Feminist choices and the last name debate

by Sunita

I swore I wouldn’t get involved in the most recent discussion about what it means if a woman does or doesn’t adopt her husband’s last name upon marriage. But I saw this post by Victoria Dahl, which questioned this post by Kate Harding. I don’t disagree with Dahl’s reasoning, but I think Harding has a very good point. Her argument boils down to: if you make a decision that reinforces patriarchal institutions, you’re making an anti-feminist decision. Dahl takes the position that the act of making an informed, thoughtful, independently-arrived-at decision is feminist, apart from what the outcome is. I think both are right in important ways. 

When I was in my late 20s I worked at a grant foundation as a program officer and I met a number of eminent academics. I went out to dinner one night with a grantee, a woman economist who was about a generation ahead of me. We got to talking about more personal things, and she told me that her last name was actually her first husband’s last name. She married when changing your name was the norm and she started publishing soon after they were married. They eventually divorced and she was single for a while, and then she remarried, but professionally she continued to publish using her ex-husband’s name. This wasn’t out of any residual affection, but because when you have a publication record it’s problematic in terms of cite counts and other reference issues to switch names. I asked her if she minded being known so widely by her ex-husband’s name, and she said not really, although her second husband would get annoyed when he was addressed as Mr. First Husband.

Her experience always stuck with me, and a second aspect of the dilemma hit home when I saw what happened to people I knew who changed their names at marriage, got divorced, and reverted to the original name. This didn’t happen only with women; I knew a couple of men who adopted hyphenated names upon marriage and then went back to single names when they divorced. The side effect of these decisions was that their academic records tracked their personal lives for the world to see. So much for the personal-professional divide and personal privacy. I can remember seeing a changed name and thinking “whoa, what happened there?” Gossip inevitably ensued.

Most of the married academic women I know now publish under their pre-marriage names. I know a couple of women in the economist’s boat, but today it’s so common to have a different name from one’s spouse or partner that I doubt most people, apart from good friends, know they aren’t using their original names.

So it came as a surprise to me when I read the statistic that 90 percent of women in the US take their husband’s names; I always assumed the number would have fallen more by now. Feminists (in action even if they don’t explicitly label themselves as such) comprise more than 10 percent of the female population of the US, I have no doubt. And I also have no doubt that a significant percentage of the women who chose to adopt their husbands’ names made reasoned, thoughtful, decisions to do so.

But here’s the thing: the societal playing field is tilted toward changing your name, not keeping it. Especially if you want to have children, but even if you don’t. If you’re lucky, a month might go by where you don’t have to introduce yourself and repeat your last name to ensure that the other person realizes you don’t have the same name as your spouse. More likely it will happen at least once a week. And if you have children, multiply those explanation events by two or three or four. And prepare yourself to discuss why you made the decision you did, with everyone from a nosy stranger to your children.

These hurdles, some trivial, some not-so-trivial, make changing one’s name simpler. Not easier, not by a long shot. But simpler. And as long as that asymmetry exists, women aren’t making a truly free, unconstrained choice. And that’s why I think Harding is saying something important. It’s not about feminists fighting each other over trivial things; identity is anything but trivial. It’s about the costs we incur to change the status quo. The status quo constrains us without us even realizing it most of the time. That’s part of what makes it so powerful.

Right now, the status quo is that women take their husband’s names and children take their father’s names. It is very, very rare for children to take their mothers’ names (athough it does occur and I know of such cases among my friends). It’s not that keeping one’s father’s name doesn’t reflect patriarchy; of course it does.* But until women regularly choose not take their husbands’ names, the patriarchal institution of fathers’ names being passed down won’t change. So keeping one’s father’s name rather than adopting one’s husband’s name has different ramifications for shifting the status quo. There are no perfect feminist choices here, and there is no single right individual choice. But there are choices that lead to more options, and choices that reinforce the world we live in now. It’s up to each woman as an individual to decide what works for her, and it’s up to the rest of us to respect that informed decision. But individual decisions have consequences for the collective, and I don’t think it’s unfair or wrong to point those out.

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*You think last names are patriarchal? In my part of India, every child also gets the father’s first name as the middle name, so the only part of your name that is all your own is your first name. When women marry, their middle and last names both change, to the first and last names of their husbands. In my case, adopting my (American) husband’s last name would have given me Sunita Father’s-first-name Husband’s-last name as my full name in the US. In India it would have properly been changed to Sunita Husband’s-first-name Husband’s-last-name. TheHusband found that extremely amusing, I found it less so.

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