changing surnames

Every time one of my facebook friends acquires a different surname upon marriage a little piece of me dies. Yes, it’s a ‘choice’, but it’s the wrong choice. It has to be one the most explicitly sexist customs remaining in Australia. It makes me so sad that women do it.

My sister is getting married next year and a couple of months ago I nervously asked her if she was going to keep her surname. Thankfully, she said she probably would. Her reasoning was a combination of not really understanding the point of it (yay for logic!) and not liking her fiancé’s surname.

I like the first reason, but I think the second one is irrelevant. Not liking your partner’s surname is often referred to by women who choose to retain their surname after marriage. Perhaps it’s one way that women can placate people who show concern over them not taking their husband’s name. Saying ‘oh, I don’t really like the sound of it’ is far less provocative than ‘I don’t want to’ or ‘I don’t understand the point of it’, or ‘It’s a sexist tradition’. To many, flouting that tradition is ‘radical’ and obviously has feminist undertones. Some women may want to avoid getting into a feminist debate, and explain their choice to retain their name in terms less provocative. This is understandable, but I wish it wasn’t so! I say, bring it on. If retaining your name is provocative to some, then bring on the feminist debate.

Another common reason women give is for ‘professional purposes’. A friend asked me once if that was why I kept my name. I said no, I kept my name because I believe a woman changing her name upon marriage is an appalling and outdate sexist tradition. I wish women didn’t need to ‘explain’ their choice to retain their surname. When I got married, my mum said ‘good on you’ with a wistful glint in her eye; my dad said, ‘oh, you’re one of these new age women’ and laughed.

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19 responses to “changing surnames

  1. Essentially I think it is wrong for feminists to judge women for making choices. I think feminism should be about choice (full stop). People who blindly change their name, well that is different.

    I think feminism would do well to be more welcoming of choice!

  2. Thanks for your comment Kate. I agree that women should have choice. Perhaps there are some good reasons for a woman to take her husband’s name. Can’t think of any though…..

    The word ‘choice’ can be used for purposes that have little to do with women’s freedom. The ‘choice’ to be a stay-at-home mum is not much of a choice if your partner, friends and family expect it of you, and you can’t afford childcare. The ‘choice’ to wear make-up to a job interview is not much of a choice if you really need the job and you know that you will be judged on your appearance and all the other female candidates will be wearing make-up. When a woman ‘chooses’ to watch pornography, she may be doing so because otherwise her partner will sulk, call her unreasonable and generally make life hell.

    Individualisng decisions by refering to them as ‘choice’ doesn’t really help to tackle social structures that oppress groups of people. If an equal number of men as women changed their surnames when they married, I would call this a fair choice. Until then, I think the ‘choice’ women are making is a false one.

  3. ” Until then, I think the ‘choice’ women are making is a false one.”

    Wow, that was pretty much what I was going to say. Thank you for this one :)

    • womanvsfeminist

      Thanks for your supportive comment Aileen (again!). This is quite a touchy issue because it offends a lot of people who can be quite enlightened about feminism and all that jazz. Some of my closest friends have changed their names and I am torn when they do. On the one hand, I want to talk to them about it, but on the other I don’t want to put our friendship in danger….

  4. Totally agree. Catherine Deviney wrote a great article about this. In it she makes some great points about how all of the excuses, eg: he has a better name, the kids needs the same name would be all valid excuses if men chose their wife surnames just as often but they don’t. She worded it a lot better but you get the point.

    My husband and I recently talked about going one step further and giving out future children (if we have any) a hyphenated surname which incorporates both of our mothers maiden names.

    • womanvsfeminist

      Hi K. That sounds like a good idea – mothers’ maiden names…. I think I may have read that article you mention, or one similar. It baffles me that there aren’t more articles out there, that there isn’t a conversation happening about it. In Spain I think kids take both parents’ last names so everyone has these really cool long names : ) Why not?

  5. I’ve got the perfect solution… make the men change their last names to the woman’s last name. That way, they can both have the same name… no raised eyebrows, and men can give up their identity for a few centuries.

