Wednesday, January 23, 2013

More fuel for the name retention engine עוד דלק למנוע שמירת שמך

Unbeknowst to her, Carolyn Hax’s January 17th column provided — get ready — 10 pages of name-retention fuel. Not wishing to add to the length, I’m publishing an edited version that I hope is not too disjointed. I tried to group comments under “argument headings”, i.e., “Do what’s right for you”; the “confusion” factor; family “unity”, etc. In many cases I combined comments that expanded upon one another; I change font colors where the “speaker” (could be me; could be another commenter) changes. Let ‘er rip!

Liberation means freedom to decide what to call oneself, vs. having society dictate it — and that includes the society of friends who want you to make their political point."

“I thought the whole point of the Feminist Movement was to *give* women the right to choose what they want to do. Your name is yours, not theirs. Do what is right for you. It's no one's business but yours. If you’re feeling truly bad-tempered, tell them you never signed on to be the flag-bearer of feminism."

“The nerve of some people using the tag of feminism to tell another woman what she should or shouldn't do.”

I don’t tell others what to do. I try to persuade and convince them of what to do. But I have to say, at a certain point in explaining why a person should not give up her name, the very idea of giving up one’s name starts to sound creepy, akin to what Michael Jackson did to his appearance. Does it even need to be spelled out?

"The right to choose includes the right to choose the traditional route, or it's no choice at all."
However, like it or not, we each are making a statement with our choice.

"While for most of my life I believed I'd keep my name, upon meeting my husband I decided that I wanted to take his -- to be a family. The whole point of the women's movement is to give us choices that we previously did not have."

…and use them. Not place them on a shelf to be viewed in some Feminism Museum. I view a woman taking a man’s name as akin to not voting in a democracy: Voting is one’s civic duty. While I don’t hound those who don’t vote, neither am I obligated to respect their not doing so.

"Womens Lib gives ME the right to decide if I want to work, stay home, have kids, not have kids, change my name, not change my name, wear a bra, not wear a bra…you get the idea!”

And here I thought the entire point of feminism was to eliminate patriarchy, including patriarchal practices. Silly me.
"No, no, no, you don't get it. Feminists before you *fought* to get you the right to go out and work, keep your own name, not wear a bra, etc. And now you want to undo all their hard work by *gasp* staying at home, changing your name, and wearing a bra? The idea!"

"Thank you, Carolyn. Those who would subvert this basic tenet in the name of feminism make steam come out my ears. We haven't been working for almost five decades to have idgits like this make a mockery of the whole movement!"

And supposing I opine that it’s the women who take men’s names who are making a mockery of the entire movement?

"Liberation means freedom to decide what to call yourself."

And I counter with Erica Jong: 'Naming oneself is an act of the poet and the revolutionary. To take away one’s name is to remove one’s identity. Immigration officials do this to refugees. Husbands routinely do this to wives.' Yes, I know, I know: Today it's wives doing it to themselves, but it's still a throwback to a time when we didn't have the choice, so why perpetuate it?

 “Women who argue that you're setting back feminism [by taking your husband's name] don't understand what feminism is.”

And I could argue exactly the opposite: That feminism is about parity and about eliminating patriarchy. If taking a man’s name isn’t submission, but rather declaring partnership, then how come men don’t take our names? While I don’t bully women who take men’s names, I still believe it to be a wrong-headed choice. Feminism does not mean agreeing with all decisions women make just because they’re “my sisters”.

"Fiance's name is Miller, and our family name is one letter off a short word that's slang for a female mammary gland."

And supposing the opposite was true?

"It's kind of disingenuous to say 'It's based on something evil, but I'm OK if you want to do it'." Yay! Not only do I agree, but I do believe that women choosing to change / retain their names does affect the rest of us, especially women younger than we. It's a critical mass thing: Every woman who retains her birth name makes it that much easier for our daughters to do so. So you ARE making a statement either way, and yes, I believe that taking a man's name does set women back -- all women -- and since I'm a woman, I get to oppose it.

