What's in a name? Shakespeare would have us believe “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Does this apply to people as well, truly? This is the issue I wish to discuss, the customary practice of name-changing in marriage. More specifically, I wish to challenge the accepted and expected practice of the female partner taking the male partner's last name in heteronormative unions.
Though perhaps one of the more outwardly benign slightings of women in the world (compared to, say, job earnings and rape culture), this practice still hurts women in their fight for equality- to wit, encourages male domination and the destruction of the female's unique identity.
But first, a bit about me. I am a 27 year old male, living in New York City, who married his loving female partner in September of 2012. I am a feminist. When we married, I decided that I would change my name to hers, in place of the usual practice, or of even keeping our names separate and unique. I had several, more personal, reasons for doing this which are out of the scope of this discussion, but my feminist tendencies were the driving force. My aim in detailing this experience is in the hope that it leads others to question this punitive and demeaning practice of subsuming the female's identity into the male's as a glorification of a paternal society.
I again ask, what IS in a name? What is it's value? If you feel there is nothing in a name, as Shakespeare did, then surely the practice of name changing at all should be unnecessary in your eyes. Sure- you could argue, a name's not important, the female should be willing to give up her name freely. If so, why not the male too? Why not even swap names? Or better yet, choose some new surname that combines the beliefs and values, families and history of both partners equally?
Perhaps the first big decision lies in describing your unity. Remember, a marriage/wedding/civil union is designed to be an outward sign of continued, equivalent partnership between two individuals. So why should there be inequality in the rituals associated, such as in name-changing? This is your first act together as a married couple, is starting off your relationship in subservience to the line of the male really a good precedent?
Some might argue that a name does indedd carry great value, as it can be connected to a family history or one might want to honor a family member by carrying on a family name. Sometimes you just have a cool name that you want to hang onto. Maybe you've defined yourself with or against any implications that name has for you and others in your life. There are many reasons people find value in the name to which they were born. In any case, if you feel you have a right to keep your surname, so does your partner. Males, keep that in mind when you aks your future partner to change their name.
My own journey started with the courthouse, where we were met, thankfully, by an understanding official who was very interested and excited in my decision to change my name, once he understood our request. The DMV was just as indifferent as they ever are, though maybe I spied an infintesimally small eyebrow raising. However, at the Social Security office, things got more difficult. I was extensively questioned and the clerk was surprised that I could even do this legally. I had to assure the clerk that the courthouse had already sanctioned the decision. It struck me that an employee of the Social Security system was unaware of policy and reluctant to accept my decision. How did this endanger them? Is it not their job to facilitate this process? Was I not putting money in their pockets? So why the resistance?
This was a similar confusion I encountered throughout my experience of switching my name, a thread of "I don't understand" to "you can do that?" I am pleased that most people were really excited about it and some even said that they wished they had done the same. I recall one security officer at work remarked that he desperately wished he had been brave enough to fight convention and take his wife's name; his own he always disliked.
I am glad that this process opened the eyes of everyone I encountered, whether it was at the courthouse, the DMV, the Social Security office, my bank, my retirement plan, my professional organization and licensing authority, my employer and all the parties within such as the IT department for my system login information and security for my ID badge, the Post Office, the IRS, my family and friends, etc and so on.
I didn't fully realize just how much there was to do when one changes their name until I had to start doing it. Hopefully the list I started above gives you some idea. Even just changing my professional email from [email@example.com] to [firstname.lastname@example.org] was a hassle as I had to create a new email address, then update every single person/entity that used that email to contact me. It seemed like there was a never-ending list of things to do when I changed my name. I would also like to remind my readers that the majority of the changes listed above cost money, not to mention time. In a society were women already make less than men, are likely to lose out more on salary if they want to spend any time with their children beacause of limited maternity leave (and paternity leave, but that's another issue), women are presented with yet another gender-baised economic hardship in the cost of a name change.
Now what about my family's reaction? Well, this gets into some of the dicey personal issues that I want to avoid in this paper but as far as the family members who mattered enough to have at our wedding are concerned, my side of the family were befuddled but accepting, the way perhaps made easier by the fact I'd always been 'a bit strange' to them. Noteably, my uncle had his children make a congratulations card (which was sweet) but it was congratulating us on our (and I quote) "non-traditional wedding." Not on our wedding or partnership, or life together, but instead qualified with 'non-traditional' (though it was) as if to further cement in these children's heads that the way we did things was not 'normal' and that should be kept in mind for their own weddings in the future. As for my partner's family, some of my decision to take her name came from a desire to honor her family for taking me in and truly being a second family for me. I have never, and will never, think of them as 'in-laws' but instead as fathers, mothers, sisters, grandparents, and so on.
So what is in a name? For me, it was strife, hardship, frustration, financial burden, and lost time. What will you and your parnter choose when playing the name game? It is my hope that you will keep this story in mind. Complacency in the current culture is tantamount to encouragement; an object in motion remains in motion unless acted upon by another force. I would be ecstatic if this paper led to discussions with your own family and friends. My journey had its challenges, and most certainly was eye-opening, but I must admit that perhaps some of the potential impedence to completion was diffused by my being accustomed to a life of strife against prevailing trends and by this all taking place in New York City, where people are at least aware of various and divergent lifestyles existing, if not encouraged. I shudder to think what this process would have been like in a less progressive area. I will leave the reader with the words that we can make a difference in gender inequality by being informed ourselves, informing others, and taking non-violent action to change negative and damaging traditions inherent in our communities and cultures. Every action has a reaction, and ripples can spread wider and farther than one might think.
*Content copyright The Samnambulist, 2014*