I acknowledge that I am a Canadian white cis woman in a hetero monogamous relationship as I write this. This piece is to express how I came to my choice to keep my name, acknowledging that we all make our own choices.
There are plenty of folks out there that know that I got married this summer. I married a lovely dude with a lovely heart and soul that encourages me to do exactly what I want in life.
People have been full of congratulations to now, but as the months have passed (we’re at 4 months at this point), the conversation has shifted a bit. Folks are noticing something “important” (to them, I suppose). My name on Facebook has not changed. Often it takes a while for folks to get around to being, for example, Jane Smith (Knox) on FB, so I saw that I was being given a decent window in which to “get around to it”. Trouble is, I’m not getting around to it. My legal birth name is still my legal name, and will continue to be until the day that I die. And even then, it’ll still be written on things until the day that those things are too old to be read.
Why? WHAT?! You’re bucking tradition, you’re not being considerate of your partner, you’re making me uncomfortable.
My decision not to change my name was one that I arrived at both through a lot of thought and none at all. I’m going to break this discussion down into a few main reasonings: Equality, tradition, choice, and identity.
I’m talking about straight up equality on the issue of taking a name. If society expects me to take my husband’s name with no question, that’s unidirectional, not equal. That’s an assumption that I will take someone else’s name.
For me, when Aaron and I were dating, I’d brought up the issue of taking names. I remember distinctly asking Aaron if he would take my name if we got married. He laughed at me. Straight up “HAH!” in my face. He did step back and realize what a shit thing this was to do, and how deeply our patriarchal society has effected him, to the point at which he would have a knee-jerk reaction to laugh at me for asking. Some of you may be a bit offended by this, and trust me when I say that I was too.
We unpacked the laugh over the next little while and came to some understandings about it. First off, we break down that women and men (or feminine vs masculine) are not regarded to be on the same playing field when it comes to names.
Men are typically brought up knowing that they will have their name til death (and beyond). Women, on the flipside, are brought up feeling that their last name will not be their last name forever. When women later say something like “Of course I changed my name, I’ve just never really felt that connected to it”, we have to realize that that statement does not exist in a vacuum. Women don’t feel that connected to their names because society teaches them that they are not supposed to hang on to them. It’s deeply rooted in Western culture, and its roots are very interesting and oppressive. Essentially, marrying into a name was all based around the concept of property. And we’re not just talking about the traditional “women have no rights” thing, we’re going back to as recently as the 1800s, where women became the property of the man upon marriage, stripping her of her right to own land, vote, or participate in contracts (known as coveture) even though unmarried women could do at least *some* of those things. Any children that woman bore were to carry on the name of the father, thus creating a stream of property heirs, insuring that any material wealth accumulated would stay in the family. It wraps everything up into a neat little package. Trouble is, women were part of that neatly wrapped package only as property themselves.
This is where our tradition came from. Marital rape, oppression of personal rights and freedoms, property bypassing women, inability to enter contracts or own land, the list goes on. Obviously, for some, this isn’t exactly a system that they would want to honour as a tradition. That’s their choice, and it’s fine because it’s theirs.
I understand that, today, women are granted all of those freedoms (though some often come under fire again and again, namely marital rape). Arguments against keeping one’s name are generally for tradition and for ease of family naming. Tradition, I don’t mess with. If that’s your choice and it makes you happy and you’re not forcing it on anyone or hurting anyone, do it ’til you can’t. But if it’s really all about family naming, shouldn’t the woman’s name be equally considered in the conversation? If that’s *really* the reason folks pester me about changing my name, why aren’t they also pestering Aaron? Because that’s not really the issue here, is it? It’s back to tradition and the assumed idea that women will change their names. In fact, 70% of Americans think that women *should* change their names, with 50% of people thinking it should be law (NY Daily News).
So let’s think about tradition.
Tradition is something closely held by individuals, but can often vary from person to person. Around Christmas, I watch Muppet Family Christmas, and my father watches It’s a Wonderful Life. Arguments for which comes first are heated. Tradition!
Keeping that in mind, it’s assumed that everyone’s tradition is the same: that women take men’s names. It’s also assumed that tradition can’t ever be changed. For myself, I grew up in the province of Quebec here in Canada. In the early 1980s, Quebec introduced part of the Civil Code of Quebec that stipulated that women would keep their maiden names. My parents married in 1981, at which point the code was already in place. My mother kept her maiden name. When I look to the rest of my family, I see the exact same thing. All of my aunts and uncles have kept their names, save for one aunt and uncle that hyphenated. Among all of them, one family chose to assign surnames to children based on their sex (females take the mother’s last name and males take the father’s), and the rest went for the more traditional model of the children taking the father’s name. The latter situation includes my family. My mother has always had a different last name than her children, which is an interesting thing. I’ve asked her if she feels that this severs her connection with us, which she has always answered no to, seeing as she will always be linked with us by blood and experience. But really, she would have been free to give us all her name as well. It’s all super personal and based on the relationship(s) involved.
While the act in Quebec is problematic because it eliminates the choice of women to change or not to change their names, it did create a new tradition for me, and most importantly showed me that the world does not end if your last name does not match your spouse’s last name. I realized that, based on my lack of exposure to family members changing their names, I hadn’t really ever seen myself as wanting or needing to take my partner’s name, no matter their gender. My tradition is not to take my partner’s name. All it takes is one generation to flip that script, and I’m living proof.
There’s also the problem of writing into law that a woman must take a man’s name in marriage because, well, not every marriage is between a man and a woman. And also choice, preference, and, ya know, equality.
And a word (or 100) on identity. One’s last name can be a source of pride, of status, and of personal identity on so many levels. Offices, companies, products, all kinds of things bear the names of the people and families that invented, opened, or produced them. Traditionally, this was men – because, if you remember, women couldn’t really own things, so if you saw Sampson and co, Sampson was probably a dude. Women, on the other hand, are taught from a young age that their name is not going to be their name forever. There may be work already done to study the effects of being unable to fully connect with one’s own name, but I’d posit that it presents itself as yet another barrier to women in the professional workplace. If anyone has more information on this, please let me know.
As for my legal birth name, I’ve made it my own. I’m lucky enough that my own personal and family history lets me personally enjoy and own my own last name. I realize that, technically, my last name is what it is because it was my father’s name, but I’m not letting that stand in the way of my keeping it. We have entire generations of women whose names *are not* their own. They’re their fathers’ names until they have their husbands’ names. Knowing this, I’m claiming my name as my own, keeping it, and venturing forward into the world to create new traditions on my own terms. No, the answers are not written in stone anywhere as to what I’d do if I had a baby, but guess what? Not all marriages are focused on having babies either! If we got around to it, our communication level in our relationship now puts us in a place where we can have the discussion honestly without a knee-jerk laughing reaction.
So there’s my story. I’m sticking to it. Aaron’s sticking to it. We’re fine. Quit asking me when I’m going to “update” my name on Facebook, because it’s just fine the good ol’ traditional way it was throughout my life, IRL.