Periodically, a new flurry of outrage about a really old and really tired topic is stirred up in femiblogland. This topic is, of course, women who change their names when they marry. Inevitably, someone starts it off with a round of “women who change their names when they marry aren’t really feminists/give feminism a bad name/should be ignored when they talk about feminist issues” and then everyone patiently explains how this person is wrong and things simmer down again until someone stirs the pot.
So, there are a couple of problems with the name game.
The argument goes that, as a woman, changing your last name to the name of your partner, or hyphenating your last name, is engaging in a kyriarchal system. By changing your name, you are signaling that your partner owns you. Men may also change their names upon marriage, on occasion, either taking the wife’s name or hyphenating, but this is not viewed as problematic because it has a much less fraught history.
The first and most obvious problem, in my point of view, is that this argument is heterosexist in nature. It assumes that the only kind of marriage which happens or matters includes a single woman and a single man. Same sex marriage isn’t included in the debate. Maybe people are assuming that inequality cannot exist in a same sex marriage, so it doesn’t matter if one or both partners change names? If people think that, they are sadly mistaken. But, setting aside this issue for the time being, let’s talk about the various problems with the name game.
So, problem: most women carry the name of their father. Which is, you know, part of a kyriarchal system which asserts that ancestry should be accounted for via the father’s line. I even know a fair number of women who were born to unmarried parents or parents who did not change their names who carry their fathers’ names. I, for example, have my father’s last name. Keeping your name, under these circumstances, isn’t really some blow against the kyriarchy, you’re just setting things off by a generation, because your last name is already kyriarchal in nature. Even more so, in fact, because you did not choose it, and therefore you are allowing other people to make choices about your identity for you if you feel pushed into keeping your last name by social pressure from people with a narrowminded view of what a feminist looks like.
A second problem, identified by numerous feminist critics of the name game, is that some women choose to change their names so that they can escape from controlling families, stalkers, and other unsavory sorts. While one could argue that names can be changed at any time, it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. Changing your name legally after marriage is a super simple, very low key affair. Changing your name at any other time requires a lot of paperwork and public filings (including an order to show cause for change of name and multiple publications in a newspaper of record). All of this information can be easily seen and followed by stalkers, who will then know someone’s new name.
A third problem, which I think is primarily an issue in the United States: many people in the United States actually have Anglicized versions of ethnic names which may have been changed as recently as a generation ago. As I do, for example; “Smith” is not a family name, it’s an Anglicized version of our family name, which is actually Russian. So, keeping it isn’t some sort of nod to my heritage and independence, it’s just a preservation of a system which routinely oppresses new immigrants into the United States.
When people immigrated into the United States in the 19th and early 20th century, when my great gransfather came here, some had their names forcibly changed upon entrance. Others were strongly encouraged to change their other language names for the purpose of getting ahead in American society. This is a huge tragedy. Many Americans are deprived of their cultural heritage by not having their other language family names, and the irregularity in recordkeeping also makes it really hard to determine when/where your ancestors entered this country.
This practice also continues, on some level. Many new immigrants take on Anglicized names, or opt to give their children Anglicized names instead of foreign language names in the belief that this will give their children a better chance at success in America. It’s also done for reasons of pure practicality by people who are tired of hearing and seeing their names mangled or who are worried about potential playground teasing. (Some use a dual naming system, with an American name and an other language name, which is marginally less depressing than giving children a totally Anglicized set of names.) Foreign language names in non-Roman writing systems, of course, are forcibly Anglicized when legal documentation is generated because you are not supposed to use, say, Arabic on legal documents*, and they are often spelled peculiarly in the process, sometimes sticking someone with a very strange version of their original name.
One is left with an interesting question in this situation: do you take on the name of a partner to celebrate your addition to a new family, and discard the Anglicized version of your family name because your family name is doubly kyriarchal (from the father, not your real family name)? People view the act of taking a partner’s name as some form of submission. But I’d argue that keeping an Anglicized version of an ethnic name is also contributing to kyriarchy; every document I sign with the name “Smith” is a nod to the system of oppression in which I live. The very fact that my ethnic middle name is misspelled on all of my legal paperwork is, I think, a very telling example of the fact that the United States is still very resistant to ethnic names.
Personally, were I to marry, I probably would keep my name, because I am lazy, and the thought of that much paperwork makes me feel faint (unless I marry someone with a last name which starts with “X,” fulfilling my lifetime dream of being able to initial everything “SEX”). But, you know, I don’t see how taking on someone else’s name is antifeminist. If I make a choice to take on a partner’s name, whatever gender that partner may be, that’s a conscious choice and, to my eyes, a rejection of kyriarchy.
Clearly, the solution to this problem is to do away with last names altogether, to avoid the entire discussion. The bottom line is that I don’t care what people do, as long as they make an informed choice. Automatically changing or not changing your name is questionable, but deciding to keep or change your name is another matter.
Or, we could go for a system like what they use in Iceland, where people are given patronymic or matronymic names which reflect their immediate parentage and nothing else.
*Fun fact: my Chinese mother signs documents with her chop! And, periodically, someone gets pissy about it and she has to explain that it’s perfectly legal to sign with a chop and it’s not her problem if people can’t read Chinese.