The thing I don’t know how to talk about

There is a thing I do not know how to talk about because I could probably will easily offend people I love and people I care about. I could easily offend women, men, wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, feminists and everyone who straddles multiple identities.

The thing is a name. The last name. The changeable name. The married name.

I loathe the common practice of women changing their names when they get married. It makes me feel unapologetic rage. MY NAME IS NOT LESS IMPORTANT THAN A MAN’S.

Before I continue, I must say this: I fear writing this because I do not want to offend or shame any woman who wants to make, will make or has made the decision to change her name upon marriage. I recognize and respect this is a deeply personal choice, which is why I don’t know how to talk about this. How can I say what I want to say without making people feel bad? All of the married women to whom I am related have changed their names, and most of the married women I know—including wonderful loud feminists—have changed their names. I recognize there are many reasons to change a name, and I don’t understand them all.

If you read this and you have changed or will change your name, from the bottom of my heart I do not write this to make you feel ashamed or hurt.

Onward.

This topic is deeply personal to me in my rebellious, feminist soul, which I why I want to address it despite these fears. This conversation is too important to keep quiet.

Whenever I see a married woman with her own last name, I privately cheer. Whenever I see a married woman who changed her name, I privately groan. See why this gets offensive? That’s why I keep it private because this decision is not mine and frankly, is not my business on an individual level.

The thing that bothers me so deeply is in our culture and across the world, a woman’s identity is disposable and a man’s is not, and we accept that. His name goes to the family and the children. She may even become, at times, Mrs. [MALE NAME]. She is losing a piece of her identity in a way that, to me, does not stake claim to her identity, her family’s past and her family’s identity in that immediately recognizable way—with a name.

Yes, there are other ways than a name to stake claim to your identity and honor your family, but this ancient practice is one of the most visible symbols of gender inequality there is.

I have never met a man who would even consider changing his name to his wife’s, or who would consider a hyphenated blend of both their names. I have only ever seen men get offended by this idea, but in the next breath, they really don’t want their wives retain their own last names. And I don’t think, by and large, these men are purposefully sexist. They are very attached to their name and their identity, so why not grant that same respect to someone else? (I want to jump up and down and yell this last part. THAT’S HOW I FEEL!) And then some men, especially older ones, see the practice of women changing their name as what people do because that’s the way we’ve always done and and why would we do it any other way? This may seem benign, but I don’t think it is. It’s a casual indifference to the gender inequality we see in the world, and sometimes casual indifference is the most painful because it comes from people we know and care about.

I could never change my name if I got married. And if a man could not accept that, he is not the kind of man I would marry. Sure, a rose by any other name and all that, but my accomplishments are attached to this name. My work is attached to this name. This rare, five-letter, three-syllable name only one person has ever pronounced correctly without me telling her how has been a key part of my identity (and the source of a lot of laughs and commiserating with family members). It’s typically the first identity I give a stranger. I cannot and will not give that up. I resent the idea that it’s not normal for me to keep it. Giving up my name would feel like betraying my family. “Your identity isn’t good enough for me anymore. Later!” I absolutely dislike how I feel like I actually have to defend my decision, which I have seen other women do. While I’m glad to see them speak up, I regret that they feel they have to explain themselves.

[Maybe I’m being dramatic, but so what? These are all my honest feelings.]

For thousands of years, women have been molding and changing themselves to please other people in a way men have not. So many women give and give up, accepting that it is their lot in life. We all make sacrifices in relationships and in families, and I want to briefly acknowledge with gratitude the sacrifices men have made. But we while have asked men to give up leisure time, become more responsible and even more nurturing, we have not asked them to change their identities.

So why do women still change their name? I am curious.

For many women, maybe it’s just not that important. Maybe it means more to their husbands, so they are willing to make that change out of love? Maybe they want kids and want everyone in the family to have the same name? Maybe they want to put a difficult past behind them? That’s the reason I can empathize with the most. Maybe I put more meaning into a name or the meaning of changing it than many women do.

But still, I cannot get over this one thing: Why are the male names and identities more important?

To those inclined to argue it’s not, then why is the male name the default? If their names and identities were not more important, I wouldn’t have had to ask the question.

In the end, there are many ways in which women stake out their own space in this world. We don’t have to stake claim to our identity through only a name, but for me, it’s essential. I’m throwing elbows people may not like. That’s another way I hold onto my space.

