justice


So I finally read Meghan Daum’s little essay about how we, the American public, are subjecting Hillary Clinton and her candidacy to The Rules, and it irritated me intensely until the last two sentences (which were more mitigating than redemptive). If you don’t remember The Rules, it was a dating advice book that advocated manipulation and concealment of one’s true motives as the best strategies for marrying Mr. Right for those women so desperate to marry Mr. Right that their frothing mouths scared all the boys away (me, I’m of the post-rules generation, and I like to think of myself as more of a Kelis girl than a Rules girl: my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard). Daum uses Rules philosophy as a framework for explaining why much of America is put off by Hillary: because she’s hungry. But so effectively does Daum subject Clinton to this retrenched Father Knows Best and The Little Woman Can’t Get Around Him attitude that it’s unclear whether she even objects to its unfairness until, at long last, she writes, “The problem is, political campaigns aren’t won by following “The Rules.” That’s why we may be further from electing a female president than we’d care to admit.”

Well, as my ex would say (and when he said it, it was at least three syllables): “Duuuuuh.” And more fuel to the burning pyre of remarks that attest that, at least in the world of politics, the testosterone card trumps the Anglo card, because masculinity is politics’ stock-in-trade. I don’t have much truck with the mainstream media, but yesterday I actually begged my chiropractor to take her time getting to me so I could finish the election coverage in Newsweek, much of which predictably focused on identity politics of this primary, including a piece detailing one black woman’s vacillations: gender? or race? or gender?

Now, I happen to think that voting your gender or your race is a crock of shit, but I guess it’s a more appealing crock than voting your religion, which is what those voting in the Republican primary seem to be doing (even if, at least temporarily, their religion is the Detroit Tigers — hey! Maybe Romney could get an endorsement from Tom Selleck!). But since that’s what people seem determined to do, and since I hate to see poor John Edwards continually befuddled by questions like how it feels to be part of a three-way with the first viable black candidate AND the first viable woman candidate, I have found for you a solution, one which comes from the annals of history:

Shirley Chisholm.

For those of you who don’t remember, Shirley Chisholm was a candidate for the Democratic Presidential Nomination in 1972. (Apparently a lot of you don’t remember, a fact which I would like to lay directly at Bush Jr. and Sr.’s doors, because American education has been circling the drain for the last 20 years; nonetheless, she’s been hovering in the forefront of my mind since this brouhaha all began, and I wasn’t even born when she ran). Let’s run down some of her attributes:

1. Woman.

2. From New York. In fact, from Brooklyn! (Could use Beastie Boys as victory party act.)

3. African American!

4. The Hair. Nobody can compete with The Hair. The Hair is awesome.

5. Working for the common man: she fought for minimum wage.

6. Compassion for others: visited her rival, famous bigot and pro-segregationist George Wallace, in his hospital bed when he was shot during the campaign.

Chisholm was, to paraphrase another prominent black woman (Grey’s Anatomy‘s Dr. Bailey), a poster child for “rising above.” She was a pioneer, a brilliant and charismatic figure, a snappy dresser, and a tough broad. She ran for president in 1972, people! Big ups to Shirley!

So what I’m proposing isn’t really that more far-fetched than cloned White Castle burgers. Chisholm for President 2008. All we need is a time machine.

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So I’ve been a little preoccupied with women’s right to keep their last names lately, as I wrote here. Or more to the point, I’ve been a little preoccupied with why it’s still so surprising to some people when a woman does choose to keep her last name upon marriage. And lo and behold, the New York Times published an article on just this topic, entitled, “To Be Safe, Call the Bride by Her First Name.”

Um, yeah. Right. Could that headline be any more offputting?
Call me a nitpicker; I am. I am a picker of nits, a comber for fleas and lice, a scrutinizer of the minutiae. But so are you, or you wouldn’t be reading this, and probably we agree that names are important, language is important, what you choose to be called is important — hence the reason Kanye West admitted in a recent GQ interview (yes, I read GQ, at least when Bill Clinton is on the cover), “I guess there are no white people who are really allowed to say nigga, so I guess there shouldn’t be any straight guys who are allowed to say fag.” He’s just echoing what Mari Matsuda et al. wrote in Words that Wound: what you’re called matters. And how people describe your choices matters, too.

The problem with the headline is the same as the problem with my mother-in-law saying that she didn’t “have a problem” taking her husband’s name: it implies that people who keep their names do have a problem, and it tells you that it’s not “safe,” i.e. you will have committed an act of gaucherie that may cause legions of angry feminists to come at you with bra slingshots, to assume the bride will change her name. This may well be true, but I’m appalled at the Times so carelessly seeding its readers’ minds with the assumption that choices reflective of autonomy, freedom, and self-respect for women may cause others to feel socially “unsafe.” Even if it’s true — and it probably is, as most changes that are worth anything cause people some social anxiety — it’s prejudicing the evidence.

So shame on you, careless editors of the NYT, for your retrogressive diction. But there are more horrors yet to be discovered in Grossman’s article, specifically that only seven states currently allow spouses equal rights to name-changing upon marriage; in other words, our legal system makes it difficult for a man who wants to take his wife’s name to do so. So if you don’t live in New York, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, or North Dakota (California will join them next month), write your congressperson. I’ve included a handy text for you to cut and paste:

Dear __________

Men can’t take their wife’s name upon marriage in this state? WTF???

