Changing your name during marriage: is it ever a feminist move?

Melissa McEwan lists some reasons why women who identify as feminists or womanists may choose to take on their husband’s last name upon marriage. Some of the reasons:

1. Because she was not a womanist/feminist when she got married.

2. Because it was a huge point of contention with her in-laws, or maybe even her own parents, and she was picking her battles.

6. Because her maiden name was her father’s name and keeping it did not feel like any more a rejection of the patriarchy than taking her husband’s name did, and she liked her husband’s name better.

7. Because her maiden name was her father’s name, and she likes her husband a lot more than her father.

8. Because her family was abusive and her husband’s family is wonderful to her, and she wants actively to become a part of it and feels taking their name is a symbol of that joyful joining.

9. Because she and her husband want the same last name, but the law makes it infinitely easier for her to change her name to his than for him to change his name to hers, or for both of them to choose a new name they share altogether.

And one of my favorites:

10. Because despite knowing it comes from a weird, fucked-up patriarchal tradition, there’s still some weird, fucked-up place inside her that likes the idea of taking her husband’s name—and no feminist/womanist lives a life free of compliance, consciously or not, with weird, fucked-up patriarchal narratives and expectations. But unlike privately calling another woman a bitch or playing the role of Exceptional Feminist with a group of male coworkers or secretly doing all the housework in her own home, the name thing is there for everyone to see and question, every day of her life.

Prior to meeting my now-husband, Jesse, I was more or less just figuring I’d change my name upon marriage, but had minor reservations. For one thing, I wasn’t thrilled with continuing a patriarchal tradition that has roots in the literal ownership of women by their husbands, and also, my sister and I are the only Streich kids in the family who are likely to have children, making us the last remaining people in our family to be able to “pass down” the name. And we’re both women, so if we were to be traditional and take our husband’s names, this wouldn’t happen.

As Jesse and I started talking about marriage, I was conflicted for the reasons listed above, but still wanted to share a name with my future husband because it felt more “familial” to me. By the time we’d met, my feminist views had gotten more prevalent and influential in many of the decisions I was making, so I no longer considered just taking his name. In fact, I was more interested in both of us hyphenating. I mentioned it to Jesse, thinking he’d be open to the idea but be possibly opposed to the idea. Feminist-friendly as a guy may be, patriarchal traditions and fears of not maintaining a certain “masculine” image can still creep up. I was happily surprised when his reaction was nothing but agreement.

Anyway, aside from confusing a few older members of our families, no one’s really batted an eye at the uncommon name change, although a few people annoyingly insist on calling me Mrs. Lukes. They are repeatedly corrected.

I used to take the hard-line stance that, given the fact that choosing to take your future husband’s name is still seen as mandatory by a large section of our society, a woman should not make that choice, no matter what, until we’re at a point where the decision is simply a decision, and not promoting or perpetuating the idea that it’s required. I tend toward similar hard-line stances regarding things like makeup, leg-shaving, and other things where the choice to engage in a certain behavior, job, or other action is still choosing to engage in a misogynist tradition, but I’m beginning to come away from that. Each choice that we make within what is still an unequal society is complex and inherently comes with many considerations. People will choose what is best for them, and assuming that people are educated about the choices they’re making, the choice is best left up to the person making it.

So the answer to the question: It’s not necessarily a feminist move, but it’s not necessarily unfeminist, either.

Update: check out the comments on the Feministing Community blog, where I cross-posted this post. Community member Vexing had a good addition to the list:

“11. Because she’s a trans woman and it’s an extremely convenient and easily explainable way of escaping associations with her previous last name – a name which could potentially out her.”

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14 Responses to Changing your name during marriage: is it ever a feminist move?

  1. Interesting post.

    I’ve always been dead set against the name change thing, and while I don’t see myself changing my mind about the subject, but your post gave me pause.

    Thanks.

  2. David K says:

    Very good points made by Melissa, which people need to think about before getting judgey…
    questions: what exactly is an “Exceptional Feminist”? I’ve never seen that before…
    and is Jesse a “Lukes-Streich” or a “Streich-Lukes”? Hyphenating seems to be less common in the UK generally (including in feminist circles) I think because of the connotations of aristocracy (double-barrelled names, like double-barrelled shotguns – strictly for the grouse moors…)

    11. Aesthetic Reasons
    Personally I’ve been wanting to change my name for the best part of ten years, not for any traumatic reasons, it’s just that my own name is short, plain, unromantic, anglo-saxon – and I am all those things, but I don’t want to advertise it.
    I don’t know if I’ll ever get married, but taking my wife’s name is an option I would probably favour (have to find a woman who likes me and has a nice name, as if the first bit wasn’t hard enough :-/)

    • Jim says:

      One of the many beauties of Chinese surnames is that they are short, plain, unromantic and as mainstream as you can get – upwards of 100 million people are surnamed Zhang.

