Girl meets boy, girl falls in love, girl gets married, girl changes her name. This is a feminist perspective on why it’s okay to do the last two things and not be some kind of feminist failure.
Before we get started, let’s acknowledge the boundaries of this discussion: many people can’t get married because the state won’t let them. And research suggests marriage is increasingly becoming reserved for heterosexual couples with money. There’s a hefty dollop of heterosexual and class privilege lurking in this debate, begging a larger question of what the policing of heterosexual women with money is designed to achieve.
Still, if you’re a woman in love with a man and have crossed some class barriers, let’s be clear that the fate of feminism doesn’t depend on whether you get married or change your name.
The primary beef is here: Asking women what they are going to do with their names when they marry is an invasive and sexist double-standard that is not applied to men. Even asking the question of a woman, and not a man, strikes me as prurient and sexist. Applying value or judgement to what one woman does with her name after marriage — whether that’s retaining a current name, applying a hyphenated name, making up a new last name or taking the partner’s name — continues this invasive and sexist practice of assuming that a woman’s name is up for public comment. If you’re going to ask this question or make grand pronouncements about what a name choice means for society, or a family, or a commitment, or a child, or internalized sexism, then focus 100 percent on men and what they are doing in heterosexual marriages. Women have done our time and frankly could use a breather.
Marriage is an institution with historical roots in the property transfer of women (and often girls) from fathers to husbands. There is no denying this inherently sexist lineage. However, my feminist argument is that the institution of marriage has evolved from the property transfer of women to include same-sex marriage in some states (a feminist victory, albeit incomplete), many egalitarian marriages practiced by couples (a feminist victory, albeit incomplete and not entirely supported by jurisprudence) and more. To write off a woman marrying a man as capitulating to the patriarchy is hogwash. Might it be for some women? Maybe, for both the women and men involved, in some marriages. But an automatic assumption focused solely on her is ridiculous.
So too, as feminist thinking about marriage evolves should feminist thinking about last names evolve. A woman who changes her last name upon marriage is not stupid, or an automaton, or subservient to please him, or a symbol of the failure of feminism, or a threat to the future of feminism. Even suggesting that she is — rather than focusing on men or couples — continues to elevate an invasive and sexist double-standard. Women aren’t “too dumb” or “too weak” to be equal. Women are not the cause of our inequality. Women’s choices are not the cause of our inequality. Of course our choices are influenced by our inequality, and interplay with our inequality, but to focus on what women are doing or not doing instead of focusing on how our society systematically discriminates against women and privileges men (often, with the sheer absence of “choices” about names, work and life because they are assumed to be accommodated without comment) — this just doesn’t have the power to fix the problem. In fact it can serve as a distraction from calling for larger changes that do have the power to fix the problem.
So this is my feminist love letter on Valentine’s Day to YOU, women who married or are thinking about marrying men, and happen to have a last name that everyone loves to chat about (while leaving his untouched). Kindly smile and tell everyone to butt out. You are not public property and you don’t deserve this intrusion in your personal life.
P.S. — My husband decided to continue using his name when we married. I am so proud of him.