Feminist choices and the last name debate

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.


*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.

103 thoughts on “Feminist choices and the last name debate

  1. I changed my name when I married nearly 34 years ago. I was raised expecting that the last name I was born with would not be the name I would die with. I was stunned after I changed my name to realize how difficult it was to adjust to the change. I hated when people called me Mrs. NewLastName. Some five or six years later an old roommate, who always addressed me as OLDLastName, called me that during a reunion and I nearly started crying because it was so nice to be called by what I secretly still considered MY name. If I had to do it all over again I would not have changed it. But changing my name was the norm; it was what both our families and all our friends expected me to do. I guess my point in telling this story is to point out that we are emotionally connected to our names and those emotions are important.

    • If I had married an Indian (here or there), especially in my 20s or even early 30s, I think it would have been much harder to keep my name, because the pressures would have been intense and it would have reflected on HIM, not just me. But it would have been hard for me. I’m so glad I had the choice, and that my choice was supported by the people that mattered to me (I still get raised eyebrows in India).

      Names are incredibly important, whether we like the ones we have or not. They’re so tied up with our identities. As an adult, my husband changed his middle name to his mother’s maiden name (he was named after a good friend of his father’s). His mother was very pleased; his father was not.

      Thanks so much for your comment.

    • I have the opposite response (which is not to say anything negative about yours) — I hate being called by my old name and always happy when amongst people who never knew me by anything but my current name. But in my case it really was my own choice, made after 15 years of marriage, and I was very deliberately giving up my previous identity.

      My son was given his father’s last name because my mom argued that men miss out on pregnancy and giving birth and having the same name helps them feel more connected. This probably makes no sense at all, but I went with it.

  2. I wouldn’t mind changing mine since my last name is far down the alphabet. I admit it’s easier for all to have the same last name. Boo, hiss. Until it’s the norm to do otherwise – however, I am more hip to it especially when customers come to pick up whatever for their spouses I always have to ask: same last name? A lot of the time the answer is “no.”

  3. The same argument can be made about many choices. My preference as a second-wave feminist has always been for individual women to celebrate the freedom we’ve earned to make those choices, rather than feeling constrained to make a particular choice in order to further the movement. What about choosing to stay home with kids, or to have a child rather than an abortion, or to wear high heels or a bra? I’ve been told at various points that those are choices that perpetuate the patriarchy, but I think it’s just as important to empower individual women with choice as it is to fight the system in other ways. Otherwise, what and whom are we really fighting for? Ourselves, real women here and now, or only theoretical women and the overall system? What gives the last-name system its power is not just pervasiveness but constraint; if women are making the choice to change their names for reasons that empower them, I believe that’s as valid a feminist gesture as choosing to keep daddy’s name.

    • Thinking about it more and tweeting with Bree reminded me: No one can make an intelligent, thoughtful woman feel shitty like another intelligent, thoughtful woman can. It’s up there with fights between spouses, because in both cases, each side knows exactly where to stick the dagger.

      We ALL make choices that are go against other goals we hold as important. But someone the feminist-related ones get called out more often and treated as more heinous.

      • Some goals may be in conflict.. The goal of individual choice implies that some women will be empowered to make choices that conform to the expectations of patriarchy.

        Pointing that out may seem neutral and objective, but I think we’ve seen that isn’t the result. Labeling something as “anti-feminist” may serve some academic/theoretical purpose, but is that worth the wedge it drives between women who are otherwise allies? I’m sure that the real patriarchal powers-that-be just love it when we waste our energy making each other feel bad for taking the doctrine of “choice” seriously.

        It’s the way discussions like this get framed that makes so many women I know reject the title of feminist; they read or hear these things and think that their choices make them unfit for the label — or worse yet, think they don’t want to be a feminist if it means that they can’t make any traditional choices (or have to feel guilty if they do).

        • If the way to avoid driving wedges between women who are otherwise allies is to suppress information about the effects of their decisions, count me out of the coalition. It’s not just an academic and theoretical exercise (not that I think those are bad or unworthy goals in an of themselves). It’s an attempt to understand the *practical* consequences, to understand how individually sensible and honorable decisions can aggregate to an outcome that has negative consequences.

          Saying a particular action does not advance the larger causes of feminism doesn’t mean the person is anti-feminist, or is working against feminist causes. That’s the whole point of the tragedy of the commons. Everyone acts in good faith and in the way that makes sense, and yet we wind up, in the aggregate, with negative consequences that eventually affect us all.

          • I think that’s where the dIscussion hit me hard. My choice to take my husband’s last name was bound up in multiple signifiers, and the weight of social expectation was not high among them. Offending parents? Yes. Disrupting what people assume when they hear/see my name–and then meet me in person? Absolutely. And my husband and I had important discussions about possible choices, including a name fusion in which we could combine sounds from our last names to create a completely new one for both of us.

            I’m an ardent, active feminist, and I’m not convinced that taking one’s husband’s name is inherently anti-feminist. Does it–intentionally or unintentionally–reinforce patriarchal systems? Yes, but feminism isn’t only about patriarchy. And there are so many ways to challenge oppression, some of them from within the system. As a feminist, I don’t have to fight every battle..and I don’t have to fight the battles in one prescribed way.

            I do think this is an important discussion, but I’m concerned about the polarization of the naming issue. It can easily turn into another way patriarchy causes unhealthy division.

            • I think anti-feminist was a very poor choice of words, and needlessly inflammatory. Harding also used non-feminist, and I should have used that instead (I was trying to condense her argument while staying true to her language).

    • I’m totally with you there. The ability for women to choose is in itself the first and foremost gain of those 20th century feminists. If I then choose to do what my mother did, so be it. It’s still my choice, rather than doing the default, which is what my mother did, because she had no choice.

      • That’s where I come from. If you feel like you shouldn’t make the choice that feels right for you, how have we “liberated” you? I didn’t become feminist to “fight the patriarchy” in some abstract struggle; I became a feminist to give women of my generation and the generations that followed more power over their lives and choices.

  4. Sunita, for genealogical records’ sake, a patriarchical system of naming for children helps. Otherwise, how would you ever go up the tree if some children take their mothers’ names, some their fathers’ names, some hyphenated mothers’ and fathers’ names.

    In my case, I changed my middle name to be my unmarried last name and took my husband’s last name, precisely to avoid the tiresome explanations of these are really my children, no honestly, they are. My middle name though is purely for sentimental reasons. I had to go to court and testify and swear that I was doing so for personal reasons, not for nefarious purposes.

    • Fascinating! I did the same–changed my middle name to my maiden name (which also happens to be a cultural standard in my heritage)…but no one ever questioned me about it. I certainly didn’t have to go to court to defend it. Wow.

      • It was the strangest experience of my life. I could change my last name blithely on the Social Security card and passport on the strength of my marriage certificate, but I couldn’t change my middle name on the strength of my previous Social Security card and passport.

  5. @Keishon: Same here! It was the one reason to take TheH’s name; D is nice and high in the alphabet. Oh well.

    @SonomaLass: I don’t disagree; I didn’t wear makeup for years in college because my then-boyfriend convinced me it was anti-feminist (savor the irony). I hated it. But every disadvantaged/discriminated group goes through this as the group becomes more heterogeneous, i.e., what is individually empowering and positive is not necessarily beneficial for the collective. That doesn’t mean the individual has to think of the collective over herself. It just means the interests don’t line up, so it’s not surprising we have these debates. Especially over things that are important to us.

    @Kiera: True, but other cultures have managed to have different naming norms without losing track. Iceland, for example. The Spaniards added names one after the other. Lots of Indian sub-groups historically didn’t use last names at all. And now, with technological advances, we have more precise ways of keeping track of family histories, especially in developed countries.

    • @Sunita: In some ways the question boils down to one of can we be feminist and make anti-feminist choices, and I’d say yes. Is it in feminism’s interest to have the marriage institution skewed against women keeping their own names? No. But it also doesn’t make women bad or not feminist if they individually choose to take their husband’s name. No institution or belief system is wholly coherent or consistent, and there are times when an individual choice might be feminist in one way (a thoughtful, independent choice), and not in another (being part of the patriarchal marriage estate). This might be a paradox, but I don’t think it’s a dichotomy.