"Marriage is compromise."

But in the case of surnames, it's usually the woman who does the compromising.

The name change debate does fall almost entirely upon the shoulders of women (as name-changers). The small part of the debate that falls on men is whether or not they'll "put up" with her choice. Hopefully one day we can look back and wonder WTH it was ever such a big deal. The sign that we're not truly there yet in terms of should women change their names when they marry, is not the fact that many women still change their names, it's the fact that very few men do. 'Cause if there weren't still some societal expectation embedded there, I'd expect it to be closer to 50/50.

Our kids are hyphenated, and it's worked out fine. None of the scare stories of the TSA or airline personnel not letting us on flights, or the school not "realizing" who the mom is. The cute thing that we never planned on is that my spouse and I each kept our respective surname, and without our prompting, people began referring to us as "the Walker-Tates". We rather like it, and no one had to change anything to become a Walker-Tate.

"Shared nomenclature works to establish shared identity and reinforces a child's sense of belonging"

So all the societies where women cannot legally change their last names, and it is therefore in every case different from their children's, have children with no sense of belonging? The fact that my name differed from that of my spouse and my child has mattered not one whit in the cohesiveness of my family.

The nameplate at my sibling’s home reads '3 Jones and 1 Smith'. None of the children have any problem identifying Ms. Smith as their mother. They are still one family, thank you very much.

Expressing (couple / family) unity: At the risk of sounding insensitive to hopeful bridal couples, I say: Tell it to all the divorced couples who had the same surname. And all the women who took their exes' names are now torn between wanting to liberate themselves from his name and wanting to have the same surname as their children. Not to mention spouses who are widowed and then remarry.

"She wants them all to share the same last name.” Fine. But why is the DEFAULT for 'same last name' having the woman change her name and not the man? Some related people have different last names. Get over it, and stop being lazy.

Being and acting like a family promotes unity. A name doesn't have that much power. I kept my own last name when I married because I thought it was ridiculous that otherwise, I would have to adapt to being called something completely different than I had been for the previous 20-something years. And, I was establishing myself professionally under my own name; why should I have had to re-establish under another person's name? I'm offended that some people believe we won't be united as a family because we don't have the same last name. Families in which the members spend time together, support each other, and love each other, yet have different last names, are much more unified than families with a common name who barely interact.

This subject comes up at our house repeatedly, and every once in a while, I read a comment like this one to my 13-year-old, who has a different last name from mine, and ask what he thinks. And he scoffs. Seems to me that relying on formalities is a pretty weak way to create a family bond. Day-to-day living, having fun adventures together, etc., are what create a family bond.

We as a society need to decouple (!) ourselves from this imagined (or false) supreme ideal of all members of a family / household sharing the same surname. Once we let go of it, women will have a much easier time retaining their surnames.

"My sister kept our maiden name since there are no boys in our family to keep my dad's name alive."

As if it's assumed that boys' surnames will go unchanged. And supposing your sister should die and leave no offspring?

"I kept my professional name and changed my legal name when I got married. While it felt comfortable at the time, it has become something of a hassle since. The kids' schools are confused when they call me at work and the medical insurance is a nightmare. Then, too, my agency eventually got serious about legal names and now I have two names at work too. I probably would’ve been better off biting the bullet and changing my name to one consistent name."

Interesting how you conclude after all that that changing is the solution. I've worked in the schools, too. Any confusion there is entirely the fault of the system, not the name(s) of the family members.

I have never not once ever had a problem with a school because I have a different name than my son. If I call, I'll say, "Hi, I'm Jane Doe, Bobby Smith's mom." So I wonder whether someone who's not bright enough to understand that simple concept should be involved in education. There is such a thing as being willfully obtuse to things against which one already is prejudiced.

"Detractors claim that booking airline tickets with hyphenated names is a pain. So I shouldn't hyphenate because I might irritate the airlines? I am the customer. Why do I as a female, need to accommodate the business? Would we tell people with those long names like Kannupatinimi that sorry, you have to change it because it causes the school and airlines problems? This is one of the great critiques of Ellis Island!