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6 thoughts on “The thing I don’t know how to talk about

  1. I do not find your opinion the least bit offensive. I am somewhat offended that you would groan (albeit inwardly) upon meeting me and learning that I chose to change my last name. To me this is an example of how sometimes we as women are our own worst enemies. We groan when a woman chooses to give up a career to stay home with her children or we groan when a woman leaves her children to go back to work. We groan when a woman chooses to breastfeed for a longer period or we groan when a woman chooses to give a bottle. We groan when a woman chooses to have a large number of children or we groan when a woman chooses to stay single. The list goes on and on. Perhaps it is just time we support one another and the choices that are made, even if they are not the choices we would make for ourselves. I am of course assuming that the woman made her own choice in all of these situations. Personally I don’t know any men who found it important that their wives change their names. My husband was quite shocked when I took his name and I can’t tell you how many times he asked me if I was sure. Someone I know I opted to go back to her maiden name after decades of marriage as her parents had passed away and she wanted a way to hold on to them. Her husband was completely supportive. I know other women who professionally kept their maiden name but in their personal lives used their married name. And of course I know many women who chose to keep their name. Let’s s celebrate theses choices rather than dismiss them. For you, absolutely you should keep your name. It is clearly an important part of your identity and any man worth marrying (if you choose to marry!) will respect that. It is not about a wrong or right choice, it is simply about the right to choose.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s exactly why I addressed the offensive part right off the bat, and said I do not want to shame any woman for her choice. I have my personal view of things that are right for me, but I don’t expect everyone else to believe them. I want people to make the right decision, thoughtfully, for themselves. I always cheer that and celebrate that, whether it’s something I would do or something I would never, ever do.
      My comments about that inward groan was to address the dichotomy of beliefs. We can have two beliefs at the same time. I LOVE when women keep their own names and I LOVE seeing women make the right choice for themselves and the people in their lives.
      This is the first time I have ever acknowledged that groan to anyone. It’s my initial reaction with a few things (not on the list you have above!), but then I just move on.

      Like

  2. This is very relevant to me right now. I am a proud feminist, and I plan to take my fiance’s last name. It’s important to him that we be a family, and he loves the idea of me carrying his last name. I also love the idea of having the same last name as my children. But when I first sat down and thought of this more, I broke down in tears at the thought of losing my last name.

    What I decided to do is to make my maiden name my middle name and to go by all three names in my personal life. My future husband and I have also talked about giving our children my last name as a middle name.

    But in my work life? Frankly, it is no one’s business that I got married, and no one’s business to know who my husband is. So while I will have to change my name on my HR paperwork for tax reasons, I plan to save HR the hassle of changing my work email address or business cards. I will continue to go by my current name now. As you mentioned, all my professional accomplishments are under my current name, and I was a journalist for some time, so I have many, many bylines under my name. I love the idea of maintaining that identity in the workforce.

    But, just an interesting counter argument that you didn’t mention here: even keeping your name isn’t entirely feminist, either, because you only have that name to begin with because we live in a patriarchal society. Your name isn’t your mother’s last name. It’s your father’s last name, even though your mother is the one who carried you for nine months and brought you into this world…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve thought a lot about my mother’s maiden name even though I didn’t write about it. My feelings are too unclear for me to address on this one, but I can say I do feel really conflicted about it (for a few reasons), and quite frankly, not sure what to do. I do not want a hyphenated name because I don’t like hyphenated names (for myself, I’m not judging other people for them!). But I totally loved in the show Gilmore girls Lorelai gave her daughter HER last name. Super awesome.

      Relating to women changing their names so everyone in the immediate family has the same last name, I think “A name doesn’t make a family.” I don’t think of women such as Lauren Fleshman or Shalane Flanagan as being less married because they didn’t change their names. However, I can see someone easily using this argument for a woman to change her name.

      Basically this entire thing is complicated.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Agree, it is super complicated! And I also don’t view a woman who doesn’t change her name as “less married” in anyway.

        I know you don’t need a name to make a family, but I still, personally, like the idea of being a single unit, as in keeping up with “the Joneses” instead of “the Smith and Jones family.” A very small, weird thing, but something I’ve thought about.

        Something interesting I’ve thought about is what if in our society we started doing something like the girls get Mom’s last name, and the boys get dads? I think that could be awesome, personally, but I don’t know if our society is ready for it…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I definitely can see how it’s nice that a family has one single last name. I mean, I grew up with it and I’ll not hate on it. There is definitely inclusiveness, but I dislike that it typically comes at the expense of the mother. What is the answer? I have no freaking clue. That’s the hardest part!

        I love your idea of considering different possibilities for names. I think it’s so important that we start asking the questions even when the answers are really difficult.

        Like

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