      But I do think women get tired of feeling like we have to think about these things. And yeah, it’s a drag, and when we’re reminded of it, we sometimes want to push back. Even more so because there’s truth in both positions, and that can make it feel like a frustrating, no-win double-bind.

    • In Japan often men take the wife’s family name and crest. This happens when there are no male heirs or to strengthen alliances between families. I don’t know their tracking system for families and genealogy, but they managed.

  6. I use both names, which inevitably leads to confusion. I didn’t get married until I was almost 40, so I had a history with my own last name. I never even considered changing it, nor did my husband ever think to ask whether I would. It really just never came up, as naive as that seems. His family comes from the kind of background where wives take their husbands’ names and they send mail addressed to “Mr. & Mrs. Curtis”, but no one else does.

    But then we moved to a small town, and my husband joined the fire department. Which means that in our small town everyone Mike and thus knows me as Mike’s wife. In my professional life, and, indeed, in most other aspects of our life, people know him as my husband.

    But my last name is long and difficult to spell. His is not. So when I began my writing career, it seemed much easier to go by his. And now I can no longer remember who knows me by which name, especially since—as I work in publishing under my original name and write under my married name—I know a lot of people under both names.

    What are you gonna do? Some things are complicated!

    • TheHusband’s aunt, who was a feminist from the era between the first and second waves, always sent correspondence to Mr. and Mrs. D. She was extremely supportive of feminist causes, both in general and in the family, but she was also proper, and that was just proper to her.

  7. Thank you, Sunita! My response, when I read Dahl’s post, was to see she and Harding arguing different — but not opposed — parts of the same broad issue, namely the way institutions interact with individual choices. It frustrates me to see this issue set up as a dichotomy.

    I think Harding is talking about institutions (I mean, she refers to all sorts of things she does that fit into the beauty culture, which is deeply patriarchal), whereas Dahl is talking about how people make choices within those institutions. IMO both are right, and it becomes really clear when you shift the debate to hetero-normativity. For example, I think it’s pretty hard to argue that marriage, as an institution is NOT hetero-normative, even though the rules are starting to change. Does that make men and women who marry anti-gay or socially regressive? Obviously not, even if some hetero couples choose to reject marriage in protest against its hetero-normativity.

    I’m not going to say there aren’t women out there who have lots of rules around how to be a proper feminist, but I don’t think Harding is in that category. Nor do I think we should forget how we’re always negotiating institutions as we make our individual choices, because we’re interpellated within those institutions and the society in which they reside. Which is one of the reasons it’s so damn difficult to change an institution, even when you have a lot of individuals responding in contrary ways.

    • My browser whacked before I could finish my comment. I think what Harding is getting at is that we do, in fact, make choices that flow within the direction of certain patriarchal institutions. That doesn’t mean we’re not feminists – it just means that certain individual choices can affect the longevity of the institution. Making a so-called “anti-feminist” choice doesn’t make one anti-feminist or anti-woman or or pro-patriarchy. And I don’t think Harding is trying to say that it does. I think she’s pointing out something we all know but hate to have to think about, which is the way our choices do reverberate on an institutional level. That doesn’t mean they’re the *wrong* choices for us, or that we should always make a different choice, or that we’re in any way *at fault* for patriarchy.

      I read this fantastic essay by Molly Crabapple today, and I love her last line (http://www.vice.com/read/the-world-of-a-professional-naked-girl): “Beauty is powerful because it is pleasing. Real power means not having to please.” For me, this statement perfectly demonstrates the way in which, as women, we are PART of our patriarchal institutions, and therefore every choice we make somehow implicates them. Of course, I’d argue this goes for men, too, although certainly men have more of this freedom of which Crabapple speaks than women do (or, at least, than we believe ourselves to).

  8. This is a subject that’s insanely complex. Several times during the course of my life I’ve had reason to think on the last name issue. I’m single and a parent. My son has my last name so there have been no questions for either of us about differing last names. However, for me, it’s often occurred to me, as I watch my female friends and family members deal with last name changes, that I am really, really glad I’ve never had to go through the hassle and the potential loss of a track record of publishing — I’ve seen this happen to women in academia.

    (I apologize for how long this got. Now no one will read it.)

    But I have another perspective/observation. In my day job, I’m a database administrator and data architect. This means part of my job is dealing with the structures of how data is held in a relational database. Overwhelmingly people in my job are male (a little less now, thank goodness) but 20 years ago? Very few women. And I can tell you that one of the biggest and inevitable issues that crop up are with names. (You do not, in a good database design, put the entire name in one field) The Western white male conception of what names are like does not track very closely with reality. I have seen databases where there was no way to track a changed last name — in other words, you’d just update the last name field, and in a really poorly designed database, you’d lose the history. Then you’d get situations like this: the previous last name would be moved to the middle name field (same loss of historical data issues) or smooshed into other, rarely used columns. And, there were cases where a last name changed more than once: original name, married name, back to original name, new married name, back to 1st married name…. Immigrants from countries where names don’t even remotely follow Western naming conventions have been a challenge. When your database has FirstName, MiddleName, LastName, how do you deal with someone who has four or five words that represent the entire legal name?

    There are, of course, elegant ways to deal with this, but time and again, I have personally seen databases where the data related to women who have changed names is hopelessly mangled and incorrect– with serious consequences. The really big databases tend to get this more right, simply because the underlying data of huge datastores tends to be more varied and even the edge cases are still a significant amount of data. But there are many many more databases out there that have this White male design ethos, if you will, and women and people with non-western names are most often inconvenienced or even harmed by this.

    When you think about how in the West we are transforming to a digital and data-driven culture, there are real, and serious, consequences to the design of data structures. And what happens when a woman establishes an academic record (as an academic, and this only by way of example) under one name, gets married, but continues to use the original name professionally? How, in a huge database, do we ensure (assuming it’s desirable) that we can link those distinct names and tie them back to the same person? One’s name changes depending on the context, and that’s not a concept we are yet entirely comfortable with–I’m not sure many people, even in technology, understand this. And this is why both Google and Facebook, when they insist on “one real name” are expressing male privilege to the detriment most often of women. They fail to understand there are names and the context of names and a person (often a woman) may have a different name at different times and contexts.

    On the other hand, I am fully confident that we, as a culture, can overcome notions of what a name is and what it means. In another 20 years, I think it won’t be uncommon for women to not change their last names.

    • Your database experience reminds me of the trouble the New York Times had with some Indian politicians’ names. They have strict rules about how to refer to people, and the rules presume a first and last name. So when they would run across an Indian with a single name, they would introduce him or her as, e.g., “Jagmohan, who has only one name.” It made the person sound as if they’d left the other one on the bus or something.

    • I read this whole thing! and I loved it. I see a simple example of this problem every time I call roll at the start of a new semester. We have a lot of international students from China and students who are or are the children of Chinese immigrants. Many of them have a Chinese “first name” (which is of course their “last name” when written in the conventional Chinese way) that’s two words. Sometimes that shows up with part of it as the middle name, sometimes mushed into a single word. Many also have an “English” name they prefer to be called, which may show up as a middle name, or not at all. So inevitably, I am calling a lot of them the wrong thing because the list printed from the database can’t handle our reality. That’s all BEFORE they start getting married!

    • “The Western white male conception of what names are like does not track very closely with reality.”

      In Spain (which is in the West) the norm is for everyone’s name to stay the same on marriage. Traditionally, as mentioned above, everyone has two surnames: Father’sFirstSurname Mother’sFirstSurname but recent changes to the law mean that now it’s up to parents to decide which surname will come first.

      In keeping my name on marriage, I was being traditional (according to Spanish custom) and untraditional (in the UK). Quite apart from the feminist arguments, I felt that changing to a British surname would have involved a kind of “passing” which erased the Spanish part of my identity.

      • Yes, even in the West there are naming traditions in placed that don’t track with the “norm.” In the tech world, that “norm” has meant, most of the time, the US (though often the UK) because those technologies were developed, by and large, in the US. IBM invented the first huge ones, but of course the UK soon had mainframes, too, that arose from the need for processing cycles that would decyrpt German. Off topic, of course, but most of the mainframe operators were women and they were highly effective and successful.

        When I was a freshman in college I met a young Korean woman who had immigrated here and when she arrived, whoever processed her paperwork insisted she had to change her first name from her Korean one. She barely spoke English at the time and the man wrote down “Peggy” for her. She found out much later that Peggy was a nickname. But she felt stuck with that name.

