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Friday, May 21, 2010

Against the Name Change: a Polemic

posted by Silvana
By popular demand! A couple days ago, I was having a conversation with a few Twitter friends about name-changing. As most of you know, I'm getting married soon--only a couple months now! But I'm not changing my name. I think the last time I seriously thought that I would change my name upon getting married, I was in high school. I've been pretty unswervingly anti-name-change for quite a while, and I didn't seriously consider it for even a moment after I got engaged. So, while it seems obvious to me, I guess people are hungry for a post about it, since when I said "obviously I should blog about this," I got many tweets, direct messages, and even emails telling me that I really should.

I know I will get a lot of flack for this. I know I will offend readers and upset them. Even ones I really care about (sorry, guys. I really do love you). But, you know, I gotta be me. I'm not going to go and criticize women who changed their name ten years ago. What's done is done. However, I will continue to encourage any woman who has not already changed her name to NOT DO IT. To that end, I want to first debunk all of the arguments I've seen in favor of the name change.

First, a CAVEAT: I know there are men who change their names to their wife's name after getting married. However, the number of them is so small that, for all practical purposes, they might as well not exist. The existence of occasional exceptions does not prove the absence of major cultural phenomena which, face it, we can all agree on: the vast majority of women change their names when they get married, and the ones who don't either keep their birth name or hyphenate. For the most part, I would guess at least 90% of the time, men keep their own names. I would provide statistics, but I can't find any, because people haven't really studied this issue.

Now, to the arguments!

1. It's my father's name. No it's not. It's your name. It's the name you were given at birth, and the name you have had and pronounced as yours for twenty or thirty or forty or however many years now. Let's say you were named Shannon, after your father, who was also named Shannon (it used to be more popular as a man's name). Would you just give up your first name with no protest, because hey, it's your father's name! No, when a name is given to you, it becomes yours. I don't care whether the name originally belonged to your father, your grandfather, or fucking Adolf Hitler, it's yours now. You can tell this argument is bogus because it's almost never used in service of men changing their names. Funny how that works. Also, it doesn't make sense. Yes, taking your father's last name is a patriarchal naming tradition. But taking your husband's name upon marriage is a way more patriarchal tradition that is based on the notion that women belong to their husbands and give up part of their identity when you get married. Whereas, when you're born, you don't really have an identity. The two things are just not in the same league.

2. I'm not that attached to my name. That's because you were born into a culture where women are expected to change their names upon getting married, where an unmarried woman is regarded as an incomplete person who hasn't really grown up yet. Ever heard a man say "I'm not that attached to my name"? Maybe, but you don't see them saying that and then deciding to just give it up. No, what you are doing is you are using this as a justification for a default rule which, as we all know, is bogus.

3a. I want to have the same name as my children. Assuming this is a reasonable goal, that's not a justification for choosing the default of changing your name to your husband's. Just as easily, your husband could change his name to yours and you could name the kids after you. But, once again, we hardly ever see this argument used toward this end--it's another justification for the default rule, which really means "I don't want to make waves."

3b. I want to have the same name as my children. I actually don't think this is a valid reason. Why is it necessary to have the same name as your kids? No one has ever been able to give me a straight answer. Where I come from, which is a culture way more patriarchal than this one, kids don't have the same name as their fathers OR their mothers. A child takes his dad's first name as his last name. And yet! There is no family destruction! Somehow, everyone knows who is related to who. The schools do not implode because they can't figure out which parents and which kids go together. I think this need is an excellent demonstration of burgeoning American anxiety about the new cultural reality: there are many different kinds of families, lots of step-parents and divorces and legal guardians. Thus, people want to have the same names to reassure themselves that they belong together. No, unlike all those other things, this is real. It's a way of signaling that your bond with your kids is biological or "real" in a world with a lot of fluid families. But when you support the notion that biology is the most important factor in forming a family, you are supporting a harmful status quo that privileges heterosexual, married, biological families. I want all kinds of families to get social, political, and economic support and validation. Don't you?

