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.”