  9. I really like the way you and Robin frame this as not opposing positions, but different approaches to the intersection between (often patriarchal) institutions and individual choices. I guess I think the most feminist thing to do on the name issue is to advocate for institutions to make it as simple (and inexpensive) for a man, or both parties, to change name on marriage as for a woman. Only when any number of choices (hyphen, new name, keep names, he takes hers) are as easy and common as her taking his name have we reached a point where women are really making unconstrained choices. Right now, we may not FEEL constrained, but I think we still are. Making a choice besides taking your husband’s name helps to dismantle that as the default, but I think women have lots of good reasons for not doing that and I’m not interested in calling that choice “anti-feminist.” I don’t think it’s feminist, either.

    I kept “my” name (and yeah, it’s my dad’s, but that’s not how I think of it) when I got married. I never imagined doing otherwise. But our kids have their dad’s name. Did I make a “rational” choice about that? Kinda. My name’s long enough without hyphenating, his is easier to spell and pronounce. But I also totally saw it as the patriarchal path of least resistance. So I did feel I was “letting the side down” or not making a feminist choice, but I could live with that. I feel this way about some of my work/family balance choices, too, which have always involved me taking on more of the “family” stuff even though we had other options. Partly these choices were personal/due to our characters, but partly they were the easy, socially acceptable ones. We aren’t in a place yet where women have unconstrained choices about balancing work and child-rearing, and these are still seen as more a woman’s problem than a man’s. My choices didn’t exactly help change that. I can live with that too, because I don’t think we all have to be martyrs to the cause to be feminists (as both Harding and SonomaLass say). But it’s because our choices in all these areas are still NOT really free that these are still feminist issues and some choices are more feminist than others. (Feminists can disagree about which ones or whether that’s the case and still be feminists; feminism is political and philosophical positions, not self-evident truths. Um, in my opinion).

    My first response to the uproar about this on blogs and Twitter is “what’s the big deal.” But names are deeply symbolic and these choices are very personal ones about identity, so I do understand why people got upset. I personally liked the way Harding addressed that in her post.

    • But it’s because our choices in all these areas are still NOT really free that these are still feminist issues and some choices are more feminist than others. (Feminists can disagree about which ones or whether that’s the case and still be feminists; feminism is political and philosophical positions, not self-evident truths. Um, in my opinion).

      Yes, exactly!

    • Two anecdotes: (1) After my parents divorced (after nearly 20 years of marriage), my American mother changed her name back to her original name. I was definitely in college by that point, and I was absolutely a feminist. None of that withstanding, I felt slightly bereft because she was rejecting “our” name. I got over it pretty quickly, but it was definitely my instinctive reaction, and I’m not proud of that. I preferred that she keep her no-longer-appropriate, awful-now-to-explain Indian last name just so her grown daughter wouldn’t feel disoriented. Given my reaction, I can kind of fathom how difficult it must be for mothers to have children (actual ones who haven’t grown up and gone to college yet) who don’t like them having a different name.

      (2) Friends of mine couldn’t agree on whether their child would have his name or hers. They finally agreed that once the child was born they’d flip a coin, winner picked the last name. She had a horrendous delivery, but all turned out safely and they flipped the coin. We kind of thought the father, who is a feminist and a very loving and decent father/husband/man, would choose her name. No way. The kid got his name. Next child, as agreed upon, got her name.

      People really care about naming, and when the culture shifts to a different norm, they’ll care a lot about that one too.

      • There are times I wish I had the same last name as my kids and feel like the odd one out in the family. Our compromise between “easy” and “more feminist” naming was to give the kids surnames from my side of the family as middle names, which is a naming tradition in both of my parents’ families. (My son has my surname for a middle name, and my daughter has my mother’s birth surname, which is my middle name).

        • I hyphenated, and we gave the kids both last names. Then we divorced, and I wanted to drop his, but the kids objected because I wouldn’t match them if I did. So I still have the ex’s name, ten years into another relationship, although informally I try OT to use it.

  10. Great post! I’ve had wine, so I hope this isn’t too rambling, but… Aside from my strong reaction to being told that my motivations don’t matter, I suppose my deepest thought on this is that her argument strikes me as…intellectually lazy? Too easy and simple?

    Yes, taking your husband’s name is about historical patriarchal norms. But your father’s name is about patriarchy too, so that’s not a solid enough argument. So I guess we have to turn instead to feminism. She says that taking your husband’s name is never a feminist choice, no matter what a woman’s individual thoughts, feelings or motivations are. She doesn’t want to hear it. It’s not up for discussion. She knows the right feminist way. So it doesn’t matter if your father abused you. It doesn’t matter if he abandoned you. It doesn’t matter if he raped you. Keeping your patriarch’s name is the feminist choice, because taking your husband’s name doesn’t further the cause that’s important to her.

    But what if you keep your name and then you flip a coin on the kids’ names, as has been mentioned above? If your daughter gets your husband’s name because of that coin flip, is that also an automatically un-feminist choice, solely because it’s the husband’s name? *boggle* Is feminism really that simple? Motivations don’t matter? It’s all about what men have done?

    For me, feminism means that men’s decisions don’t determine my choices. I don’t feel feminist by choosing to do the opposite of what men have done for centuries, because that’s letting men’s actions decide *my* choice. You may not feel the same. That doesn’t make your thoughts un-feminist. I don’t get to decide that. Neither does she. This may be semantics, but words are damn important.

    • Thanks for coming over and joining the discussion! I’ve thought about the coin flip a lot, because my visceral reaction was that it was a trivialization of something important. But of course that was wrong (these are people who study identity and care about gender issues and discrimination more generally). I think the coin flip is a great answer because it essentially reinforces the notion that our identity, although deeply held, is the result of a series of serendipitous events and choices. The problem, of course, is that when the flip goes to the father’s name, who will know that there was a flip at all? It is behaviorally equivalent to choosing the status quo in the first place. But if everyone flipped a coin, you’d end up in the aggregate with half father, half mother names, which would be kind of cool.

      On the father’s name is patriarchy issue: as I said above, of course that’s right. The difference I see is that I didn’t get to choose my father’s name, but I get to choose whether I take my husband’s. If I had children, and each child and succeeding generation were allowed to make the same choice, you’d have more variety, and it could eventually chip away at the father’s-name institution. Whether or not it did would depend on a complex set of factors, including individual preferences and situations.

      • One can always change their name just to change their name. Just because a person isn’t given a choice of last name, usually paternal, doesn’t mean they they are stuck with that option.

        Once of my ex boyfriends changed his whole name, actually 2 times, for several reasons: 1. To piss off his father whom he had lots of issues with (hated) and who was big on family name and 2. to establish his own identity outside of the expectation of males carrying on the family name.

  11. I changed mine solely because the new one could be spelled and pronounced easily. I know 2 women that have not. One responds easily as Mrs husband and the other is Ms her name. Personally, I think everyone should do as they wish.

  12. My reaction was like Liz’s (what’s the big deal?) and I don’t see how keeping your father’s name is hugely different and YayMore Feminist than taking your husband’s. Maybe giving children the mother’s name would be a more feminist choice. I just don’t like the idea of two columns: feminist vs. non feminist, with every action (?) getting judged/labeled as one or the other.

    I didn’t change my last name and I’ve never had an issue with it. I have more trouble with my first name. My family members call me by a childhood nickname, which I used exclusively for years, but I think of myself as Jill more and more these days. I kept Sorenson because I like it. I often get mail from family members addressed to my nickname + husband’s last name. That’s the extent of the “backlash.” Maybe because I don’t go to dinner parties or whatever, the issue never even comes up. My kids’ soccer coaches and teachers don’t ask about my last name. How rude would that be? Maybe they assume I’m not married to my husband. Meh.

    So anyway. I don’t see my choice as better for feminism. The impact on my life has been minimal and the impact on others is nonexistent, as far as I know. Maybe I’m not seeing the bigger picture/benefit to all women.

    • The impact on others is not nonexistent. It is very, very, very, small, because it is one of millions of such decisions. But it’s no different for me to say your name change choice matters than it is for people to tell me to vote because my vote matters. In both cases, the chance of being pivotal in the outcome is tiny. But it is not zero.

