Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Name Game (from Erica)

In the process of moving from the US to Germany, my partner and I have retained the services of a company who will pack our belongings, do all our paperwork, and ship the boxes to our new apartment (yes, I can do my own work, but before you judge me, note that this has been taking place while I've been finishing two master's degrees, job hunting, and planning a wedding). Both Nick and I have been communicating with the company via email, so they have both our (full) names, but when the movers called me a couple of days ago to confirm some details, they asked for "Mrs. T" (name changed for privacy). Let me be clear: my name is Ms. L. While I wasn't hugely aggravated at the time, I did give myself a status update on Facebook on the topic...and got a whole world of feedback. Some, like Emily, agreed that the assumption of my marital status and last name was aggravating at best. Others, like my future brother-in-law and an old acquaintance of Nick's, told me they'd been thinking of me as Erica T since they'd met me and I should get used to it.

Here's the thing: I don't WANT to change my name. My name is a point of pride. It's tricky to spell and pronounce correctly on the first try, in spite of only having four letters, and when you spend your lifetime correcting people who mess it up, it's hard to let go of that piece of identity. I've built a professional reputation on this name. My name is a statement about where I'm from and who I'm from. The odds of me letting something like a wedding change that are pretty damn low.

But all this got me thinking about our maintenance of the cultural norm that women change their last names when they get married. Historically, even before last names existed, a woman who got married left her family behind and became a member of her husband's family. The status of women as people or property notwithstanding, this was a trend that continued long after last names became fashionable. A woman getting married became either her husband's property or a fixture of his family, but either way was expected to leave behind many aspects of her old life and connections in favour of being absorbed into his. The changing of the name was the outward signifier of this intricate practice.

Of course, today this is somewhat different. Most women in our society aren't expected to abandon their old lives entirely, just because they get married, and the acquisition of in-laws isn't expected to change one's ties to her parents. However, the name game goes on, albeit differently than it used to. Many women use their "maiden names" as their new middle name, or hyphenate their last name with their husband's. Plenty others, of course, continue to choose to change their last names and leave their old ones behind. And there are many reasons for this- dislike of the old name, like of the new name, personal philosophies about families uniting and becoming one- but the fact remains that it's still primarily women who are expected to make these changes, both by their partners and by broader culture.

When Nick and I first addressed this question, I had a pretty clear idea of what changes I would be comfortable with. It was out of the question for me to change my last name entirely, but I thought the idea of hyphenating was great- if we both did it. From my point of view, we were both entering into this marriage and both choosing to make a life together, and thus if our last names were going to reflect that, then they should include both. Nick was open to this idea, but put off by the enormous amounts of paperwork involved, and we wound up deciding to keep our own names. I found it interesting, unsurprising, and frustrating that when we started this conversation, it was clear that his opinion- "You can do whatever you want with your name"- was informed by the fact that he unconsciously viewed the situation as MY responsibility and not HIS (or, for that matter, OURS). Name-changing, he was unwittingly stating, is a woman's responsibility.

There are so many complex factors that play into this that it's worth acknowledging the limits of my situation. For many couples, particularly same-sex, name-changing on the part of one or both partners can be a really important statement of togetherness in a society that prefers to invalidate same-sex relationships. Religious traditions, or desires to share one name, can influence name-changing, and even though their roots are strongly misogynist, the individuals who adhere to them are engaging in the practice for reasons that have nothing to do with notions of women-as-property-of-men. And let's not forget that some people hate their last names, hate their birth families, or hate having to spell and pronounce their last name every time they try to make a reservation. These are all valid reasons for wanting to make a change.

What I object to is that the practice, which should be an individual choice, is assumed of all women. I wouldn't be as riled up about it if 1) no one were assuming anything about my name, 2) no one were asking me about my last name or 3) they were asking Nick if he were planning to change his name as often as they were asking me. But the fact of the matter is that they aren't. People- friends, family, the Wedding Industrial Complex, and even my movers- are presuming that my name is subject to change as soon as I've said "I do." I want to see this assumption stop, not just about me, but about all women. When individuals get married, it shouldn't be a one-way name change by default. The decision to change your name affects your career, your relationships, and your interaction with government systems like social security. Presuming that this responsibility should fall on women without giving real thought to what that means is inconsiderate at best, and at worst, it perpetuates the underlying beliefs about women and men that started the practice in the first place.

