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!