      • The impact I see and can quantify is on my daughters. They know I kept my name & I told them they could keep theirs. Of course I could have told them that without changing my name, but actions speak louder than words. Even so I’m really uncomfortable with the name-changers declaring themselves better feminists. It’s like the breastfeeders (and I was a proud one!) declaring themselves better mothers. We all have different experiences and face different sets of circumstances.

    • “I don’t see how keeping your father’s name is hugely different and YayMore Feminist than taking your husband’s.”

      THIS! Both are patriarchical.

      The ability to choose is feminist. What one chooses then is not up for judgment–be it father’s name, husband’s name, a hyphenated name, or some other made-up name.

  13. Also involved in the academic world — most of the married women I know, who are academics have kept their own names both personally and professionally. With female staff at the university, however, I would say most of them, have changed their names depending on their marital status (usually taking their husbands’ last names on marriage or if divorced, taking back their own family names). I finished undergraduate university in the early 80s and my non-academic friends who married before or around 21, that is before they had established themselves professionally, tended to take their husbands’ names. While those who married in their late 20s and later tended to keep their family names at least professionally, if not socially. Also I believe that this is something that can be influenced by where one marries. To not change my name was easy for me because the state I married in didn’t require any additional paperwork–something I know was not true for some of my friends. It was by far harder for them to NOT change their names then change names (and more expensive to keep their original names). So class/legal rules/community standards/professional expectations/age at marriage may all also complicate women’s individual choices here.

    I only know a couple of academic spouses who hyphenated their names and one couple who on their marriage created for themselves a totally new name (not a blended one, but a new one). The one couple who created the new name did it exactly because they wanted a truly non-patriarchal last name, it was for them an important statement about the equality they wanted to achieve in their marriage as well as in society. He was the academic who already had publications under his former name, so yeah that made things a bit complicated. I found their choice pretty admirable as an intellectual exercise, but I’m not sure that I would do it rather than keeping my own family name. I actually like my own family name — it’s relatively rare in N. America and tells you a bit about my family background (although it also masks all the other bits of my family tree).

    Historically naming patterns for last names (and first names) even in western European countries and US/Canada have not been especially stable in many families. From Ellis Island immigration officials renaming new immigrants to the not-so-wealthy second son adopting the family name of his wealthy bride to people’s profession becoming their last name to spelling variations in how two cousins spell their “shared” last name to people simply moving to a new community and creating for themselves a new identity — last names and first names have constantly been at flux. As human lives have become more institutionalized, governments have inserted themselves more and more into the regulation of the naming processes because it is way for the state to track its citizens (although not perfect of course since names are not unique, which is now why unique ID numbers are also issued).

    • Perhaps we can just do away with last name debate altogether by everyone getting three different names or just two new names: first name and last name that have nothing to do with parental first names and last names.

    • Oh, that’s a very good point about American name in the late 19thC; once immigration became a federally regulated process, names were frequently changed for “convenience” or because the immigration officer couldn’t spell them properly. And of course there are the Germans who changed their names to avoid abuse and worse during and after World War I.

      I was surprised that when I married, in California, I didn’t have to do anything to keep my name. Had I taken my husband’s name, I would have had to fill out a bunch of forms. But the default was to keep it.

  14. I don’t know if it was ever the case in American society, but in England, married women were often known as Mrs Husband’s First Name Husband’s Last Name. I certainly remember my mother receiving letters addressed to her in this way. See also Lady Peter Wimsey. Which isn’t that dissimilar to the Indian way you mention at the end of your post. I think this has more or less disappeared in England now, though not being married, I am not expert in this.

    Changing surnames certainly happens and is about as complex a choice as you describe in the US. I know quite a few women who use their maiden names professionally, but have taken their husband’s names in their personal life. I know one couple who both use the wife’s surname, several who have hyphenated surnames, but the majority have changed to use the husband’s surname. So I do think there is more choice than there used to be, but I don’t think there is a completely free choice for women. It is still ‘normal’ for a woman to take her husband’s name. So, although I think women can choose, they aren’t choosing in a vacuum, they are choosing in a society which very much expects them to do one thing and will raise eyebrows if they do something different.

    • Yes, now that you mention it, I do remember that form of address. My mother used to get invitations and other types of correspondence addressed that way, both in India (from Westerners) and in the US. I think it’s pretty much gone now in informal correspondence, although it may still be around in formal contexts.

      • When my husband and I were season ticket holders at the Washington Opera (in the eighties and nineties) our tickets said “Mr. and Mrs. D_____ W. V_______.” I have a newspaper clipping about my mother’s wedding shower that referred to all of the married guests (including my grandmother) as Mrs. [Husband’s first name] [Husband’s Last Name].”

  15. At least until the 1970s in the US, married women (and widows) were supposed to be addressed as Mrs Husband’s FirstName, Husband’s LastName in all correspondence and public records. Divorcees were addressed by their own FirstName, Ex’s LastName (unless they took back their family name–which was very rare). It was a a very clear marker of whether you had a husband whose name could protect your own from public spaces.

    I know that when writing invitations to my wedding in the late 1980s, I needed to get this correct for my older relatives and in-laws. It mattered to many of them. I think this is still the case for formal invitations for to formal weddings, etc. if you check etiquette books. But I doubt most people would follow it today — I certainly don’t.

  16. 1. My last name isn’t my father’s name, it’s my name. My parents gave it to me. I don’t share custody. It’s the last two syllables in a name I’ve been called my entire life. Mine now.

    2. Would it help if Harding said “is patriarchal” instead of “isn’t feminist?” That’s how I read it. Women who take their husbands’ names are caving to patriarchal pressure (like my stylist whose husband made her taking his name to be a condition of marrying him) or exploiting patriarchy to make it work for them (taking advantage of the free, easy name change to drop an unwanted surname, frex) or whatever, but the tradition itself is patriarchal.

    3. I literally don’t give a single fuck about what individual women choose to do with their names. No one has to justify their decision to anyone and no one’s feminist membership card is in peril for choosing “wrong.” In a perfect world, anyone of any gender could freely choose whatever name they want to go by. In our imperfect world, however, the choice isn’t truly free. It’s gendered, for one, (see: the guy in Florida who was charged with fraud for taking his wife’s name) and the table is tilted heavily towards women who share a name with their husbands (I can’t convince the cable company to talk to me because the account’s in his name and my last name’s different. People routinely call us by names that aren’t ours. I could go on and on.) There has to be some way of talking about how this patriarchal tradition continues to limit and/or marginalize women without accusations of shaming those who changed their names.

  17. Ack, sorry, apparently I can’t stop wrestling with this.

    I just don’t see the logic of arguing that since feminism is about choice we can’t criticize other women’s choices or the structures that shape individual choices. What if I choose to continue my high-powered career after having children by hiring an undocumented nanny and paying her a pittance on which she is trying to support her own children back home? I think other feminists would have the right to point out my privilege and the oppressive systems I’m perpetuating with my choice. If women of color, to take one example, did not point out some problematic, privileged assumptions of white feminists, would feminism ever grow and change?

    Granted, the name issue seems trivial compared to these examples. But I think Harding’s point was not to attack individual people for their choices (though I agree the use of “anti-feminist” detracted from that point; most women aren’t taking their husbands’ names to oppose feminism) but to argue that just because women, and feminist women, are making a particular choice doesn’t mean we can’t critique it from a structural perspective. And if some women are hurt or offended by the critique that might be the price we pay. (Isn’t this kind of argument exactly what happens every time we try to discuss rape/forced seduction in Romance? On the one hand, there are issues worth exploring, on the other, some readers feel they are being shamed for their fantasies so this discussion should stop). Harding’s tone wasn’t exactly tactful, but no matter how tactful she might have been, some people would have been offended by her points.

    Did Harding lack nuance? Sure, like most blog posts. But the argument (which I saw several places) that she didn’t consider things like women who change their names on marriage because their father was an abuser lacks nuance, too. Why wait for marriage? What about *men* who bear their abusive father’s surnames? This is an argument for reducing the cost and hassle of changing your name; it doesn’t make it wrong to have a feminist debate on taking your husband’s name.