There also seems to be this bizarre aversion to answering questions. "People will be confused," the name changers say. So what? It's a confusion that is really easy to clear up. If you are named Mary Smith and your daughter is named Candice Jones, and someone cocks an eye at you, you just say "I kept my name when I got married." EASY. Or whatever short explanation applies to whatever you decided to do. See how easy that was? The world did not fall apart. You are going to get questions that are way more annoying that that from the kid that you just had. Frankly, I think that a lot of the reason that women who changed or are planning to change their names get angry at people who are anti-name-change, like me, is because they picked the choice that they thought they would never have to defend, and not having to defend it was a major draw. It seems like the easy choice. I get that. But that doesn't make it the right one.

4. I want to change my name to show my husband that I love him. I don't even know what to say about this one. I don't understand why you need to change part of your identity, the name you are known by, how you think of yourself, for love. Aren't you showing him you love him by getting married, by agreeing that you want to spend a non-insubstantial part of your time, energy, and money for your entire life on him?

5. I want the world to know that we're a unit. Great! I don't see why you're going to need to change your name for this. Once again, him changing his name would accomplish the exact same thing, and I don't see this argument being used to support men changing their names. But, to be honest, I think having the same name is kind of a ridiculous litmus test for people being a unit. People are going to know you're a unit, no matter what you are named. Because you are going to show up at a party, or a family reunion, or at the parent teacher conference, and you are going to say "This is my husband, Joe." Done! Everyone knows. How you act, what you do together, and the fact that you love each other is going to be way more important than what you're named. As I explained about, the notion that you need to have the same name to be regarded as a unit is an improper, illiberal, unjust privileging of married heterosexual families and partnerships over all other kinds of families and partnerships, a privilege I reject.

6. It reminds me of my commitment. This is another one I don't get. Do you really need a reminder? Are you going to forget that you are married? Are you that worried about your ability to stay monogamous (if, indeed, monogamy is your goal. It isn't mine, but I realize a lot of people prefer it)? No, again, this is another bogus reason that is used to support the default. Men do not need to change their names to remember that they are married. Why do you need to?

7. It's easier. Actually, as far as I can tell, it's not. Look, for example, at this helpful list of things you should do to change your name. Does that sound easy to you? It sounds like a real pain in the ass. I guess the "it's easier" part is that if you call the credit card company and say you are someone's wife, they'd be more likely to believe you if you have the same last name. But in this age of pre-authorizations and security, how often do situations like that come up? Also, if the credit card/bank account/insurance/car loan isn't in both of your names, then it's in his name, which means he should be taking care of his own damn business anyway. Problem solved!

8. It's tradition. This is the real reason, that's at the bottom of most of these reasons. It's usually more than enough for people who don't think about gender a lot. But liberal women and feminists have spent most of their time arguing that tradition is stupid, and so that's why they have to resort to the reasons above. But the fact is that women changing names at marriage is one of the most traditional traditions of all. And it's a bad one. It's based on the idea a woman goes from belonging to father to belonging to husband, that regards the man as the head of the family, that regards women as inferior to men, that assumes that the public sphere is for men and the private sphere is for women. And when you decide to change your name, you are supporting and enforcing that tradition. You just can't make this choice in a vacuum.

Now that I've sufficiently demolished the case for changing one's name, which I must confess, I find to be a very flimsy case indeed, here's the case for keeping one's name. It's a sign of autonomy in a world where women are still regarded as inferior and are expected to defer to their husbands. It requires that you do no paperwork. It requires that you make no announcements about your new name, or that you ever have to visit the Social Security Administration related to your name. Your old friends will still be able to find you. All the work that you've already done under your name will continue to be identified with your current self. You will be, in your small way, working to change the culture of male-dominated families and male-dominated societies. Even those dreaded questions, that people will ask you, will give you an opportunity to present a different model and advance the cause of gender equality.

Plus, you'll be kind of an iconoclast, until everyone else starts doing it. And who wants to follow tradition? Come on, we all know tradition sucks.


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