Who are we, as women? As a woman, who are you? Do you know? If so, how do you express that? What sums up your identity?
For me, a big part of that is my name. It’s something sacred. It’s my calling card in the world. It’s something that identifies me as me. It’s something that provides continuity and coherence in the long story that is my life.
I don’t always like my name, and in truth I legally modified my birth name several years ago to better suit me — I literally bought my first name an additional letter. I don’t always like my last name. It’s hard to spell and people often mispronounce and/or misspell both my first and last names.
But it’s mine.
I read an article the other day that struck a nerve. Titled “Retro Marriage Trend Makes a Comeback, for Better or Worse” the piece describes how large majorities of women are now taking their husbands’ last names when they marry. There seems to be conflicting data on whether this is more common among older women or younger women, but one statistic presented in the article is that 8% of women now keep their maiden names, compared to a high of 23% in the 1990s.
This troubles me. It’s hard enough for women to discover who we are, what our values are, what our unique gifts and dreams are, and how to manifest them. It’s hard enough for women to be seen as whole people, to have a Self outside the needs of other people — our children, spouses, partners, parents, and siblings. It’s hard enough for women to be seen, heard and taken seriously — or for us to take ourselves, our voices, our lives and our responsibilities seriously.
So why add to all that potential for getting lost and not forming a solid independent Selfhood the additional variable of a name change? A change in our major identifier, that connects us with our entire lives? And a change that typically happens at an age when we’re just about to burst onto the stage of our own lives?
Maybe women in the United States don’t know the history behind the custom of changing names. It comes from English law where women had nothing — were nothing — without attachment to a male. First that male was their father, then it was their husband. Women — even ones from rich families — had no right to own any property of their own, and no right to much of anything. As economic entities literally owned by men, we women were vaginas and wombs used to pass on the names of men and their property (to sons) or to form economically and politically advantageous alliances with other families (through marrying off daughters). To lose or gain a name was to lose or gain basic rights and economic safety.
And by the way the term “maiden name” is sexist in itself, implying that a pre-married woman is (and should be) a virgin. Of course men enjoy no comparable labels distinguishing the various stages of their sexual activity (which is another subtext of unmarried vs. married — don’t get me started on the whole “Miss”, “Mrs.” and “Ms.” thing).
It’s not this way in all parts of the world. In countries colonized by Spain instead of England, people have at least two surnames — one from the father and one from the mother. (This norm may have originally come from Arabic-speaking cultures, which spread to Spain.) While the maternal surname eventually gets dropped after two generations, every person carries identifiers from both parents. Latin American women rarely change their names when they marry, and if they do, it’s often added to the others and preceded by a “de” to show it’s a married surname.
Also in Spanish-speaking countries — cultures often thought to be more machista (sexist or male dominant) than the USA — women have long been able to own property separate from men. In fact, California was the first state where women could own property separate from any man. This was a holdover from Mexican law that was preserved when California became a part of the United States.
I understand the practical reasons for changing one’s name. Sometimes we women don’t like our birth surnames. Sometimes we don’t like our family of origin and are happy to join a new tribe. Sometimes we want continuity with our children. When I was married, I got a new passport with a hyphenated last name in anticipation of children, and signed legal documents as a hyphenated person when they were jointly executed with my then-spouse. But nowhere else. It gleefully tickled my feminist funny bone to no end when we’d get spam phone calls from some poor soul wanting to talk to Mr. [my last name].
My main issue about changing names is this — why is the name change only a woman’s issue? Why don’t men get to go through this? If marriage implies a union, why not make it equal and NOT a subsuming of the woman’s identity to the man’s? Some men do change their names or both spouses take on a new hyphenated name, and I’d love to see more of this. I adore how Antonio Villaraigosa, mayor of Los Angeles, actually combined his last name (Villar) with his wife’s (Raigosa) to create a whole new entity. What a metaphor for partnership, union, shared new identity, and equity!
Marriage today has its roots in feudal economic relationships where women are not only unequal to men, but their property. Because of this inequity and the burdens it brings, we continue to have to make myriad decisions that are men’s privilege to never have to consider — like having to time children before it’s too late biologically but after it’s sufficiently economically stable; whether to try parenthood plus career or choose one; like balancing”work work” and housework. On top of all that, we have to decide what to call ourselves too?
There must be some payoff. Let’s face it, the logistics of changing your name is a HUGE pain in the arse, especially in the digital age. So ladies, what is the payoff?
I suspect there is another piece here that isn’t talked about much. Women changing their names upon marriage is a public declaration of the married state. It’s a way to announce to the world “I am married now!” It’s a way to announce “I am now legitimate before the world, as are my children and my sexual activity!” Even though we single women tend to be better offer financially and (according to some studies) also happier than married women — especially ones with children — there is still a stigma attached to being a single woman with our wild, unclaimed vaginas bandying about. The stigma is that somehow we haven’t been able to attract a man that wants to marry us (which apparently should be our goal)…and therefore we are defective somehow. Unintentionally perhaps, women taking on their husbands’ name contributes to a societal sense of “there are better and worse buckets of womanhood, and I’m in the ‘good woman’ bucket now!”
Let’s be honest. There is some truth to the existence of the good bucket. Being married — and letting the whole world know we’re married by changing our name — still gives us an identity, legitimacy, and personhood that singledom does not. Also, few relationships in a woman’s life outside of marriage have the power to determine the path and quality of a woman’s life (and that of her children) in terms of basic physical safety and economic well-being…whether for better or worse.
I hope for the day when marriage is NOT such a defining and critical moment in a woman’s life to the extent she feels compelled, or obligated (one of my recently-married acquaintances was pressured by her new husband to change her last name because it was “the polite thing to do”) to change her identity. I hope for the day when marriage is just as critical and defining a moment for men. And I hope for the day when men have to wrestle with the big questions of life, identity, work, children, and family to the same degree as women.
In the meantime, I do my part to encourage this shift by resisting the norm and its oppressive history. While I may hyphenate again one day, I retain my surname, and along with it my identity, my herstory, my whole personhood, and my Self.
What do you think? Why did you change your name? Or not?
In lak ech!