    I also don’t think Harding was setting herself up as “better” than other feminists. She enumerated some ways that she, like all of us, makes choices that implicate her in supporting systems oppressive to women (like the beauty industry). Do we have to agonize over every such choice? When I put on lipstick, must I castigate myself for helping to perpetuate a world where women are still valued largely for their sexual desirability, or wonder if there is a straight–if long–line from my lipstick to women getting plastic surgery because their genitals aren’t porn-perfect? I don’t think about that every time, and I don’t think Harding is arguing we should, but I DO think those are perfectly legitimate discussions to have, even though I may feel sexually empowered and free-willed about my personal choice to wear lipstick or put blonde streaks in my hair (and I do feel that way).

    I guess all I’m trying to say is this: we can make choices that are considered and are right for us and make us feel good, but that doesn’t rule them out of bounds for critical analysis from a feminist perspective. I expect people will disagree with me, but that’s fine, because if feminists can’t argue, we are in trouble.

    • Yeah it can be hard to discuss this type of issue that seems at once so trivial, and yet is also so personal and so political. What is in a name? Often a great deal of emotion. I agree with you and Harding, but I think it is often hard for people (and I include myself here) not feel defensive and under attack when these type of issues come up — precisely because they often strike at people’s sense of themselves and their choices.

      Perhaps we might switch the focus a bit and ask why in USA today are so many invested in making this way of assigning last names the only legal system? There are often appeals to tradition, but as I mentioned before the current Anglo/American “traditional” way of assigning names is not the only system out and it hasn’t even been the only naming system in English-speaking world (and fact it was the dominant one until the early modern era). So why are people so insistent on it today as Harding notes?

    • But I think Harding’s point was not to attack individual people for their choices (though I agree the use of “anti-feminist” detracted from that point; most women aren’t taking their husbands’ names to oppose feminism) but to argue that just because women, and feminist women, are making a particular choice doesn’t mean we can’t critique it from a structural perspective.

      I think this is exactly what she’s trying to get at. I wonder if this isn’t, in part, a reflection of the way in which our social institutions and ideological systems have become less overtly skewed against women — that is, as a sign of success of the feminist movement. First wave feminists (and I include all those historically previous to second wave feminists) did not have this luxury, really. And they seemed to have a keen understanding of institutional structures and tackled issues on that level.

      Actually, whenever I hear women talking about how “militant” some of those feminists were, I cringe, because their so-called “militancy” is so much of what even allows us to have these discussions and to get pissed off at the idea that we sometimes make choices against our feminist interests, because we (and Meoskop’s point about female privilege here is very well-taken) may not feel the institutional inequities as urgently and powerfully as first wave feminists did. Wasn’t it Gloria Steinem who cursed young feminists as being ‘entitled’ or something like that?

      In some ways this focus on individual choices is great, because it demonstrates progress, but as I’ve watched, over the past few years, state after state enact anti-choice legislation (just one example), I’ve wondered if our success has created a lack of vigilance that’s one day — before we notice the accumulation of changes around us — going to lose us all that hard-won ground. So while I feel incredibly grateful that we can make these individual choices in ways that feel liberated from those systemic inequities, I also worry that we’re losing ground at those structural levels.

  18. From a young age, I knew that my surname was a name that my father chose. He changed it by deed poll by choice before he married. He was studying Latin at the time and (in his own eccentric way) while he was conjugating the word “veritas” decided to have a surname that meant “truth”. He was following the tradition of his own grandfather and great-grandfather who both changed their surnames. I was aware of his original surname as his name change was frowned upon by his brother (but not his sisters) and he had some acquaintances that never accepted his name change and would only refer to him (and all of his family) by his original name. This annoyed him and us. He had a good relationship with his father so this was not an act of anger or hate.

    Of his 4 daughters, I am the only one that has kept his name – my sisters for a variety of reasons, have chosen to take their husbands names (something our family does not have – 4 surnames in 5 generations on the paternal lines). One of their reasons is that they love the unbroken, historical tradition of the same name. They are all feminists. All 4 of us have made choices that suited our individual needs not the needs of the feminist movement. And to be dismissive of their choices by labelling them as “non-feminist” is simple and does not take into account the whole of a person.

    When I married and did not take my husband’s name there was a certain amount of offense felt at my actions from his family but this was reconciled early on but it is my extended family that constantly refers to me as Mrs husband’s name and not Ms my name and this really annoys me. My choice is disregarded for it doesn’t follow their cultural expectations just as my dad’s choice was disregarded by them.

    When I had my sons, they were given both our surnames but, at my insistence, they only use their father’s surname (I hated being at the bottom of the roll) and with the understanding that if they chose to change their name there was no ranting over family traditions etc. My husband was comfortable with this. Funnily enough, my eldest son has chosen to use his maternal grandmother’s name online and he often speaks about changing his surname to hers once he is older. This makes my mum preen :) She has said that if she was marrying now she would never have given up her (father’s) name for a made up one and has asked that eventually her gravestone lists two surnames.

    • What an interesting history (and present) your family has on this issue! I think, as Liz says, we’d all be better off if name changes were easier. For every person like me, whose gives name makes her happy and is congruent with a sense of self, there is someone for whom it is not. OK, maybe not 50-50, but closer to that than to 100-0.

  19. Coming at it from a completely different angle, this entire issue can be very alienating because it is so mired in a very narrow row of privilege. Leaving aside the class aspect (the very weathy and very poor have different naming conventions than the center) or the heteronormative nature you hit the very tiny aspect.

    Why is looking at a tiny piece of the puzzle so instantly enraging to many? Because so much of the puzzle gets ignored or discard. Wait for later, this isn’t the time, that’s not important, we have to deal with X first… Is a common refrain in feminism discussions. We brings up issues that are conceptual, such as name changes, instead of concrete, like domestic violence definitions, and the unspoken message is that even this is more important than the lives of some women. This tiny symbolic thing is important. Your huge thing … Maybe not so much.

    I left the feminist movement a long time ago. This does not end my work personally or socially on issues affecting women’s lives, but my tolerance for conversations about naming, about shaving, about dozens of tiny issues important primarily to only a small section of women became completely exhausted. I dont want to worry about what name a woman does or doesn’t have. I want to worry about her safety and her income. I simply don’t agree that a radical change in naming culture would affect any of that. I know we can worry about multiple things at the same time, and yet. AND YET. How many days will a naming conversation go? How many comments?

    It makes my soul tired, for real.

    • It has not been my experience that only women of privilege care about this issue. They may be the ones that are most vocal, but I’ve met women of different ethnicities and class locations (and age groups) for whom this is not just symbolic, and it is not trivial.

      • I agree. It is not trivial at all. Your name is a legal identifier. If your property is listed under the name of Mrs (husband’s first name) (husband’s surname) and he leaves you taking your dowry then you have no legal claim and possibly a difficult life ahead of you. Greece changed their naming laws due to abuse of the dowry system in the 1980s. Women are no longer permitted to legally take their husband’s name unless through deed poll and all property and inheritance exchanges can only be in the (maiden) name of the recipient. I have a relative whose husband had a major argument over property his in-laws gifted to her not being listed in his name. I heard his rants “Don’t they understand my position as head of my family. I make the decisions” – yet Mr Decider who 20 years later has a huge debt, has been unable to sell his wife’s property as it is hers (despite his many attempts). My relative is not a woman of privilege, nor vocal but her retention of her name has made a world of difference to the life she has been able to lead (particularly since she left Mr Decider a year ago).

      • Well, I think class plays into the name change game when women say they want to have the same name as their children and their father. Nobody wants to be mistaken for an unmarried mother, or one who’s had children with more than one man, now would they? Classy women get married before they have kids.

        • I resent that implication, actually. My sister got married one year after the birth of her first child. She did take her husband’s family’s name, but I hardly think she’s not classy for doing it in that order. The assumption of class around names is part of the problem. It’s not about class, it’s about identity and kinship paradigms.

          • Catherine, I think something got lost in translation. If your comment is aimed at Ridley, she was almost certainly being sarcastic, and I took her comment to point out that “classy” behavior is something that is invoked in non-privileged groups, not just privileged ones. The pressure to behave properly and the way naming decisions are affected by that aren’t just about a particular class stratum but occurs throughout society, and is usually aimed at women.

            • I was being all the sarcasm. I’m pointing out that working-class and lower-class women have kept their names for a while now by just not getting married and wondering if maybe some of the appeal of having the same name is about separating oneself from “those people.”

