I read an article recently in The New York Times that I could have sworn I’d read before, a trend piece on straight, married women choosing to keep their surnames. It was all so familiar: the woman who says she kept her name “not necessarily for feminist reasons,” the one who changed it even though her marriage is, quote-unquote, modern. The article even used the obviously archaic word “maiden.” All the ingredients were there.
I posted the article on my Facebook page, and the discussion-slash-debate began: Is changing one’s name always an anti-feminist statement? (No.) Is it really an artifact of sexism? (Well, yeah — unless you’re ignoring the history of coverture and property law.) If you’re holding on to your father’s name, isn’t that really just as much a mantle of patriarchy as taking your husband’s name? (Not in my opinion.) Does it mean you love your spouse more if you change your name? (Oh, please.)
But there was one point missing. It’s the same one that’s always missing. Why do we only always ask women this question? Why do we never ask men? How come we never ask men who keep their names if their politics are retrograde, if they don’t love their spouses enough, if they’re overidentified with their families of origin?
I have many female friends who have taken their husband's names, and the vast majority self-identify as feminists. I know the reasons people choose to do this are more complicated than they may seem. I chose to keep my explicitly Jewish name partly as a cultural identifier. But when you flip the question and ask why men almost never consider changing their names, the topic suddenly seems a lot simpler. It’s untraditional for men to change their names, just as it’s traditional for women to do so. But when you remove convention from the equation, what’s left? As a friend of mine put it, she imagines most men simply shrugging and saying, “It’s my name. Why should I change it?” To which I say: Bingo.
How come we never ask men who keep their names if their politics are retrograde, if they don’t love their spouses enough?
But maybe the question itself will feel outdated soon. After all, this discussion is based on gender norms within a heterosexual union. Now that marriage equality is the law of the land, we will likely see more and more family units with constellations of names that reflect love, ethnicity, and blended backgrounds. One thing those names won’t reflect is a history of female subordination. And the more we see that, the less that history may weigh on us. Wouldn’t that be ironic — if opening the world of marital bliss to more nontraditional couples made a traditional choice, like taking your spouse’s name, suddenly feel more modern?
Whatever the outcome, I’m vowing to stop asking women why they did or didn’t take their spouse’s names, at least until I get a more substantive answer from their husbands about why they didn’t.