I got home from work last Friday night, exhausted from a fast-paced second term and ready to start my March Break. I collapsed onto my bed, took out my phone, and scrolled through the stream of tweets that I had missed during the day. I found myself in the middle of a conversation in response to this article on marriage and name changes. I groggily tweeted a few times about it, and then got ready for bed and fell asleep.
But over the course of the weekend, I felt less and less comfortable leaving those tweets as my only words on the subject. So this might come a little late in internet time, but I want to say more about it. Before I start, I should say that I’m talking specifically about the practice of people changing their name so that it’s the same as their spouse’s. I know people change their names for other reasons, and I’m not talking about those. I also know that not every culture expects women to change their names if and when they marry, and I’m not talking about that either. I’m talking about people who change their last names so that they can have the same one that their spouse has because that’s the name-changing practice that has the strongest effect on me.
My mom didn’t change her name when she married my dad. None of my married aunts changed their names. My grandmothers both did, and as a kid I thought they had done it because they weren’t allowed to keep their own names back when they had married. I still assume that’s why they did it, but I could be wrong. I have two last names. Legally, one is a middle name, but it feels like a surname so that’s what I count it as. When I was younger, I felt confused when I met a married woman of my mom’s generation or younger who had taken her husband’s name. I thought maybe she didn’t know that she had the option of keeping her own. As I got older I realized that women were aware of their options and that some of them just made choices I disagreed with, in this area and others.
I don’t understand why people change their names when they marry. I’ve heard some reasons, about wanting to have the same name as their kids, about wanting some kind of family unity, about it really not being a big deal and not wanting to go through the trouble of explaining why they didn’t change it. I can get those on an intellectual level, but not on an emotional one. For me, my name is my name. It’s what people call me. It’s what I call myself. People sometimes mispronounce it or make up new versions of it, and that’s just always been a part of having the name that I have. I don’t understand the need or even the willingness to just go and change your surname to reflect your marital status. (I also don’t understand the need to marry, but I suppose I might be willing to do it. I mean, I don’t think I ever will, but even if I decided I really wanted to get married, I would still never change my name.)
And I don’t need to understand it. As I tweeted on Friday night, it’s none of my business. I don’t care if or why a woman chooses to marry a man and take his last name. But I do care when people assume that a woman who marries a man will or should take his name. I do care when people act as though a husband should have a say in what surname his wife has. I care when I hear someone (a straight dude) say he wouldn’t mind a hyphenated name, and I care when he looks at me uncomfortably when I ask if he means hyphenating his own name, because that option hadn’t occurred to him. I care when someone else (a straight lady) tells me that she would take her husband’s name because she wouldn’t want to deal with the hassle of correcting people who assumed she had. I care when people roll their eyes when I insist that they write both of my surnames on name-tags or anything else that has my name on it, but not when a married woman tells them to change a name-tag so it has her new last name on it. I care when people talk about how difficult and confusing it will be for a child with two last names to eventually decide what name to give their own children, in front of a new mother who gave her kid two last names and an adult who has two last names (me).
If a woman marries a man and chooses to take his name, she should have the freedom to do that without any kind of political or social or economic repercussions. Just like if a man marries a woman, he should have the freedom to take her name without any repercussions. But a woman should also have the freedom to marry a man and keep her name without any trouble. Without having to correct people who call her Mrs. Husbandslastname automatically. Without any pressure from her husband, his family, or anyone else that keeping her own name means she hasn’t committed. Without worrying that people will call her kids a freak.
And most women I know don’t have that freedom. When I was a teenager I thought that, by the time I was an adult, enough women would have kept their names after marrying that it would seem normal. That hasn’t happened yet. In some ways, I want more women to keep their names just to add to the number of married women who have kept their own names. Just to make it seem more normal. Obviously, I don’t get to make that decision for other people. But until it seems normal, or at least no less normal than women changing their names, we need to keep having this conversation. As Kate Harding says, we need to keep having this conversation without getting derailed by women who did change their names who feel attacked. (She says a lot of other smart things in that piece too. I strongly recommend it.) We shouldn’t attack those women, but discussing the context of married names is not the same as attacking married women who choose to take their husband’s name. So let’s not make the conversation about that. Let’s make it about changing the context in which people either change or don’t change their names.