"I chose to use my birth name in my 
professional capacity. Twenty years later people still were asking me [what] the relationship [is] between these 'two' scholars."

I would ask those who retaining their birth names "professionally" if they're aware that 1) It's meaningless and 2) It will only cause confusion. She'll be constantly explaining her two surnames (until the professional one disappears into the ether). "If you have significant publications or other professional capital under one particular name, you should not lightly abandon these."

"Wait till she has work friends around her private life and vice versa and no one knows what to call her, and neither does she know herself. It's likely that adults she knows pretty well'll be using her first name, but there will be crossover that is confusing. When she introduces a friend at work who's looking for a job, and he says 'Nancy Smith sent me,' they'll only know of Nancy Jones. Or vice versa (she's looking for a job and she's introduced by a friend with a name that's not on her resume). When co-workers have kids at the same school, they'll have to figure it out then, too. Eventually, she'll probably have to settle on one name."

I'm also wondering about "It's right for us". Whether she sees it or not, her decision is a political statement. And I just cannot support that patriarchy is "right for us", for any of us.

"Neither choice is more or less feminist. Whatever someone chooses is the whole point."

Weeeeell, not exactly. How is it more feminist to take a man’s name? While it's your choice, it's not one made in a vacuum; it's made under societal pressure. You think that if two people were raised in isolation, then married, it would seem "natural" for the woman to take the man's name? Because it's a biological imperative or something? So yeah, it's your life and your choice and you get to make it - but you should also realize that yes, you are cooperating with a sexist tradition, and you are helping make it the default and norm, and you are helping make it more difficult for women who want to keep their own names. That doesn't make it the "wrong" choice - it makes it what it is, and you should own it for what it is.

Do what works for you two”

I have a problem with this, because unlike how you manage your money -- joint or separate accounts -- or who empties the garbage, this decision does affect the wider society. Every woman who takes a man’s name makes it harder for those coming after to retain, and every woman who retains makes it easier.

"Following your preference without the societal chorus telling you what you can and can't do because of your gender is an achievement that the original feminists fought hard for."

"The pseudo-feminists believe that just because they would/would not do something, the whole world (or the female half) should *all* do it their way - or else they are letting down all womenhood."

"Wait. It's okay for Namechanger's friends to make life difficult for Namechanger because her choice *might* make life difficult for them?"

Well, yes. That is, not difficult, but uncomfortable. Because we have to be made uncomfortable enough by something — be it patriarchy or injustice of any kind — to be motivated to change, and / or to go against the tide, or societal norms.

“I have not noticed one bit of difference in independent thinking or financial independence between women who have taken their husbands' names vs women who have not.”

Perhaps not, but words and language do have the power to influence us and how we think. I draw huge empowerment from having retained my name, and can’t imagine having felt that same empowerment after having taken someone else’s name.

"If the name you're born with is your father's surname (and his father's father's name, etc. etc.), then your name is still coming to you from the male side of the family. By keeping it, you’re neither striking a blow for women's equality or rejecting the patrilineal. All you’re really doing is saying that you prefer your father's surname over that of their husband. It's a little silly (and presumptuous) to accuse someone of propagating male dominance by taking her husband's name, when 'keeping' her father's surname would be exactly the same thing."

Her surname prior to marriage is hers. It may or may not be shared with her father's family. It may be hyphenated, a creation of her parents' wish, or her mother's, or whatever. In any event, at the point she marries, the issue is: Does she leave behind this part of her identity or take a name belonging to her husband? This choice IS a choice about which feminists care, for good reason. That doesn't mean any individual shouldn't choose for herself or deserves pressure to make any particular choice, but to ask, "Why do feminists care?" is a bit disingenuous and ignores the import of surname changes.

I am deeply committed to the idea that women don't need to shuffle their identities when they marry. This isn't work men have ever had to do after marriage, so why should I have to do it? Screw that.

"The best thing about a truly equal world is that everyone is free to make their own choices." 

