To Change or Not to Change: What’s in a Surname?
Over at The Dish, Andrew Sullivan’s readers have been discussing an article by Jill Filipovic on the traditions surrounding marital name change.* One might think that, after a few decades of feminism, more women would choose to keep their surnames when they marry. Yet, only about 10 percent of American women choose to do so, and that number is decreasing over time. Moreover, some 50 percent of Americans believe women should be required by law to take their husband’s last name.** Cultural resistance to women keeping their names remains strong.
These statistics amaze Filipovic. She argues that women should not reflexively take their husbands’ names when they marry. For her, one’s name is one’s identity:
The term for you is what situates you in the world. The cultural assumption that women will change their names upon marriage – the assumption that we’ll even think about it, and be in a position where we make a “choice” of whether to keep our names or take our husbands’ – cannot be without consequence … When women see our names as temporary or not really ours, and when we understand that part of being a woman is subsuming our own identity into our husband’s, that impacts our perception of ourselves and our role in the world. It lessens the belief that our existence is valuable unto itself, and that as individuals we are already whole. It disassociates us from ourselves, and feeds into a female understanding of self as relational – we are not simply who we are, we are defined by our role as someone’s wife or mother or daughter or sister.
Historically, a woman surrendered both her identity and several basic rights the moment she became a wife:
Under coverture laws, a woman’s legal existence was merged with her husband’s: “husband and wife are one,” and the one was the husband. Married women had no right to own property or enter into legal contracts. It’s only very recently that married women could get their own credit cards. Marital rape remained legal in many states through the 1980s. The idea that a woman retains her own separate identity from her husband, and that a husband doesn’t have virtually unlimited power over a woman he marries, is a very new one.
To counter “centuries of servitude and inequality,” Filipovic suggests that, at the very least, any kids be given the woman’s surname. If it’s important to the couple that their family share a last name, it should be hers; or the couple can make up a new one. Filipovic acknowledges that asking men to take their wives’ names might seem unfair to men but, since they suffer from neither women’s sense of “psychological impermanence,” nor “the shadow of several thousand years of gender-based discrimination, ” the sacrifice is theirs to make.
Not surprisingly, most Dish readers thought that the decision on whose name to take, or not take, should be left to the couple. Several described their own choices. Some questioned Filipovic’s connection of surname to identity, noting that there was little difference between a woman keeping her father’s surname or taking her husband’s–both defined her by her relationship to a man. A couple of women felt that taking their husband’s name enabled them to forge a new identity separate from an abusive birth family. On The Dish’s Facebook page, a couple of commenters reiterated the standard argument that a woman’s failure to take her husband’s name indicated that she wasn’t serious about the marriage and was hedging her bets should it fail.
For the record, I kept my name when I got married. It was pretty much of a no-brainer for me. I was 40 at the time, have an unusual last name, and belong to two communities–academic types and liberal Jews–where it’s common for women to retain their names. Plus, my husband’s ex-wife gladly took his name when they married and birthed him a son to carry the name on. Her taking his name hardly saved their marriage. For me, a good part of my identity was tied up in my name and I was changing enough things when I married my husband–leaving my job, moving to a new city, acquiring a stepson–that I wanted to hang on to it.
The most surprising opponent of my decision to keep my surname was my father. I thought he’d be happy that I was keeping the family name. It’s not like there’s a multitude of Toguts out there. But no, he wanted me to shed it. For years after The Russian and I first got married, he addressed anything he sent to us to Mr. and Mrs. Russian. Thirteen years after the fact, he still can’t understand why The Russian didn’t insist that I take his last name. The Russian could care less.
The other place I’ve encountered resistance is among my fellow second wives. I belong to a couple of online stepmother support groups, and whenever the topic of surnames comes up, it engenders a lot of heated discussion. Many of the women passionately decry the ex-wife’s refusal to surrender the husband’s name and revert to her maiden name. They’re incensed about having to share a name with “her” and insist that she give it back. These women treat their husband’s last name like a possession, something that should belong to them and not the ex. This attitude surprised me. In my case, the ex’s decision to keep my husband’s last name, which is also the last name of her child, was one of the few post-divorce things she did that actually made sense. She’s welcome to call herself whatever she wants (I have my own names for her anyway).
So, is Filipovic right? Is your name your identity? If you’re a woman, did you or will you keep your own name upon marriage? And, if you’re a man, would you even consider taking your wife’s last name? Why do you think that, of all the changes feminism has brought, this particular tradition remains largely intact?
** Apparently, the 50 percent figure is highly questionable. HT: dragonfrog