            • Your initial comment reminded me of the legal implications of marriage and names in regard to assumption of paternity and child support/inheritance laws. I mean, nowhere do you see how much the system is gamed toward a patriarchal social norm than in the law, and in all the ways marriage can endow women with certain property and standing rights that she may not have without that legal contract. And how those protections are so much more important and yet no less inequitable for women of lower socio-economic (and often educational) status.

              Which, of course, is one way in which the patriarchal structure persists — the system is gamed to favor choices made in support of the norm; women and men, of necessity, make certain choices that support the norm, which, in turn, reinforces the norm. I don’t know how it would be possible to live on the grid and NOT make choices that cut against women’s feminist interests, because the overarching social structures (I keep wanting to invoke the ideological state apparatus argument here) are so, uh, overarching, and change is so damn slow.

  20. Ooops – that reads oddly. I meant “my sisters for a variety of reasons, have chosen to take their husbands names. One of their reasons is that they love the unbroken, historical tradition of the same name (something our family does not have – 4 surnames in 5 generations on the paternal lines).

  21. I am, and always have been, a feminist. I took my husband’s family’s name when we married for several reasons, none of which have anything to do with the patriarchy. The argument that doing so is in tacit support of such patriarchy is simple-minded and bad rhetoric. Families and kinship paradigms are the most complex among human sociological interactions. Reducing them to a political point-of-view is highly simplistic and un-nuanced.

    I took my husband’s family name because I was symbolically joining his family. (For the record, I am not Christian, though our families both are.) In joining that family, I left the family of my father.

    Secondly, I do not choose to associate with my mother. I do associate with my mother’s family, but she also took my father’s name when she left her family. So keeping my father’s name would not have kept me in the line of my mother’s any more than taking my husband’s name.

    Thirdly, taking my husband’s name does not erase my history. Just as I am an individual, I am a member of a long line of women going back into the mists of history. I have genealogies on my mother’s side that date back to before 1765; my father’s family has them to before 1880. My husband’s genealogy dates back to before 1550 and some references as far back as 1066. Does taking his name erase that history? Only for the supremely ignorant.

    The way I see it, feminism is about what I do and who I am. It is not about what name the outside world calls me. I am part of a culture that has patrilineal descent. Refusing to “honor” that by keeping the name of my father isn’t changing that culture in the least. And, to be frank, I love his family and am honored to be part of it. Anyone that calls me un-feminist for doing so doesn’t know me, nor my husband, very well.

    But simpletons rarely pay attention to the details.

  22. Like Keira, when I married, I took my husband’s last name and moved my maiden name to my middle name (as, by the way, did my mother). I took my husband’s name for any number of reasons, but the most important was that it was important to him that we share a name as a symbol of sharing our lives. Now, I suppose we *could* have chosen to use my maiden name, to make one up, or to hyphenate, but for a ton of reasons (not the least of which is that both of us have surnames that are difficult to spell/pronounce and hyphenating them would have doubled the trouble AND resulted in a surname that is also the title of rather famous children’s song), I took his surname.

    I’ve never regretted that choice, but I do remember that when my father passed away right before we closed on our second house, all the closing paperwork was drawn up without my middle name/initial…just Firstname Lastname. I was *devastated*. At the time, I thought my heartbreak was silly, but looking back, I see it wasn’t silly at all. And important part of my identity had been excised, and especially at that time, when I was still grieving, it was incredibly painful.

    But another thing that this makes me think about is the choice of pen names. When I chose my pen name, I very deliberately riffed on my maiden name/given first name to come up with Jackie Barbosa. In some ways, that’s the name that’s most truly and deeply MINE, because I picked it.

    • My father died suddenly and very unexpectedly on the same night TheHusband and I decided to get married. He knew, but he never got to celebrate it with us, and it was a difficult few months, trying to be happy for ourselves while mourning his loss and taking care of all the things that had to be done. I still miss him very much, and the fact that I have his first and last names as part of my name somehow makes it a little better and keeps him in our lives in a visible way. It’s a small consolation, but a real one.

    • I’m very particular about my middle name or at least middle initial being a part of anyplace my name’s written, including my credit card. And yes, I do get out of sorts when it’s omitted, for precisely what you said, Jackie–a sense of loss of identity.

  23. As usual, this is a great post and a wonderful discussion. In particular, I’ve loved all the comments that tell something about the way people relate to their names and how something that’s seemingly abstract has so much weight in defining and shaping our identity as both individuals and as culture.

  24. I haven’t anything to add to this discussion beyond my conviction that names have power.

    I have been thinking about this as a never married woman whose surname is ‘Ms Father-StepFather’. I made myself the only one of me in existence. As a long name it can be frustrating fitting into forms & discovering how many people don’t know what a hyphen is but it suits me and it acknowledges my past – where ‘I’ have come from. I should also note that over my life I have answered to around 6 versions of my first name and each name formation is and was about who I was at that time and they have changed as I and my circumstances have.

    When my Mum re-married she wanted to wipe my father out of existence and insisted we children change our names, my brother and sister took Stepfather’s name happily because there was a sense of new beginnings for them. I baulked at having such a choice made for me and I think as the eldest I had a few better memories of our father. I also found out years later that one step-brother’s reaction to the name change was that we had stolen his name.

    Names are one of the ways we show and know who and what we stand in relation too – I don’t mean just blood relationships. Names are symbols of things that connect us.

    • Maybe that is why this topic seems so fraught? A person’s name, a name they have been given or have chosen, for whatever reason, is so very personal.

      My instinctive reaction (and it was only knee jerk I admit) was to get my feathers ruffled at the thought that my personal choice was somehow adding to the oppression of women. I can see from the sensible and thoughtful comments upthread, as well as the initial post, that there is more to it than that and perhaps I ought not be quite so sensitive about it.

      But, I do feel quite protective of my name, my choice to take my husband’s surname (a name which he was given – and which he happily received – when he was adopted in his early teens by his stepdad because his own biological father was a douche of the 1st order). Even though it was my father’s name and then my husband’s name before it was my name, for me, that does not make it any less “mine”.

      I don’t identify as a feminist per se. I’ve never studied at uni so I haven’t done courses on Women’s Studies or Feminist Literature etc. I’ve never formally joined a feminist movement or organisation. I do support women’s rights to equality and I’m grateful that I’m no longer my husband’s property (and before that, my father’s property). I’m glad I have (here in Australia) the right to make decisions about my own body and reproduction, I’m glad I have the right to vote, equal pay (in my industry), paid maternity leave, the right to part time work after children come along etc. I don’t think I’m “not feminist”. I’m not sure what that makes me! Mostly confused I think :)

      • But, I do feel quite protective of my name, my choice to take my husband’s surname (a name which he was given – and which he happily received – when he was adopted in his early teens by his stepdad because his own biological father was a douche of the 1st order). Even though it was my father’s name and then my husband’s name before it was my name, for me, that does not make it any less “mine”.

        IMO this is why Harding’s perspective is so important. Because even when women make these choices thoughtfully and independently, the framework in which these choices are made is not neutral. It’s just that we don’t really feel that until and unless we make a choice that bucks the norm. The resistance reveals the boundaries, which are there and always shaping the way we think about names, even if we don’t feel them because our choice just happens to be within the norm (and this choice is often made with absolutely no thought to the norm and no desire to conform to any particular social norm).

  25. One of my brothers divorced and eventually remarried, to a woman who had a young daughter. But they lived together for several years as a blended family. The two of them, his kids, her daughter. When they married, my sister-in-law changed her last name to my brother’s. Now, her daughter is the only one with a different last name. Not long ago, she asked if she could change her last name to my brother’s last name (she spends very little time with her biological father– he’s not the greatest father, from what I can see.) Her father, however, refused to allow the name change. Because his daughter’s last name had meaning and symbolism to him, even though he spends so little time with her.

    So, yes, names, have a deep meaning and they can and do convey a belonging– which may or may not be wanted. My niece, who is a lovely wonderful girl, feels apart — because of all the meanings we attach to names.

    What I think is that names may end up going the way of other old words that hold, at their core, a patriarchal, gendered meaning that was once quite literal. The way the word “friend” actually derives from the need to distinguish freemen from slaves in a household. The way “guy” is turning into an un-gendered word. The way, eventually, using the plural “they” will be acceptable grammar because it’s so gendered to use “he” or “she” when the context is, in fact, genderless, since (in English anyway) our ungendered pronoun of “one” seems hopelessly old fashioned.