Except that we don't have a truly equal world. If we did, women changing their names would not be the default, and we wouldn't have this sub-argument about it being a man's name anyway because it came from the father (never mind that one has spent 30 or so years occupying and owning that name).

People who insist on dragging in past generations never seem to apply their thinking to both sides, as in "Gee, so Groom's surname is actually Groom's father's surname." See how lackwitted that sounds? This is such a bad argument. Groom likely has his father's last name too, and no one will ask if Bride is going to take her FIL's name.

"So, it's better to keep my father's name? I didn't choose my father; I did choose my husband."

While it's true I didn't choose my father, it's unlikely that any man I marry will have chosen his either. A birth name shouldn't only belong to a man.

There's a huge difference between keeping the name you've gone by your whole life (no matter the logic with which it was bestowed) and changing it to something else mid-stride. While I would never question someone's decision to change her name, the equivalence being drawn is patently false.

To those talking about changing your name equating to erasing your identity: It *is* a change of *how you are identified* to adapt your name (again, wherever it came from) to match someone else's, or to a completely different one for that matter. My birth name is no less mine than it is / was my father's; you might as well make the argument that my daughter isn't her own person because she's named after her great aunt, her middle name is my birth surname, and her last name is my husband's.
It always amuses me that people seem to believe that women taking their husbands’ names is what is done the world over. It isn't. It hasn't been in the past. Who know what will be done in the future? Other cultures, including those we deem far less advanced than our own on issues of gender equality, have far better solutions for identifying family units than we do. There are better ways. Even in some Asian countries, which can be quite patriarchal, women keep their names upon marriage. Taking the man's surname really isn't as common as people in this country believe it to be.

The 'tradition' comes from the legal exchange of property. That we still follow it — in most cases, automatically, because it’s expected — belies any "truly equal" claim.

I have to admit, I get a little silent "Drat, another one?" twinge when one of my professional women friends changes her name. I think it's because, on the aggregate, this is an area where there clearly isn't equality. There are so few men who change their names, so few who would even consider it, and none who could do it without a ton of grief rained down upon them.

I also think it’s because they have less reason to change (more annoyances tied to it) and if they're all changing, the numbers are never going to tip to the point where it's no big deal. For example, the whole arm-flailing "OMG, how will people know your kids are yours?!" response goes away if tons and tons of people (men and women) have different last names than their kids’.

"Keeping one’s name is outdated as any kind of political statement. Like, if I wear pants to work, that used to mean something. Now it doesn't."

Exactly. It’s called “critical mass”.

Every woman I graduated law school with who got married (last 5-10 years) changed her name. Every single one. I knew one couple who discussed changing their names to a different last name, but in the end wife changed her name as well. Demographically, name retention rates hit their peak at about 10% of married women in the 1990s, and have declined since. Those who do retain their names tend to be concentrated in professions where others do too, so it seems normal and pervasive. Quiet, insidious backlash to Rodham? "OK, now that you silly little women have proved your point, can you go back to being sensible again?" 

“What happens when hyphen girl marries hyphen boy? Do the children have four last

Please. Why is the question asked as if there’s some Cosmic Rule that can be followed? Bridal couples, hyphenated or not, do whatever the heck they want. I’d advise double hyphenates to each drop one name and go on their merry ways and hyphenate the kids; but I reject the insinuation in the question that hyphenates are causing some disruption or imbalance in the universe. Chill.

I kept my name, and our boys have hyphenated names. I have to laugh when people say: "But what about when THEY get married? What about when THEY have kids? Are they going to have FOUR last names??" My reply: They can do what they want. They can change their last names to "X" if they want. They can take their partner's name. They can combine the names to make one name. Whatever. Just as it was my choice what to do with my own name, and as my husband and I decided together about our sons' names, so it will be their choice when the time comes.

"Keep politics out of something as personal as a name."

Yeah. And out of something as personal as reproductive choices. Yet both are political, even when we don't mean them to be.

