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.
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.