Soon, I'll be doing a post on how this choice affects decisions about children, with stories from my mother and my cousins. It's too intricate to miss!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. That'll teach me not to proof read before commenting! I just said that I agree with pretty much everything you said, and that I love how you've acknowledged the other side to the argument - that the name change is very important to some couples, and for many couples has no connection with the name change's misogynistic origins.

    It still bugs me that it's assumed. And more than that, that people make assumptions about you based on whether or not you make the name change.

  3. Great post. I just got married, so this is a highly salient topic for me. The historical arguments are important, as well as the arguments about the assumption that women will do it and men won't, but let me bracket all that for now.
    Name change is aggravating. It's time consuming. It involves tons of paperwork and confusion--primarily for the woman, because she is generally the one who has to go get the new social security card, apply for a new passport, go to the DMV, etc. My school email account has my last name in the email address. What do I do about that? How many people will have a hard time finding or contacting me because of a last-name change? I did change my last name when I got married, and right now I'm in limbo. My checks have my maiden name. I still sign my maiden name. We can't request an official copy of the marriage license yet, so I imagine going to the social security office and getting a new card is out of the question at this point.
    Why do so many still engage in this practice? At worst it is a reflection of misogynist attitudes; at best it disproportionately inconveniences women and wastes their time.

    On the subject of name changes, it bugs me to no end that people still write "Mr. and Mrs. [husband's first and last name]" and NEVER "Mr. and Mrs. (or Mrs. and Mr., or Ms and Mr or whatever) [wife's first and last name]".
    Thoughts on that?

  4. That's also a really good point, Whitney, and I think you're right that it ties into the historical belief that women were the property of their husbands. Something that was really common in my household when I was growing up was that people would address mail to the family in general (i.e. "The L. & S. Family), but a lot of it also came to Mr. & Mrs. [my dad's name here].

    I wonder how Nick and I will handle that as it comes up, and how much it will or won't depend on our relationship with the people writing to us. Will it bother me more if it's a corporation or a friend who does that? So far people tend to address mail to both of us as "Erica L. & Nick T.," but I wonder how that'll change- especially when we start having kids a few years down the road.

  5. Isn't the fact that people are asking you whether you are about to change your name an indication that they are not assuming a name change? I would imagine that assumptions come without questioning, as in the case of the moving company. What corporations assume are very different that what individuals choose to assume. I understand that you probably have a better viewpoint of what questions were in fact meant to be rhetorical rather than inquisitive.

    I really enjoyed reading your article. It would be very difficult for me to leave behind my family name and simply concentrating on the fact that my future wife (whoever that is) might be expected to do that very thing makes me uncomfortable. I guess we'll have to cross that bridge when I and that significant other get there. Until then I wouldn't presume to now what a likely outcome would be. Again, thanks for the post.

  6. I'm glad you enjoyed the article! I think my response to your question would be that asking questions doesn't necessarily mean they're assuming anything, but the fact that they're only asking me does. They're not asking Nick what his plans for his last name are, which means that even though they're not assuming I'll change (or not change), they're assuming that anything that happens will be on my head.

  7. Whitney - the whole "Mr. and Mrs. [husband's name]" bugs me a lot. People usually do it when they're trying to be really formal, which actually makes it even more frustrating for me, even though I understand they have good intentions. It still sends the message that a man's name is more formal than a woman's name. It especially bothered me that while my parents were still married, the church would send stuff to "Mr. and Mrs. Robert [our last name]," even though my father wasn't even in the church. Names have power. They shape the world.

    Jon - I think you're right that if people ask, it shows they're not just assuming a woman will change her name when she gets married. I think there's still a problem though when the question is "are *you* going to change *your* name," rather than "what are the two of you doing for last names?" The first question assumes the man will keep his name but that the woman has to choose between her name and his, while the second one assumes it's a decision the couple is considering together, and that the man's name may change too.