Playing the Name Game

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.

8 Replies to “Playing the Name Game”

  1. I used to work in a supermarket and there was a customer who routinely signed his credit card slips in Chinese. I always figured that as long as it matched what was on his card, it didn’t matter. There were some members of staff who’d cry “But I can’t tell if it matches because I don’t read Chinese!” I was like, it’s not rocket science, just check the shapes match!

  2. Wait, seriously? You can sign with a chop? Can you also sign with your Chinese name in, like, handwriting?

    I actually devoted a good chunk of day to thinking about the last-names thing, and did come up with a solution for traditional heterosexual couples that assumed a practical gender binary — but yeah. Limited.

  3. I changed my last name when I got married* and moved my maiden name up to the middle. It apparently confused the shit out of a lot of organizations (like my health insurance carrier at the time) who decided my married name should be Firstname OriginalMiddlename NewLastname, not Firstname Maidenname NewLastname. Jerks. But my initials, MAB, are pretty nifty.

    Five years before that I’d changed all of my name legally; in Texas all I needed to do was petition a district court and get an order signed by a judge. There was fortunately no foolishness about putting ads in the paper or whatever. Of course I did have to come up with about sixteen hundred bucks to pay a lawyer but it’s easily the best sixteen hundred I’ve ever spent. (Second best was twelve hundred in 2005 for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, just before the ghastly reform law went into effect.)

    I’m not sure it was a feminist or an antifeminist act either time.

    * Same-sex marriage is legal in Texas if one partner is trans*; this is a very much unintended effect of transphobic bigotry. A trans woman, Christie Littleton, sued the doctor whose malpractice and negligence killed her husband. The judge threw out the case without considering the merits (which were never really in dispute) on the grounds that as a trans woman, even though her birth certificate had been revised, the State of Texas still considered her a man. Therefore her marriage had never happened and she had not been harmed in the eye of the law as only family may bring suit for wrongful death.

    They were trying to (and did) take away the right of straight trans* people to marry.

  4. Until recently in the Czech language, you had to put ‘ova’ as a suffix to any foreign surname. So if a Czech lady married a British guy called Smith, she’d become Smithova. The ‘ova’ suffix indicates that the bearer of such surname is a female.

  5. I think that as long as the conversation is about whether or not WOMEN should change their name, it’s going to be flawed. (There are times, such as discussing name changes and child care and rape culture, that “what about the men?” is a damn valid question.)

    I grew up with a hyphenated name (my mother and my brother and I have it, and I’ve never completely forgiven my dad for not taking it as well). My partner and I chose to blend our names. The only thing that really bothers me is when, as I see again and again and again, only the woman in a man-woman couple is agonizing over the decision — because of course the man is going to keep his name, right? Because of course he doesn’t have any “but it was my dad’s name anyway!/it’s an Anglicized name already!” issues.

    I care not for prescriptivism that purports to tell women which is the “feminist” choice, but I would really like to be able to have a conversation about how problematical it is when the vast majority of women I know have taken their partner’s name, ALWAYS with some reason (such as they never liked it anyway, or it came from their estranged father, or what have you, and usually with a dig against hyphenated or blended names — thanks! — when they contemplate those options at all), and the man NEVER protests, or says he wants to change HIS name, or anything. I’m not saying that women SHOULDN’T take their male partner’s name, but when our “totally free and independent choices” happen to line up exactly with the kyriarchal defaults, I do think we should stop and consider what’s going on (and it may be that we have a set of shitty options, and going with the default may be the best available in a given situation, and that’s fine). And when only women are the ones considering the issue at all, or are the ones who are supposed to bear the burden of being “feminist enough”, well, we’re having the wrong damn conversation.

  6. I think it’s an important discussion to have, Arwyn, and I am definitely not trying to shut down discussion with this post; I just think it’s more complex than “women who change their names are cooperating with the patriarchy,” and that’s what I was trying to get at here. I’m all for having discussions about these issues, as long as these conversations don’t start with the premise “when women don’t do what I think they should do, they aren’t feminist.” Because feminism should be about resisting being told what to do. That’s not all that it’s about, but it’s a part of it. Name changing is indeed problematic, and that’s something that we as a collective should be talking about.

    And you bring up a great point; discussions about the name game tend to focus on women, but men also have a role. I never thought I would say this in a feminist conversation, but…what about the men?

    ETA: Since this seems to be a problem with this thread in particular; I am not allowing comments through moderation when they do not actually engage with the material. Repeating the same essentialist statements I am criticizing over and over is not engaging. See Arwyn’s comment for an example of how to actually discuss this issue. She took the premise “name changing is problematic, discuss” and expanded upon it, instead of just repeating “women who change their names are not feminists, the end.”

  7. There’s a discussion about this issue going on at Hoyden About Town, and I want to draw everyone’s attention to this comment by WildlyParenthetical, because it…well, it’s awesome. Go read it.

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