26 July 2006

the name game

With all the weddings I've gone to this summer, I've noticed something interesting. Even the most independent, liberal women I know change their last names when I get married. I know it's a long-standing tradition, but it makes me wonder how often anyone thinks about why women change their names, or if they do so because that's just the way it's done.

I find it interesting, too, that the only women I can think of who have not changed their last names after marriage are members of my family: my sister, my cousin, my aunt. (Am I missing anyone?) If I ever marry, I won't change my name. I've had my name for almost 25 years; having an unusual last name is something of a defining characteristic when you're growing up, and so I have some attachment to it. But beyond that, in recent years I've started considering the patriarchal origins of name-changing, and I'm uncomfortable with following a tradition that has its roots in what was essentially property ownership. The male is the default; children are named with their fathers' names to assert his paternity, and women are renamed with their husbands' names to signify the transfer of property from father to husband.

I know this is not the typical mindset nowadays; most married couples don't believe that one of them owns the other. Most people don't worry about the symbolic implications of name-changing. But I think it's useful to examine where our traditions come from and why we continue to follow them.

When I had James, we gave him Greg's last name because we planned on getting married at some point, and I thought I'd change my name at that point so that we'd all have the same last name as a family. But now that I"ve changed my mind about name-changing, and possibly marriage at all, I regret just a little bit not giving my boys my last name even as a middle name. Greg and I have talked about changing all of our last names to be the same, but my last name is too long for hyphenation, and our last names don't merge well into a new name. Maybe if we ever think of something appropriate for our family, we'll change our names, but until then we're going to live with different last names. This actually has never been an issue -- it's more of a problem for people that we're not married at all -- so it doesn't bother me much to keep it this way, though I do like the idea of identifying our family with a common last name.

But I feel that I'm something of an oddity for thinking so deeply about it. Most women change their names without stressing over it. Has the naming tradition evolved over the years along with the purpose of marriage and the roles of the spouses? Or is our culture holding on to a remnant of a more oppressive time simply because there's been no reason to change? I'm interested to hear others' thoughts on this; particularly if this is something you find worthy of consideration; if you think I'm making too much out of it; if you've had similar thoughts; if you think the typical woman considers this issue. Thoughts?

**Edit: I should clarify (because I wrote this really hastily earlier) that just because I find the origins of the name-changing tradition distasteful doesn't mean that I'm criticizing anyone who does choose to change her name. I realize that many people probably don't find the origins relevant today, and that people have their own reasons for changing their names. I think people should do whatever they want to do -- but I like to ask why we do what we do, as individuals, as human beings, as a society.


Rebecca said...

Ha! So I have finally come out of the shadows to post a comment. I really love reading your blog and decided that after reading this thought provoking post I should actually comment.

I actually posted on my blog about this topic after reading yours, so consider my most recent post, a comment to yours:) Enjoy!

ren said...

do you know for sure your friends didn't put any thought into their decision?

believe me, i'm agonizing over this... i can see both sides, the individuality of keeping my name and the let's-be-a-family aspect of changing it. and i have no idea what i'm going to do...

Heidi said...

Ren, I imagine most women think about it to some extent; I don't know how deeply or seriously any of my friends have thought about it. But I don't get the impression that it's a big issue for most people I know, especially considering how traditional and conservative many of our friends are. Also, I suspect that I put much more thought into issues of gender and patriarchy than anyone else I know.

I know you're struggling, and I'm sorry it's hard for you. Is Mike open to anything less traditional, like hyphenation (though that would be a mouthful)? For some other perspectives, look at my friend Becky's post (if you click her name in the comment above I think you can get to her blog that way). One point she brings up that I really like is that name-changing can be an affirmation of the choice you have made to marry and commit to your husband.

Anonymous said...

call me a painstaking feminist, but I think keeping your last name is just a small step in the path to equality. if a woman is pledging herself to her husband, where is that equal pledge on his behalf? if you are pledging yourselves to one another, how is it that only one person gives up spmething?

doing things without thinking about them or just to follow tradition is dangerous. where would this world be today if no one stopped to rethink convention? we cannot be equals while lurking in the past's shadows.

if a couple isn't into hyphenations, there are other options. why not choose a last name different from both people's last name. if the whole idea is to bring family unity, why bring it together with paternity? starting something new (such as a unique family name) is a great way to consumate a new family.

if it is such an easy task to give up one's last name, then why don't men just casually take their wives names? the very fact that they don't is positive proof that taking a man's last name isn't just thoughtless tradition-it still has deep planted roots.

miss you thanks for getting my mind going


kim said...

I think much of a woman's decision depends on her ideas about her own identity and how much of that identity is tied up with her name. I've had a friend tell me that she was looking forward to having a new identity when she got married and that's why she changed her name. I personally love the symbolism of hyphenating last names, but aesthetically, that just wasn't an option. As for my own rationale on keeping my name, I think it is an important feminist statement that women be given and exercise the same options as men. Once men are as likely to make the same sacrifice of their names as women, and are as willing to make the same concessions about their identities for the good of the entire family (as women do now), then I would feel more comfortable about making the same choice myself.

That being said, many women just aren't that tied to their last names and I suppose keeping your father's last name could be seen as perpetuating the same patriarchal tradition. It's also a great big hassle not changing your name - even in this day and age, people get rather confused.

I also feel strongly about my kid(s) having my last name even just as a middle name - that it's not just the father's identity being passed down but the mother's as well. As an amusing side note, Jon was pretty unconcerned about me not changing my name, but he is rather adorably patriarchal in his strong desire that his children do carry on his name.

Jessica Chase White said...

Heidi, I think your last names would merge beautifully into a new last name: how about Schmergenthaler? What, no? ;-)

I thought long and hard about name switching. I also thought long and hard about which name to put on my college degree, since I did most of the work as a Chase, not a White. I have lots of ties to my last name, but I ultimately chose to keep it as my middle name, where it can make an appearance when it suits me, but I can also have a shared family name without hyphenating. In some company (such as my hometown church where people only know me by maiden name) I hyphenate it to be Chase-White. My full name is printed on my checks, and it's in my email address. So, even though I took my husband's last name, my former identity hasn't gone by the wayside.

Mike and I know a guy whose last name was Butts, and needless to say, he took his wife's name when he married.