name to my name or do a combo of our two names (Fillroy). It was a choice that I chose to make. I didn’t make it based on previous assumptions and what culture/society tells me; no, it was a long thought-out process to choose to take Fillingham as my last name.

      I find it disrespectful that people (not just you, Clarissa) are making assumptions about my relationship and choices, and can’t iterate Ashley’s post again. And again.

      As someone else commented on Ashley’s blog, we, as feminists, need to get away from talking about this nonsense of name-changing and weddings and work for more important issues like access to abortion and gender equality in the workplace. Seriously.

  3. August 2, 2010 2:18 pm

    You’ve just reminded me of another reason I wouldn’t change my name – my partner (and my previous long-term partner felt the same) would never consider changing his name. So why should I?

  4. Clarissa permalink
    August 2, 2010 3:44 pm

    I wrote a post about this new phenomenon of ultra-conservative women like Sarah Palin and the author of this post claiming the title of feminists:

    **this post has been edited. note: please follow GAB comments policy.***

  5. August 2, 2010 3:44 pm

    I meant, of course, the initial post under discussion.

  6. Erik permalink
    August 2, 2010 4:00 pm

    Well, I think you’re misinterpreting some of that discussion, and you’re certainly conflating many quandaries and scenarios that are quite disparate into the same sort of thing, i.e. for the purposes of the original question “can you be a ‘feminist’ and a ‘matrimonial traditionalist’ at the same time” – that the question doesn’t apply to every woman on earth is assumed and that we are talking about the women, like Emily, in this sort of situation, as. Questions of how this relates to class, race, etc., are obviously different, though certainly related, questions. But, as all good philosophy is done, one must delimit questions first or you won’t get anywhere. We are forced, when dealing with sociological issues, by their very nature, to speak with a certain amount of generality. One could frame an entire article with a meta-analysis of this approach regarding this particular issue (I’m sure some PhD candidate from the University of All the Good Dissertations Have Been Written has already taken up the issue). So, I’m consciously avoiding the linguistic/hermeneutic derail. My point was really simple: there is a fundamental difference between the relationship between practices of survival and misogyny and the relationship between cultural symbolism and misogyny.

    I’m not sure if my comment is one of the one’s you’re taking issue with. It was long and rambling and I probably didn’t even mean it all. But here, I will reduce my argument, which I stand by: all oreos are cookies, but not all cookies are oreos, right? Cooking is something that must be done for a household’s survival. The woman who is made to do the cooking is oppressed because she is not given agency in the matter, and hence, by definition, this action becomes oppressive. But cooking itself is not oppressive. Cooking was not created to enforce an agenda of male dominance. It sort of became that way through a lot of historical chaos and the power-seeking tendencies of the testosterone rich. In other words, there’s nothing implicit in the act of cooking that works against the notion of feminism in the sense I take it to mean, which is that women (or everyone) should be able to do whatever they want.

    The ring, however, and the name change, and the white dress were in fact created to enforce misogynistic agendas. That is their very raison d’etre, or their original one at least, and there’s no escaping, no forgetting that. These cultural rituals and cultural narratives exist on a level of our society completely different than the ritual of cooking, for example. They are much more evolved, cerebral, passive, and – ultimately – false, artificial creations of the cultural mind that cannot be separated from their non-survival significance. Possession of women lives inside of the engagement ring. Oppression of women’s sexuality is embodied by the white wedding dress. That is what the engagement ring is, what the wedding dress is, what they embody. It is not unlike, say, Doric columns on your local library that are structurally futile – they aren’t holding anything up, they’re there to look imposing and impressive. Their purpose is aesthetic and psychological. They’re there to tell the public, “don’t fuck with us. we’re the government.” The engagement ring exists in the same way. Oh sure, people don’t give engagement rings with the same sort of intention they once did. My guess is that most people give them because they’ve just accepted the silly and pointless theatre of our culture as a given, something you just participate in (it’s this same apathy and ignorance that makes it so difficult for social progress to occur). But the engagement ring, or the white dress, or the name change – these rituals are nothing without their history and the beliefs behind the practices that established them. Just because people don’t wipe their noses on their jacket sleeves like they once did does not mean that the cuff-link has lost it’s value – a value that exists in memory, in history, in the very existence of the cuff-link – as a symbol of empire, of racial or national superiority. You can’t flip someone off and then try to tell them you thought it meant “I like you.”