"Personal decisions aren't (and usually shouldn't) be made with statistics and aggregates and social change in mind. Just as I can't look at a particular woman who makes less than a particular same-titled male colleague and judge their workplace as discriminatory, I can't look at an individual decision to change one’s name as one that must be due to a power imbalance or social pressure or what have you."

Well, then to what shall we attribute such a decision?

If I ever get married, I'm not going to change my name. I can barely remember to start writing 2013; there's no way I'm adjusting after having had my last name for 36 years.

"Other, more important issues that affect society and women directly still deserve our attention and struggle.”

Yes, and so what? It is a zero-sum game? Are the disparities mutually exclusive regarding which to oppose?

"Taking your husband's name isn't submission. It's declaring a partnership."

Really? So how come he doesn't take your name? Same partnership, no? If it were a sign of a partnership, men would change their names 50% of the time. Or everyone would choose some neutral, joint name. I'm not saying it's OK for Namechanger's friends to hound her about it; it is her choice to make, not theirs. But to pretend there are no gender dynamics at play in that decision is downright silly. When the responsibility for something is automatically assumed to sit 100% with one gender, there's a gender dynamic at work.

"I don't believe 'I choose my choice' feminism is necessarily straight-up feminism (but it can be, depending on the case). It's feminist to agree that women have choices. But the choices made are not necessarily feminist ones. For example, if you choose to submit to your husband because you think that's what women should do, the fact that you could choose that is feminist, but the choice you made is not. Before anyone jumps down my throat about this, I don't think it's wrong to make that choice. Fine by me - you do you, I do me. I just would not label it 'feminist'."

"A woman who doesn't have an important career trail/history has very few of the change inconveniences, and the not-matching inconveniences (kids' names, having to insist or prove that you're married more often) dominate.

Says who? Who gets to decide what makes a career trail or history important? If you've got a business card, you've got an identity and a career, whether it’s cleaning other peoples’ homes or splitting atoms.

This is a sticky issue, which is why "the personal is political" is an issue that, while it might seem oh-so-outdated-and-'70s-era feminism, it's still on the table for discussion.

It's not "just a meaningless preference if it's you; it's a very big deal to me." And it hasn't been many years since women in the West pretty much HAD to change their names when they married. When I married, my relatives started to call me by my husband's name. And I got flak for wanting to be called by the name I had always had! Why I would have wanted to change my name after 30 years is a mystery to me.

"After children arrived I starting using husband's name as keeping mine was just too confusing."

Assuming the goal of avoiding confusion is to be achieved, how come your husband didn't take your name?

"Don't let anyone turn your name into a political rant. It is so much not anyone else's business, and so very last century."

We're 13 years into the 21st century, and we’re still discussing it, are we not?

"The keeping your name or hyphenating thing is controlling and narcissistic. Nobody gives a sh*t, get over yourself; it just adds confusion and extra work, to no benefit.

Excuse me? No benefit? Here are two: 1) I feel empowered. 2) My daughters see my choice.

"Be aware that if you have kids, the school, the doctor, the kids’ friends and their parents, legal documents, church, will all be confused often."

Or they will learn…often. Why should I subsume my independence to others' assumptions?

"You stand on your deeds and actions, not a name."

Retaining my birth name has for me constituted an important deed and action. And lastly:

"I love my original name, and I don't need to "get over myself" when it comes to changing my primary, personal identifier. I hyphenated and gee whiz, EVERYONE FIGURED IT OUT, even with legal documents and credit cards and everything! Wow! How narcissistic and controlling of me! It strikes me as more narcissistic to make your spouse take your name. If you never change , no one thinks much about it ... they've always known you by that name."

"I've been married for 21 years. Having different last names hasn't been a significant issue at school, work, or anywhere else."

"It really does suck to see people 'choose' to participate in an outdated exercise in misogyny. I'm glad to live where name change for marriage isn't legal. Your name is your name, period. I'll believe it's 'choice' when I see men making the 'choice' in similar numbers."