      Another nice thing about Chinese surnames is that a person keeps hers or his throughout life. A woman uses her husband’s surname only with Taitai (Mrs).

      Of course this shows how little surnaming customs really have to do with gender equality.

  3. April says:

    I think in that context, an “exceptional feminist” would be a woman who calls herself a feminist but considers herself an exception to the rule of what feminists usually “are,” or she’s seen that way by men.

    We’re both Lukes-Streich. I think traditionally, it’s supposed to be female name-male name, but we de@ided that it sounded better the opposite way. When you have a last name that is pronounced like a sometimes violent verb (strike), putting it first can sound awkward…

  4. Jim says:

    I don’t approve of the name change thing for a lot of reasons. It’s one thing to take the husband’s name as part of the title of Mrs., but that is not the same thing as adding it to your first name as if it’s part of your actual name. There’s a reason why they don’t giove security clearances to defectors, and a woman who changes her surname once is probablay quite capable of doing it again and again and again.

    “For one thing, I wasn’t thrilled with continuing a patriarchal tradition that has roots in the literal ownership of women by their husbands, ”

    This ownership thing is a myth. Property can be bought and sold. Husbands could not sell wives, despite what that bogus Wiki says. In fact this ownership claim is pretty offensive in light of actual ownership of human beings under chattel slavery, but white feminists have never been the least bit shy about appropriating other people’s sufferings. The “homophobia = misogyny” claim comes to mind here.

    I understand the bit about joining the husband’s family. But I think any family worth joining is going to respect your ongoing loyalty to your own family.

    The real question is what family name do the kids carry? Girls the mother’s, boys the fathers?

    And why is it anyway that fam ilies are named after male lineages? Probably historical, based on who worked the land and protected it from grabs, and which lineage provided the solidarity for the cooperation that made all that possible.

  5. A.Y. Siu says:

    1., 2., and 9. are the really only valid reasons for a feminist or womanist taking her husband’s surname, because they acknowledge that is comes from societal pressure and ease than from real choice.

    If it were really a choice, then men who didn’t like their fathers or liked their in-laws more than their own families would take their wives’ last names. Men who thought it was patriarchal to have their fathers’ last names would change to their mothers’ last names instead or the last name of their wifes’ mothers.

    None of this happens in any significant number. In fact, I have never met a single man who has said, “Yeah, I took my wife’s name because I wanted us to have the same last name, and her last name just sounds better.” Plenty of women have used that excuse, though. Stop pretending it’s free choice. It’s societal pressure. If people just admit they’re caving to traditional pressures, there’s no shame in that.

    • April says:

      Indeed. The grating thing about this is that although men are also faced with the societal pressure to not change their name after marriage, I don’t see any discussion about overcoming that issue in anywhere near the same capacity as there is with whether or not a woman should change her name. It will really become a free choice when men are equally as engaged in the discussion about whether or not to change their names as women are about changing their own.

    • Jim says:

      “….then men who didn’t like their fathers or liked their in-laws more than their own families would take their wives’ last names.”

      Yes. Men do change their family names, but rarely to thier wives’ family names.

      ” “Yeah, I took my wife’s name because I wanted us to have the same last name, and her last name just sounds better.” Plenty of women have used that excuse, though. ”

      Yes again. There are vanishingly few names that are awkward enough or whatever to really justify this on its own. Some German names come to mind – Dick (Thick = fat, stout) is one.

      Yes to your last point too. Do what you want and then just own up to it.

  6. A.Y. Siu says:

    1., 2., and 9. are the really only valid reasons for a feminist or womanist taking her husband’s surname, because they acknowledge that is comes from societal pressure and ease than from real choice.

    Sorry. Bad proofreading. That should read 1., 2., and 9. are the really the only valid reasons for a feminist or womanist taking her husband’s surname, because they acknowledge that it comes from societal pressure and ease than from real choice.

  7. Melissa says:

    No, taking your husband’s name can never be a specifically “feminist” choice…but there is a waaaay disproportionate amount of finger-pointing that goes on in feminist circles when a woman does choose to take her husband’s name. Everyone makes anti-feminist choices sometimes. I’m not sure it’s even possible to be the perfect feminist all the time. When it’s something like wearing make-up or shaving your legs, most feminists seem to understand that certain compromises to the patriarchy are actually necessary survival skills–not feminist or ultimately desirable, but acceptable if it’s what keeps the person from devolving into a miserable ball of loneliness. But suddenly when it comes to name-changing, you hear things like “feminists should always keep their names.” Sigh.

    • Jim says:

      “but there is a waaaay disproportionate amount of finger-pointing that goes on in feminist circles when a woman does choose to take her husband’s name.”

      No shit. The amount of policing on issues like this is nearly Maoist. It’s the same thing with breast-feeding. And I don’t think feminism has much to do with the policing itself, even when the policing is over a “feminist issue”. If anything feminism offers some of the few defenses available against this kind of thing.