    In other words, I think we’re in a transitional period. We can’t change the gendered and patriarchal roots of our language(s) but a living language can transform the meaning. Eventually, I believe, we’ll shrug off some of the emotion of names. But what we call each other and why matters, and it matters to us for different reasons.

    • My husband’s biological dad got stroppy when he asked to come stay 1 x per month instead of 1 x per fortnight. That was back in the days when you went and stayed with the non-custodial parent and they made no effort whatsoever to keep up with the child’s sporting commitments etc. (or at least, that’s what the douchebag did). Hubs wanted to spend time with his friends and play a sport but couldn’t because he was at his dad’s every fortnight. So he asked if he could go 1 x per month instead. The response was “if you don’t want to come 1 x per fortnight, don’t come at all.” His mother received a note in her letterbox saying that her 2nd husband “may as well adopt [him] now.” Hubs was pretty glad to change his name. I liked that post Willaful linked to earlier – name change is an issue for many, including (but not limited to) women.

  26. I think the tension here partially comes from this, that names have significance. It’s fortunate that some of us have choices, but then we pay the price of having those choices subjected to critique. I, for one, would rather make the choice that feels right for me (and my children, since we name them, too) than a choice that feels wrong personally but is better politically. And I’d rather have choices than not; when I married, and again when I divorced, I was asked to choose my name. Some people never get asked, so I guess we have a sort of privilege there that I hadn’t considered.

    Carolyn is right, of course, that the very existence of these options is a sign that things are changing. Our patriarchal language is going to change so that it can be used to express different ways of thinking about gender and power. These conversations and many others are part of that process.

    • I, for one, would rather make the choice that feels right for me (and my children, since we name them, too) than a choice that feels wrong personally but is better politically.

      And everyone should support this choice and this calculus of making choices. There are social movements and revolutions that succeed by doing the opposite, but they’re not known for being humane.

      • Thisis a great lesson in “the personal is political,” isn’t it? I look forward to discussing names and naming choices in my intercultural communication class now.

  27. Minx: “I was surprised that when I married, in California, I didn’t have to do anything to keep my name. Had I taken my husband’s name, I would have had to fill out a bunch of forms. But the default was to keep it.”

    Thank you SO much for mentioning that! We had to squeeze getting married into two days of weekend and the last thing I could manage with my job at the time was taking more days off – since I was new to CA I was kind of like “wait, I have to go through what to get the name change?!” I’d been on the fence about it before, but that decided it. Because from what I learned, not only did I have to fill out forms, I also would probably go through a wait period to get the new bank/credit cards/social security/etc. (I was also told you’d have to go do this in person, meaning during business hours, which I hope has changed.) Meanwhile life went on as usual for the husband – nothing to fill out anywhere. Just seemed so odd for CA.

    Now that I’ve had time to think about it, I secretly did very much want to keep my own name, and I was really feeling I’d miss it. So it was actually a relief not to. The only time I regret it is when people need to be convinced I’m married despite the different name, which oddly always happens with airport officials.

    • I got married in California in 1984 and took my husband’s name (and changed my middle name to my original last name), and I didn’t have to fill anything out. A couple of years later I got a notice from the IRS saying that the name on my tax return didn’t match the name associated with my social security number, and several years after THAT (I had by then been married and using my husband’s last name for sixteen years) the IRS said we couldn’t get our refund processed unless the names matched, so I took my marriage certificate and an insurance bill or something like that to the Social Security office and changed it. I never got any trouble from the state of California. Apparently they have changed the rules since then, and frankly, it doesn’t sound like a change for the better, because my recollection is that I wouldn’t have had to fill anything out to keep my original name either.

      • I always kind of worried that at some point someone would say “hey, there’s a problem here,” but so far (11 years) so good. It would be awfully nice if it were uniform, but since marriage is a state issue, I’m not holding my breath.

  28. Just a short anecdote about names and databases:

    I didn’t change my last name when I got married. I’m also listed first on our married, filing-jointly state tax return, which I mailed a month and a half ago. My accountant husband checked the state website (under my name) every other day or so to see if our return was being processed. After a month and a half of generic “not received,” I was about to go down to the office and ask where our tax return went. After reading the Harding article (and wondering why male clients get to be retired for their occupation on their tax form while their wives still have to be housewives–“when do they get to retire?”), my husband checked under his name. *His* return has been received and is being processed. Under my name, our return is still not received.

    Patriarchy in the database architecture? Random chance? Misentry of who’s listed first on the tax return? I’ll probably never know why his name works for looking up our tax return and my name doesn’t, but it was an interesting discovery, especially when timed with this article.

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  30. I feel so lucky to be able to read all these cross-talking posts and comments. I see it as this fascinating transitional time for identity and I LOVE it. It makes me sad that argument in the purest sense of the word could be frowned upon. Defending your thesis will only make it better, it gives you the opportunity to refine your intellectual defense or end up rejecting it. Feature, not a bug.

    I kept my name, no questions or discussion, it didn’t even occur to me to change it. I mean, I wasn’t all that thrilled to cave to get married. I hated that after 7 years we ended up getting married to take advantage of some hetero-normative bullshit when my friends and family who loved same genders couldn’t. I felt like I was betraying the greater good for a personal gain. But I don’t think that’s really why it didn’t even occur to me to change my name, and I think I had a pretty good reasons to go ahead and do it. It was my mother’s maiden name, one she and all her female siblings happily got rid of the first chance they could, either by marriage or paperwork. Their father was your basic dictionary definition of horrible sexual abuser. My father has a different name entirely, I was 16, when I met him and found out his. I saw mine as mine not anybody else’s, I had defined myself, and my name stood for hard fought self-determination and autonomy, if you will. I guess I felt like my autonomy had a higher priority then my partnership (which I value immensely, going on 19 years).

    I am confused about the point that any choice is a feminist choice because a female is making it. I must be missing something in the argument, right? I’m all for it’s a choice, and yours to make and fuck me if I don’t like it (like so many things) but I don’t understand how it gets to be a feminist choice because you’re female. There’s more to it then that, right? But I’m missing it.

    I am surprised that in these delightful conversations about names, keeping yours or not, and kids, race never came into play. I’m in a mixed-race partnership. We have a child. I wanted our son to have his father’s name because I wanted his non-white heritage to be right there, front and center, something to be proud of. If our race had been flipped, I would want the kids to have my last name. I want his membership undisputed in a tribe that doesn’t really celebrate mixing (well, a even less then Caucasians do) so maybe it was me thumbing my nose at those future rejections on his behalf? Maybe? If I had a daughter I would have felt the same.

    • I had a section in the original post that talked about my name in terms of my ethnicity (I’m mixed race, or at least mixed-ethic, since my mother was American and my father South Asian Indian). My thoroughly Indian name is definitely a big part of my identity; in the paragraph I cut, I wrote that being named Sunita AmericanName would have seemed odd and ill-fitting. Many of my friends and acquaintances who are in mixed marriages try to choose names that can work in both settings. If I had had children with my American husband, I wouldn’t have given them fully Indian names, but if they had eventually decided they wanted their Indian heritage reflected in their names, I certainly wouldn’t have discouraged it. All hypothetical at this point, of course.

    • I mentioned my ancestry playing a part in my feelings about my name. Being Laura BritishName (to borrow Sunita’s methodology) would have felt wrong to me because (to quote Rumpelstiltskin) “that’s not my name!” not least because I’m half Spanish and the other half isn’t of British origin either. When it came to my child, though, I was happy for him to be FirstName BritishSurname because he’s half English. Also I’m not quite bilingual so I ended up speaking English to him all the time and if I’d insisted on him sharing my surname he wouldn’t have been able to pronounce his own name properly.

      Many of my friends and acquaintances who are in mixed marriages try to choose names that can work in both settings.

      That’s what my parents did with my first name, and I followed that tradition when choosing a name for my child.

    • The choice is feminist if you assume that I, as an adult person who happens to be female, can look at every aspect of the issue and make my choice freely and without succumbing to shame. Shame from a paternalistic society or shame from fellow feminists. Patriarchy can tell me what the “correct” choice is, or feminists can tell me what the “correct” choice is, but I take on the power of deciding, everyone else’s preferences and opinions be damned. That’s power. That’s authority.