  1. Don't forget the reasoning that if I really truly loved my husband I should've been "honored" to take his name. And since I didn't, I was obviously not fully committed to our marriage. HIS decision to retain his birth name was never seen as a referendum on the strength of our commitment to each other, or his utter joy at becoming my husband. 14 yrs, 4 cross-country moves, 1 kitchen remodel, and 2 children later, we are still happily married, and we still have different surnames.

  2. Right. Taking someone else's name is an...honor? Excuse me while I sputter coffee on my keyboard. And why should our husbands not be so honored? Bless you, Sonia. And I haven't even published the final version of this post. More to come! May I ask how you found me?

  3. Yam, I am not sure how I discovered your blog. I tend to fall into internet wormholes and emerge in unexpected places. In any event, I am glad I kept my own name. People assured me I would change it once we had kids, then once the kids started school, but I've still got it. My kids go to a tiny parochial (Catholic) school, and even there it's not such a big deal. My son's elderly teacher commented once about my using my "maiden name" but otherwise it's been a non-issue. FWIW, I would've added my husband's surname to my name had he added mine to his, making both of us the Smith Jones family, but he didn't want to change his name either. I think he was a little put out initially that I didn't change mine, but when I pointed out that he couldn't expect me to do something he was unwilling to do, he saw the light.

  4. It still amazes me how many ways there are for really bright women to rationalize taking their husbands' last names.

  5. Mark Tyler [took my wife's surname]January 29, 2013 at 2:29 PM

    Such a great piece! Interesting how many passionate opinions there are, and how many women default to the traditonal, patriarchal position. It's just not "on the table" in this discussion for the man to change his name.

    On a scale of 0 to 100 (with 0 being patriarchal, 100 being matriarchal, and 50 being totally equal), all of the debate occurs between 0 and 50, and 50 is considered radical. Most of it doesn't get past 25, which I'd describe as husband retains name and wife hyphenates or uses one name at work and the other at home.

    The patriarchal privilege is threefold really: (1) the man keeping the same surname throughout his life, (2) the man passing down that surname to his kids, and (3) the wife taking the husband's surname.

    Right now, #1 is pretty much impregnable, #2 is still the norm, and #3, while debated, is still the norm. What's interesting to me is that if #3 changes and it becomes the norm for neither spouse to change hizzer surname, then #2 becomes shaky. Of course, Carol and I have turned all of this on its head (our score is 100, LOL). Obviously, once we decided to overturn #1, overturning #2 followed as a matter of logic.

  6. My comment is most likely from a differing viewpoint...not because I am anti women,but because I truly do not dwell on this as my line in the sand. My name was English and my husband's Spanish. I love what (now) our last name means, whereas my maiden name had no real background.

    My identity isn't by aligning behind my maiden name or joining to my husband's clan. I am the soul person regardless of my last name that had complete and total control over the content that entered our children's minds. I was home, I educated them, I read to them, I planned the meals, the activities, and molded their foundation which is what they are building from today. While I was busy at home-which many translate into being submissive, or subjugated, my husband worked and continues to do so. While he tends to bringing the finances home, I am afforded the opportunities to now assist in molding the next generation. The sheer power and control a stay home mother wields is astronomical and if I had to ponder whether my daughter was struggling to retain her maiden name or whether she would be the caregiver to her children, I would pray she stands bold in the battle that was like mine
    and that retains a universal name world wide...mother.

    I hope this makes sense. I am in no means nor measure belittling women stuck in situations where they are not afforded the true choice in marriage or not, true choice in education or not, as well as in what name they wish to carry.

    Thanks for allowing me to share also.

  7. Humble Wife, thanks for sharing. I'll relate to one sentence you wrote, which to me is the crux of the matter: "I love what (now) our last name means, whereas my maiden name had no real background."

    Supposing the situation were reversed, i.e., your birth name had a powerful meaning, and your husband's had "no real background". Then what?

    The rest, while praiseworthy, has no relevance. Doesn't matter whether you're a SAHM, bad mom, streetwalker, love or hate the child's father. Why is molding the next generation at odds with retaining your birth name?