      “When it’s something like wearing make-up or shaving your legs, most feminists seem to understand that certain compromises to the patriarchy are actually necessary survival skills…”

      And sometimes they aren’t even that kind of surrender. Sometimes, from what some women say they tart themselves up not to manipulate men’s response, work it to some advantage – they don’t want sex, they just want to feel sexy, and this is the way they are familiar with and like for doing that.

  8. Marina. says:

    I’m from Argentina, in my country no woman changes her last-name because to us that seems really dated, in addition, it would be really difficult to get it legally changed and you would still need your maiden name to do most of the paper-work. I’m glad it is like this here because I believe your name is a part of who you are, and even if you loathe your father denying where you come from is not a solution. As a feminist I believe a woman shouldn’t change her last name because it somehow implies women are some sort of property. Having said that, I do agree all of us have some fucked-up patriarchal ideas; but for me your legal identity is something too important, I guess mine are more related to make-up, dresses and that kind of things (shallow things).

  9. Elysia says:

    I have had many a heated debate about this very issue and it surprises me how few people feel that argument number 6 is valid. I think it’s extremely valid even if one’s family were not abusive. If one cared deeply about rejecting arbitrarily dominant patriarchal lineage one might change their name to their mothers maiden name or their grandmothers. Keeping one’s father’s name rather than taking their new husband’s name is not in itself a rejection of patriarchy , it preferences your biological paternal heritage over that of your actively chosen, created connection to your male partner. To me either of those choices are neutral in relation to validating patriarchal structure, or if not neutral inescapably similar.

    Hyphenating certainly solves the problem of losing what had been your identity since it means both partners are actively changing in order to become more closely identified with each other without having to ‘give up’ anything. It becomes an inelegant and short term solution for those who wish to have children, because for generations to come the choice will become more and more impractical with multiple hyphenated names.

    Some of my favourite feminist philosophy explores the subject of maternal lineage. I feel sure that over long periods of time the norm of male lineage being the one that is recognised with names has caused female lineage to be undervalued and undermined. This is not an issue that can be solved by an individual choosing to keep her own name or even hyphenate, it is likely that all of the names one has to chose from are names that have been carried down the paternal line not the maternal line. It is a redundant choice.

    The problem of paternally inherited names can not be solved by individuals or even entire generations it is long term to the point of being historical. Perhaps as a society the only way name distribution could be balanced would be if female children took their mothers names and male children their father’s names. But this too would be an arbitrary choice based on gender and serve make families less symbolically united and possibly stress the gender divide.

    The only truly progressive alternative for individual couples in this regard would be to invent an entirely new name for your newly created partnership or family. In this circumstance the more traditional of the male’s family will be more offended than anyone in the female’s family since social norm had the female’s family already assuming they would lose a member to another families’ name. This issue makes this idea one of the few options that may require more give from the male partner than the female.

    It has been rightly pointed out that it’s an issue more likely to affect the female than the male since she is the one who will be seen to be either validating or rebelling against the norm. I don’t have much time for the kind of feminism that spends more time evaluating whether women are making choices that are ‘feminist enough’ rather than encouraging and celebrating a broad range of choice being equally available to all individuals. for me this is one of those issues where frowning upon those who take their new partner’s name is as outdated and shortsighted as generations of people who took for granted that it was just the way things are. The choice of ones own name should be an active one whether they decided to keep their own (which is the more passive option but actually read as more actively rebellious because it is against the norm), take their partners, use a combination of these or make something new. I know a fair few people who have changed their name first and or last outside of marriage, it is always important and meaningful (even if it’s a bit of fun there is something about your previously given name that you are actively rejecting) the reasons behind these decisions are much more interesting to me than the limited choices available to those whose name change is part of a representation of their relationship to their partner and their current or future family alone. It seems that the spontaneous change of one’s own name is part of a process of active identity creation. A change to a partners name could also share this sort of meaning for many individuals, in spite of it’s relation to the partner’s heratige and identity it is also something entirely new for the individual taking it on and can be symbolic of a new start and self empowerment much more than it is symbolic of being owned or or part of an oppressive system.

    Creating a new family or partnership is deeply personal and it is not easy to determine how one should balance their desire to move forward (as individuals and a new group) with the need to honor those ancestors of both genders that deserve to be honored for the part they have played in one’s life and the fact that one exists at all.

  10. Beautifamous says:

    Personally? I don’t care. If I meet someone I wish to actually marry (pretty set against the whole constitution of marriage) I really don’t care what I change my name to. *shrugs* I’ll go with their’s if it isn’t some ridiculous last name, or I’ll discuss changing it to something we both prefer/like.

    This actually reminds me of my sister. Her husband took her last name, but that’s mostly because she refused to take his which unfortunately was Beavers. My sister’s first name is Amanda. (Waits for the impending laughter – or at the least immature (yet in my opinion appropriate) giggling.)

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