What’s in a Name?

If you notice a sudden drop in the number of postings I do this week, it is because my sister is getting married on Saturday, and I have Important Wedding Duties to fulfill. We’ve finally reached that point in the countdown where familial relationships are beginning to fracture over minute details, like who is picking up whom from the airport. Right now, the Bride and the Mom are in a squabble over what name is going to be announced at the end of the ceremony. The Bride prefers a simple “Dude and Lady Last Name,” while Mom is insisting that the wedding guests will be offended by anything other than the traditional “Mr. and Mrs. Dude Last Name.” Dad is refusing to take sides, but he suggested that Bride seek my council before taking a firm stand.

Which makes me think that he’s sort of on Bride’s side but doesn’t want to come right out and say it for fear of offending Mom, because he knows what I am going to say: she doesn’t have to take his last name in the first place. I suppose my role as the Family Liberal is to provide my more conservative family members with rationales for flouting tradition.

Bride and I and our two other sisters came from an ultra-conservative Evangelical community, a community that went for Bush (both Part I and the sequel) by approximately 104%, a community in which Dad passes as a liberal because he is not a creationist and Mom is a feminist because she has a career. So, we’re accustomed to doing the dance of “not offending people too much” in order to preserve peace. I’m not terribly proud of that fact, and truthfully, I’d like to think of myself as some kind of liberal missionary seeking to change the hearts and minds of these people on issues such as legal, safe abortions and gay rights, but a) I was raised to fear confrontation like poisonous pit vipers (therapy is helping!), and b) I doubt that I’d really be successful. I’m not sure how my other siblings perform it, but for me, that means lying about going to church and not getting too specific about my dissertation topic. My parents leave churches when things start getting too weird and practice the art of Shutting Up Alot. All that to say that if you think this little name squabble is kind of trivial and/or creepily misogynist, just know that it’s pretty par for the course where we grew up.

The whole “Mr. and Mrs. Dude’s First and Last Name” thing is, of course, a throwback to the days in which women had no legal status outside of their husbands, and the woman’s identity was just subsumed by her husband’s. So, I get irritated when I see that printed on wedding invitations addressed to the two of us. That’s why I need to get my Ph.D. as soon as possible, so people will be all like “Do we put Mr. and Dr.? or Dr. and Mr.? or Mr. Dude Name and Dr. Lady Name? MY HEAD IS GOING TO ASPLODE!” I did ultimately take my partner’s last name because it was sort of the path of least resistance, because I had not yet had my Total Feminist Awakening at the time we got married, and because I am not really persuaded that there is a clear Feminist/Anti-feminist choice when it comes to picking names. The last name I was born with, after all, was my father’s name, which he got from his abusive alcoholic father before him, which he got from his abusive alcoholic father before him…you see where this is going. I know plenty of feminists who feel a deep sense of identification with the name they were born with, and that’s great. It just wasn’t my experience. The only reason to keep that name would be to honor my father and grandmother, who both overcame massive odds (including the aforementioned abusive father/husband) to have the lives they wanted, and even then, I think there are other ways to do that (like giving my as-yet-hypothetical offspring their first names or something).

It amuses me that the only people who have ever questioned me on the name-changing front have been men mansplaining to me the path to nominal liberation. So I tell them that in my view, the real tragedy is that women are only given the choice, name-wise, between which patriarchy they want to identify with.

Ultimately, I like to say that I picked my current last name because I thought it sounded very academic and would look awesome on a book jacket.

Update: I wanted to address in a little more detail A.Y. Siu’s comment below, which aptly indicates that the name change issue is symbolic of the ways in which women are asked to sacrifice in marriage, while men are usually never asked to even think about those sacrifices. I think that’s a very valid point, and I hope no one reading this post has cause to think that I think women should just suck it up and change their name amid all the other enormous non-symbolic concessions (including taking full responsibility for child care) they are asked to make in relationships in order to avoid ruffling feathers. I’m not really all that proud of having made a choice on those terms and certainly wouldn’t hold it up to other women as a model of what everyone should do. It’s simply where I was at the point and reflects my particular relationship to the issue.

That said, I want to point out that my partner made a pretty huge, very not symbolic sacrifice when we got married. Namely, after having established a life in one city, that included a fantastic job, ownership of a house, and a close-knit group of friends, he dropped everything to move 1500 miles away because I got an excellent support package for graduate school. And he did it without even flinching. When I told him about the offer, he asked “what would you do if we weren’t together,” and when I said I would go, he just said “then that’s what we’ll do.” He doesn’t expect a medal for that, nor does it mean that he does not occasionally speak and act from a position of male privilege. But he did make a sacrifice that would have been huge for just about anybody, a sacrifice that the other men (and some women) in his life did not fully understand. For this, and many other reasons (including the equitable division of labor in our house and the fact that he has clearly said that he would quit work to take care of any babies we have, should that prove necessary, since mine is not a particularly mother-friendly field), I believe that we have a feminist relationship, name change aside. But again, that’s my marriage and my experience.


2 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. I am not really persuaded that there is a clear Feminist/Anti-feminist choice when it comes to picking names. The last name I was born with, after all, was my father’s name, which he got from his abusive alcoholic father before him, which he got from his abusive alcoholic father before him…you see where this is going.

    I understand what you’re saying, but at the same time, if this is true, why don’t men take their wives’ surnames? Why don’t men say “Eh, I’m not that attached to my name anyway. It’s not really a big part of my identity. It’s just something I inherited from my dad and his dad’s dad”?

    I’m not saying that there is a strictly uncomplicated way to approach the name-change issue, only that the idea that taking your husband’s name is no less progressive than keeping your own (which comes from your dad) means nothing if men do, in fact, almost never take their wives’ surnames.

    I hear all sorts of “good” reasons for women taking their husbands’ names (“I never liked my name anyway” or “I want our kids to all have the same last name”) that men never use to justify taking their wives’ names. How often do you hear of a man saying he took his wife’s last name because he never liked the sound of his name? How often do you hear of a man saying he took his wife’s last name because he wanted their kids to all have the same last name?

    The problem with the whole name-change scenario isn’t what women choose to do or not do but what men absolutely refuse to even consider.

    1. I completely hear that. I guess what I was trying to say (unsuccessfully perhaps) is that it really is kind of a raw deal either way, and perhaps it is a raw deal precisely for the reason you state here: that women even have to think about it and men don’t.

      So, it is sort of sad that for the Bride here, just having her first name said AT ALL feels like a victory, just like keeping your dad’s last name feels like a statement in it’s own way.

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