  6. I’m in North America and here my friends keep marrying and changing their last names too . I would never tell them so, but it really bums me out. A few of them have held out but then they had babies, gave their baby the dad’s last name, and they changed their last names too.
    If/when (hopefully when) I have children I will give my sons their father’s last name, and if I have daughters, they’ll be given my name. Hyphenating seems too messy and I’ve seen a few teenage kids with hyphenated names who ended up dropping one of the names (moms) once they get older.

  7. Why would you force your name on your children? That’s no better/different than you being forced to take your husband’s name. Give them their own names.

  8. I know it’s late to reply to this thread, but wanted some opinions, so if you have anything to say at all please reply.

    I’ve recently been having a debate about this with current boyfriend; I feel it’s important to be on the same page before engagement, and we’ve been together long enough for engagement to be a possibility. I was dismayed to find that our pages could not be more different. He won’t accept double-barrelling, keeping separate names, taking my surname as his, merging our names into one surname or picking a totally different surname to share. He wants he and his future wife to have the same surname. And for that surname to be his and only his.

    When asked why, he offered a non-committal answer, but I have pressed this issue several times and gotten one of three answers. Either:
    a. He’s a traditionalist
    b. He likes his surname; he’s always had it
    c. Pride

    Basically, the answer is that if I ever want to marry this guy, I have to accept his surname as my own. We could just never marry, I suppose, but I do want to get married at some point. I love this guy and we agree on practically everything else (though from other things he’s said I do worry that this is just the tip of an ant-feminist iceberg). I was less opposed to taking his name when we first discussed it despite being very attached to my name because I was raised with the idea that changing names on marriage was inevitable. I have become decidedly more aware of feminism and the possibilities it presents since then. The change of heart is probably adding to the problem. I’ve tried pointing out that I’ve had my surname since birth too and have grown rather attached to it, the history of my surname and what it means to me. I’ve also tried enquiring why he sees it necessary that his future wife conform to such a sexist tradition but he’s just not budging on this. I’m also finding it difficult to stick to my guns because from the point of view of society, of my upbringing and of our respective relatives, what he’s asking is totally reasonable. Is it too extreme to consider ending the relationship over this? Has my right to disagree with gender-based name changing disappeared because I accepted it at first?

    • womanvsfeminist

      I’m sorry I’ve taken so long to approve and respond. I’m keen to know what happened. How disappointing for you to discover that your loved one sees this differently. I would ask him about other feminist issues that you take seriously to see his stance on those as well, if you’re concerned that it is in fact the tip of the anti-feminist iceberg.

      I feel like maybe I shouldn’t be commenting because I don’t know you and this is your personal intimate relationship and of course it’s not my place to tell you what to do! But seeing as you raised it on a public forum like this, here I go. Whether you change your name is not his decision, it’s yours. To put it bluntly, he has no right to tell you what to do. I would be worried if he assumed he had that right, which, frankly, it sounds as though he does.

  9. I want to take my husband’s surname, I really do. To me, it’s a personal choice, to give him everything of mine. he has my virginity, my heart, my mind, my soul, to me it is the last step for him to hold what is mine to him.

    Given, I’m not a feminist, but I just don’t see the harm in doing it. I know you do, and that’s fine. But I really don’t like this radical idea that “I don’t like it, I won’t do it, so neither can you.” Feminism should be about choice, and equality, but to be fair, what’s a last name?

    • womanvsfeminist

      I’m sorry I took so long to approve and respond to your comment. I haven’t visited my blog for ages. ‘Feminism is about choice’ is a common catch-cry that is problematic. My response to a previous comment articulates why. And besides, while choice is important, destroying oppressive cultural practices is more important, if you ask me.

      ‘What’s a last name?’ Well, it’s means a lot because as you yourself state, in giving your husband your last name you are giving him a piece of you (that he is not giving back). That’s not equality.

  10. Robyn’s fiance is not forcing her to change her name. He is simply setting the terms under which he would agree to get married, whether it’s her or someone else. She probably also has certain terms that she will not yield on.

    The majority of women don’t believe that taking their husband’s last name is an “oppressive cultural practice” or feel the least bit oppressed by sharing a family name.

    However, any women who DO agree are also free to keep their own names and not support anything they consider oppressive. So, this is really a personal issue, not a societal one.