    The point is: you don’t always GET to choose what something means or whether or not it’s a political statement. Many things simply are, usually the things that were created for that purpose and nothing more. Those things that exist ONLY in the narrative of one’s culture. I mentioned the cross in my other comment. Maybe you want to wear a cross necklace because you simply find the general shape of the cross to be aesthetically pleasing. Maybe you don’t even have any clue that it means a great deal more than that to a great many people – but that doesn’t mean that it loses its meaning when adorned by you, or that you get to change its meaning because you like the shape. People will judge you by it, make assumptions about you through it – and this IS politics, this is the foundation of politics.

    We are not independent agents working only for and with our autonomous beliefs or ways of meaning making and living. We are born into a pre-existing socially contracted group that has already developed its own stories, explanations, practices, oppressions. You cannot make non-statements out of politically loaded practices. You can, however, gracefully decline to continue floating down the river of the status quo. So you’re a feminist and you want to change your name or get a nice big engagement ring? Go for it. No one really fucking cares, honestly, but don’t kid yourself into thinking that, because it’s YOU, special snowflake, you’ve redefined the object, or given it a meaning that is solely yours. As Wittgenstein so rightly proved, there are no private languages.

  7. Erik permalink
    August 2, 2010 4:02 pm

    (apologies for all the grammatical/typos/other mistakes)

    • August 2, 2010 4:10 pm

      Thank you Erik for your reply (and for calling me “special snowflake.” I wish I could’ve eloquently described my personal lifestyle in those words in respect to yes, things have meaning and the reason why engagement rings and white wedding dresses were created to enforce misogyny.

  8. maria permalink*
    August 3, 2010 1:09 am

    here’s what doesn’t make sense to me: I am the first generation to be a “citizen” in America, and consistently have culture clashes. From whether I call it a “spaghetti strainer” or a “colander”-whatever. Before I continue, here’s the deal-what we are getting at is a central issue in American 1970s dialogues about what women really wanted or were expected to be…

    coming from a Latina perspective, there’s bigger things to split hairs over. even the workplace debates are more nuanced (just look at median incomes for women of different cultural backgrounds), so why then, is matrimony, a PERSONAL matter, being held to such a publicly responsible standard in this day and age? perhaps the definition of feminism is still being considered in a purely Americanized, middle class way. if so, then yes, marriage and work can be considered the central points of contention in terms of womens’ rights. but come on, let’s not get overly theoretical. that’s the death of real feminism.

    we all know that practice is what largely makes a true feminist experience, and you know what? it doesn’t always fit the image that we have of a feminist. just as with any movement, there are class, racial, educational, etc. issues within the movement itself. i’m not offended by a woman taking a man’s last name-if that man rocks, then more power.

  9. Mallory permalink
    August 3, 2010 12:31 pm

    This is really a question of how we are framing the idea of name changing.
    Let’s take it at face value for a second, and stem our thoughts of all connotations surrounding a woman changing her last name to match her husband’s. Pragmatically speaking, one household name can make things easier: paying bills, buying a home, naming children..whether that name is hyphenated, a combination name, or whatever, it’s the unity that makes the everyday things more simple. adding back all the other stuff. I respected Emily’s post and found that she had clearly analyzed her decision. However, I think (and correct me if I’m wrong, please) that when she sat down to write the post, she was kind of..well, overcome by the EMOTION of it all- the idea that all the readers out there were going to attack her for her decision and the fact that she loved her fiance and she’s going to do what she’s going to do. Now I don’t know Emily or her situation, but I do know that any woman (and man) can get on the defensive when she thinks her relationship is being judged or questioned.
    Which makes her decision all the more valid, and all the more hers. Not only did she analyze it and reference all the historical and social reasons why it was okay for her to change her name, but she also felt it. And I think whenever you make a decision, you gotta use your head, but moreso, you’ve gotta feel it.


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