When I got married six years ago, I hadn’t gone through my feminist awakening yet. Sure, I considered myself a feminist…but I didn’t fully realize the extent to which the patriarchy controlled my decisions. I wasn’t fully aware of feminist issues in my day-to-day life. I took my husband’s name happily, from a place of conservatism and lukewarm feminism, rather than from a place of careful consideration as to how taking his name would affect the women around me and the women of future generations.
But here’s the thing. Since getting married, I’ve thought about my last name a lot. I’ve talked to Zach about it a lot, and we even discussed changing our name–perhaps creating a last name that was a combination of his last name and my maiden name, or perhaps having a hyphenated last name. He was totally on board with considering these options. He was willing to go through the red tape it would take to change our name if it felt important to me. Ultimately though, I feel okay with the decision I had made, although I also feel it was not and is not a feminist choice.
Let me explain.
Taking my husband’s name is not feminist. I just don’t think it is. It is an acceptance of patriarchal rule in a very blatant way: my identity is “erased” and is replaced with his identity. It symbolizes my subservience to him.
But keeping my maiden name didn’t seem any better to me. Because where did my maiden name come from? My father. Where did my mother’s maiden name come from? Her father. It’s the same generation upon generation into my history: my matriarchal lines are muddled, rendered nearly untraceable by the patrilineal last name. There is no maiden name that is not traced back through the male line. Some women feel that keeping their last name is a feminist choice, or at least a more feminist choice than changing to their husband’s name. I would take their point, but there are other reasons I didn’t want to keep my maiden name.
For one thing, I like the symbol of the two becoming one. I’m not only a feminist; I’m also a Christian, and I believe in the idea that a Christian marriage joins two people in sacred ways. They are bonded before their families and before God. So for me, whatever our last name was to be, I wanted us to share it.
Then why not a hyphenated name? Well, this choice felt to me like simply kicking the can down the road. What about our daughter? When she got married, would she hyphenate her name again? Would she drop my maiden name? Or keep mine and drop Zach’s? The choice for her would be even more convoluted if she came into the situation with an already hyphenated name, forcing her to make the decisions that I bucked.
I did consider combining our names more seriously. However, it seemed to me this choice carried with it some of the same baggage as the other choices–for instance, it wouldn’t erase the fact that my maiden name is still a product of a male lineage. Also, what choice would our daughter make if she got married? Would she combine her name with her partner’s name? If everyone suddenly decided to meld their names together into a new name each generation, any kind of lineage/family history would be very difficult to trace. I’m not really that into family history, but this does seem problematic to me. If there were a standardized method for combining names which would allow family history to continue to be traced, then perhaps this would be a viable option. But as it is, it just felt a little too wacky to me.
So, what to do?
If I had made a different decision at the time of our marriage, I would not feel compelled to now take Zach’s name. However, after weighing all my options after the fact, I also don’t feel compelled to change my name back, or to hyphenate or combine our names. Each choice has its own issues, and I am left between a rock and a hard place and another rock. I don’t think there is a really good feminist option on this issue. Did I choose the least feminist option of all? Probably. But given the number of reservations I have about all the other choices, I’m not willing at this point to change my name.
As a feminist, I think we sometimes are forced to make choices that are not feminist–or if not forced per se, than at least put in a position where making the feminist choice becomes so burdensome, we just can’t pull the weight any more. Check out this comic by Ronnie Ritchie around wearing makeup. I think it speaks about this problem very well.