    • womanvsfeminist

      Who are you Barry? Do you know Robyn? Do you know her fiance? Why do you think it’s ok to speak on her fiance’s behalf?

      Just because the majority of women don’t believe taking their husband’s name isn’t an oppressive cultural practice doesn’t mean it isn’t am oppressive cultural practice. But again, why do you think it’s ok to speak on behalf of the majority of women? Your words reek of male entitlement.

      As for your opinion that this issue is a personal one and not a ‘societal one’, that’s a very tidy way of telling women to shut up when they speak out about oppression. To individualise an issue removes the possibility of political solidarity surrounding an issue. Feminism is built on the idea that the ‘personal is political’, and this is an idea that has spread well beyond feminism and has enabled oppressed groups to seek redress. If you don’t understand this basic notion, you should probably read some more.

  11. I only know what Robyn wrote, and she explained her situation very clearly. She explained that her boyfriend’s view on this issue has nothing to do with her personally. He is only willing to marry a woman who will take his name. If she wants to marry him, she must take his name. If she doesn’t want to take his name, they won’t be getting married. There is no force involved.

    I am not speaking “on behalf” of the majority or minority of women; I am simply stating a fact. Nor have I told anyone to shut up. In fact, I specifically stated, “However, any women who DO agree are also free to keep their own names and not support anything they consider oppressive.”

    “To individualise an issue removes the possibility of political solidarity surrounding an issue.” Not true. Women are intelligent and free to agree with your or not. Most don’t, and that’s their right.

    For decades feminists have tried to convince women to stop taking their husband’s names, speaking on their behalf. However, most women still choose to take their husband’s name, as is their right.

    • womanvsfeminist

      This doesn’t make any sense: “To individualise an issue removes the possibility of political solidarity surrounding an issue.” Not true. Women are intelligent and free to agree with your or not. Most don’t, and that’s their right.

      I’ve explained myself very clearly too and you are missing the point entirely. You have failed to take up my point about the word ‘choice’; you have failed to engage in the notion of ‘the personal is political’; you are dodging the point by talking about ‘rights’ when this has nothing to do with women’s rights.

      Until you can engage in this conversation in an informed manner, I won’t be posting anymore of your comments. Like I mentioned before, try doing some reading. Start with this and this, and the comments on this post are pretty though-provoking.

      • I read your links, and have no problem with rejecting the surname change as a political statement as long as it is TRULY based on the principle of gender equality.

        I respect feminists who reject changing surname in marriage when they, JUST as stridently and completely, reject all other gender-based unequal traditions, including ones they might enjoy emotionally. If they embrace all, most, or even some of the others, their rejection of the surname change is clearly not based on truly wanting gender equality and fairness. It is based on what they like and prefer, and they are therefore no different than men who prefer their wives to take their names.

        If their rejection of the surname change is truly a reflection standing against gender-unequal traditions, they would JUST as stridently reject all other unequal gender-based traditions such as:

        1.      Men traditionally initiating dates (being the asker);

        2.      Men traditionally paying for the first date, most, or even all dates;

        3.      Men traditionally performing so-called chivalrous acts such as opening doors, carry the heavier items (when it is physically possible for her to carry her own items);

        4.      Men being the ones that trudge through bad weather to fetch the car and pull it up for her so she isn’t as exposed to the weather;

        5.      Men being the ones to propose;

        6.      Men being the ones to unilaterally spend thousands on an engagement ring, and other gender-based unequal traditions.

        If those and all other gender-based unequal traditions aren’t as strongly and clearly rejected as the surname change, that serves as evidence that the rejection of the surname change is not based on a desire for gender equality and fairness. Thus, it does not make a political statement against gender inequality.

        Secondly, this country actually did have human beings who were property, legally bought and sole, maimed, dismembered, and killed because they were someone’s property. And, those people often did end up with the name of their owners. However, white women were never legally owned as property in this country. It is therefore insulting and disrespectful to people (and their descendents) who truly were owned and to this day carry their owners’ names to suggest that white women historically changing of surnames is evidence of a history of ownership.

  12. This is ridiculous and demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of structural oppression. Having to pay for dates, propose, go out in bad weather is not oppression. They are minor and trivial inconveniences.

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