      The point keeps being made that it *can’t* be a feminist decision because it’s not made in a vacuum. Okay. Is any decision a woman makes made in a vacuum? Is the decision to name another woman’s actions “unfeminist” made in a vacuum? Hasn’t patriarchy taught women to compete with and harshly judge each other?

      Of course there should be debate in feminism. The whole point of my post was that she invited no debate. She said there’s no reason for you to present your feminist reasons, because you are wrong and she knows The Right Way. The *correct* way. For herself and for you. My issue wasn’t with naming. It was with the words she chose to use in the debate and her insistence that others’ experience weren’t relevant. Words have power, or so everything I’ve ever learned about feminism has taught me.

      • “The point keeps being made that it *can’t* be a feminist decision because it’s not made in a vacuum. Okay. Is any decision a woman makes made in a vacuum? Is the decision to name another woman’s actions “unfeminist” made in a vacuum? ”

        That’s pretty much exactly what I said when arguing about the first article.

      • If I choose to have a man spit on me and call me a whore while he has rough sex with me, does that make spitting on women and calling them a whore while having rough sex with them a feminist act?

        • I’ve been thinking about this since you posted it, so I guess I have to take a crack at it. Apologies in advance because I spent 2 hours in a political philosophy seminar today and it’s bound to shape my thought process.

          Making that request and having it carried out could definitely be a feminist act. But it doesn’t make every instance of such behavior a feminist act. I admit, it’s hard for me to see how that particular fantasy could be empowering, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be empowering for anyone.

          Decision making through a feminist lens doesn’t necessarily mean that all our choices advance feminism in the aggregate. But being aware of one’s choice set, and having a far greater choice set than our grandmothers did, is definitely part of what feminism has provided. I’m more appreciative of this argument than I was at the start of this conversation.

          • I just think taking a man’s name is like having rough sex. A feminist woman can choose these things, and they may make her happy, but choosing them does not make them one iota less based in patriarchy.

            Where people are getting hung up, I think, is on some idea that choosing patriarchal or anti-feminist things makes someone a bad feminist, or that choosing all the anti-patriarchal things creates Mega Feminist, and maybe that’s on Harding and Filipovic for being flippant in their approach.

            I see the persistence of the name change as a symptom or indication of a patriarchal society. It’s as much a reaction to patriarchy (or kyriarchy, if we’re gonna go full internet progressive) as rape fantasy. The problem is not in the choosing, but in the pressures that weigh upon the chooser. You can’t choose your way to liberation. It’s not the oppressed keeping themselves down with their own choices. It’s society running a shitty fucking buffet. Saying that the food sucks shouldn’t read as a dig at the diners who ate it.

            I’m gonna go before I reach analogy critical mass.

            • I think you navigated the waters of Analogy Lake pretty impressively. ;) I don’t think we disagree, and also think you’re right that the way Harding and Filipovic put it made seeing points of agreement across the various positions more difficult.

  31. Again, this post has made me think so much, especially re-reading everyone’s comments. My parents put a lot of thought into my name, and having it say something about family – my first name is a last name on one side of the family, my middle name is from the other side – both honoring great grandmothers. With my last name added, my initials spell out a part of my first name. I’m an only child, and though there are cousins and their children carrying on the name elsewhere in the family, so with me, our branch name dies off. (I probably won’t be able to have kids.) Your post and everyone’s comments really made me think about this – and the care and history that were put into my name – made me understand more fully why I felt I was giving up so much for something my husband didn’t care as much about, and no one was really pushing me to do except some tradition that didn’t really factor much into my life.

    Short version – thank you to all the comments here, it’s made me reassess things, especially the why part of my own reluctance with the name change.

    • It’s a fascinating discussion, and I feel privileged to have hosted it. I think names are incredibly important, and it’s one of the reasons I get so angry when I read books that have female characters who don’t have names but play some role in the story. It makes them trivial and invisible, even though they’re clearly necessary to the vision the author has. Dammit, if you’re going to use us, NAME US.

      • Sunita,

        I think this “it’s one of the reasons I get so angry when I read books that have female characters who don’t have names but play some role in the story” references previous online discussions about unnamed characters the hero sleeps with or the unnamed female characters in m/m romances, but I’m wondering what you think of a book like Rebecca.

        • Oh, whoops, I didn’t even think about that! I think that’s different because (a) that’s a conscious author choice rather than laziness or unconscious misogyny; and (b) we learn a lot about her, from her own mouth, so to speak. It was weird to me when I first read it, though. I kept reading and flipping back to see if I’d just missed her name. I was a teenager when I read it and I didn’t really think much about authorial intent. Now that I stop and think about it, I wanted her to have a name. It bothered me a little that she was just “Mrs. DeWinter.” Huh. I haven’t thought about that for a long time.

          • I only had Rebecca on my mind because a student read it for a romance in a library school class (I had to tell them it didn’t count as a romance). Otherwise, I don’t think it would’ve popped into my head regarding this conversation. Du Maurier was clearly intentionally not naming our heroine, but it’s interesting how her identity is Mrs. DeWinter and Rebecca’s is her first name–and both names clearly matter throughout the book. Especially as Mrs. DeWinter doubts that she should even hold the title of Mrs. DeWinter.

            Anyway, a bit off on a tangent from the original conversation, but an interesting difference.

  32. I’m not married. If I do get married, which is theoretically like to do, I will keep my name. I will do this because of family history and also because my initials spell ART. I do not know if this is a feminist choice or not. The name is not just the name. It’s about family bonds. I’m very close to my family and the last name, like our shared history, memories, jawlines, temperaments, binds us together. This is important when you love people. One of the scariest things about friends and lovers is that you don’t seem bound to them in the same way you are your family, for better or worse. The name does that. it ties you together in this word(s). I’ve forgotten people’s names I once thought I was close to. I wasn’t carrying their names around with me. Their names never became a part of me. It’s not just about identity. Or rather identity always carries with it the sense of belonging to someone somewhere, of not being alone. It’s like a talisman you can touch to remind yourself not just of who you are but to orient yourself. Or even to feel loved.

  33. I’m coming late to this conversation, but I want to comment anyways. This is so thought provoking. Names are really important. My parents didn’t give me a middle name – when I turned 18 I legally changed my name to include a middle name that was from my maternal grandmother’s family – because I wanted MY name to reflect both of my parent’s families.

    Because I worked so hard to get my name to reflect my identity, and because I’m a feminist, I assumed that I’d keep “my” name. And then I got married. I ended up deciding to “take” my husband’s last name – both for practical reasons (his name is easier to spell and pronounce and it’s higher in the alphabet) and because I wanted my name to reflect my current identity as a member of his family too. So I added his family name on the end, and made my father’s family name my second middle name. Which is a bit unwieldy, but I’m happy with it.

    One more thing – my father’s family name is unusual enough that everyone in the US with this last name is a direct decedent of my great-grandparents, who immigrated in the early 1900s. Most of my married female relatives on that side have chosen to keep our family name somewhere in their name – either not taking their husband’s names or using their family name as a middle name, like I did. I really love the fact that I can google my name and find relatives and that they can do the same thing and find me.

    • A good friend of mine has an unusual name, and when he joined Facebook he started receiving friend requests from all over the world. He loved it, and he keeps an eye out for new people. I think he’s up to 72 or something. It’s been fun to watch. I never thought of his name as particular rare or commonplace, but now I know. And he’s so enjoyed finding others with whom he shares this bond.

  34. I’m coming into this conversation late, but I am so glad you are talking about it – this has been on my mind a lot lately!

    Because of the way our society is set up, people tend to assume that husbands, wives, and children have the same last name. But that’s already out of date. With stepparents and stepsiblings, even a fairly nuclear family might have several last names. If we went by a logical system, women would keep their names, and children would take their mothers’ names. After all, in cases of divorce, children generally stay with their mothers, so if you want family members to have the same name, that makes more sense. The husband can always change his name if it’s important to him to have the same name as his wife and children (though personally, I don’t see why it should matter. Once we broke the expectation, people would stop assuming spouses have the same name).

    I have also wondered about people losing professional status because of name changes. Besides publishing professional papers, what about keeping in touch with colleagues? How much networking power do you lose by changing your name? Could this be part of the reason women are still paid less than men for the same job with the same experience?

    Thanks for this conversation.

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