Sincerely,

Seriously, this is a shocking issue, more shocking even than finding out that it’s illegal to have oral sex in some states, because the name-change legalities are actually enforced and are actually current: people believe in them. People assume that when you get married, if you are a woman, you will become Mrs. HisLastName, even “feminists,” even “enlightened people,” even “liberals.” I have a friend who got married three and a half years ago; I was her maid of honor, and she fits all three of those categories. She and her husband had the ceremony outdoors in a rose garden in July, and they had a friend get minister status online so he could marry them, and there were people of all races and orientations present. And yet this dear friend who married them bellowed, on concluding the ceremony, “Congratulations MR. AND MRS. HISLASTNAME!”

This is still the prevalent attitude, and if you’re surprised that people like me keep harping on this sort of issue, you should read the comments to the Times article. You’ll find that there is no small number of people who believe that women should just shut up about naming rights, who believe that it’s “self-absorbed” to consider this issue, and who believe that if a man takes his wife’s name, it’s “emasculating.”

And even more insidiously, there’s no shortage of women who assume that, even if they choose to keep their last names, any issue of a marriage will have the husband’s last name.

It’s not what people choose to do that leaves me disheartened and disgusted. It’s the attitudes they betray in how they talk about it. And what I’ve learned today is this: you haven’t come a long way, baby. You are just beginning.

I probably would have posted this earlier in the week, but I’ve been trying to sublimate the dread I have for Thanksgiving. You could say I’m a party pooper, and you’d be right, but I have no use whatsoever for Thanksgiving, except perhaps as an exercise in self-flagellation.

Anyone with an interest in American history can tell you that the Native Americans have gotten a pretty shitty deal. I was reminded of this recently, when my husband forced me to watch the heinous Colin Farrell-mobile The New World, in which scores of sweaty, grimy colonialist goons exemplify the ethos of the title, i.e. that This World is New Because We Didn’t Know About it Before, in a plodding celebration of the white man’s mental limitations. Not even the presence of the talented Christian Bale, here totally emasculated by a role that shows him slavishly lapping up Farrell’s leavings (in the person of Jewel’s Peruvian cousin), can redeem more than two hours of this kind of self-congratulatory drivel. But I digress. This movie is only relevant to Thanksgiving in the sense that it gives a pretty accurate idea of what Thanksgiving celebrates, which is that Europeans came to America and fucked it up and the inhabitants saved their asses anyway with a gift of corn and beans before being rounded up and herded off to Oklahoma.

Are you hungry yet?

So anyway, somehow Thanksgiving just doesn’t give me the urge to stuff myself full of massive quantities of stuffed bird swimming in greasy gravy filled with giblets, and since I spent eighteen years as a vegetarian before succumbing to the lure of foie gras on the Ile St.-Louis one spring afternoon, I don’t fully understand what giblets are, anyway. I think they come in a clammy, string-wrapped bag. I suspect them of being gristly. Or maybe just gummy. I must admit I’m not quite comfortable with them. I have no quarrel with giblets, but they should keep to their own.

My personal history with Thanksgiving doesn’t help this aversion. Since my parents’ divorce when I was in middle school, all holidays involved splitting the day in half; a noonday meal at Dad’s followed by a chilly trek down to the 54 bus, which was running on “holiday” schedule and inevitably made me wait an hour, followed by a grimy ride with an assortment of bums, crazy ladies, and other odorous folk reduced to bus-riding as a survival tactic, followed by having to shove down a second holiday dinner at Mom’s. Of course, not eating was not an option either place; Dad is, of course, Chinese and would have found it massively insulting had I not eaten Herculean quantities of his over-salted meal, whereas Mom, occupying second tier as usual, might have felt slighted had I not done her undercooked Brussels sprouts justice (and for added guilt, it was usually her birthday).

So having to convincingly dig in to two Thanksgiving dinners is probably enough to give any adolescent a dislike of the process, but there’s another piece to the puzzle: the hereditary eating disorder. Those who have experienced this know what a scourge it is and how difficult it is to escape: you spend your early childhood watching your mom act out her bizarre relationship to the refrigerator, sometimes even implicating you in it (in my case, her refrain was, “Oh, Honey, why did you make me eat so much?” — as if a six-year-old could make a thirty-five-year-old consume an entire half cheesecake). You watch your mother glance in mirrors and moan about how fat she is, and when you hit puberty you decide that that’s what womanhood is, it’s a cycle of self-loathing and guilt-mongering, and you also become convinced that you are fat, so fat that it’s repulsive to even look at you. Even if you are 5’4″ and weigh 86 lb., because (thank God) you take after your dad’s side of the family. Even if the other half of your heritage involves competitive speed-eating. With chopsticks.

So that was my Thanksgiving: two dinners, lots of guilt, the trauma of the parental schism reenacted viciously (he wouldn’t so much as give us a ride in her direction, she couldn’t mention him without tearing up). And then there was my sister.

I’ve written about my sister in these pages before, and I think it’s only fair to get a third party description of her, um, unique character. So I’ll give you my dear friend Grant’s assessment, in the context of a conversation we had some years ago. I had apparently told him about something my sister planned to do that, to me with my skewed vision of reality, didn’t seem that outlandish, and he responded,

“Yeah, but your sister is ka-RAZY.

Out of the spirit of generosity, I should say that in this case, we can lay the blame for my sister’s insanity directly at my parents’ door. Not only did they pass on the twin streams of Chinese eating duty and hereditary Body Dysmorphic Disorder, but sis was a little younger than I when the Iron Curtain of Hatred fell down between our parents, so maybe it wormed its way deeper into her subconscious. By the time she was fourteen, she was subsisting on a diet of water and lettuce. Every three weeks she’d indulge on a Roman scale and eat a whole loaf of bread in one sitting, and then presumably hate herself, but her net daily calorie intake was still probably only in the double digits. She was all too eager to walk a mile through frigid rain to the bus stop (having been kicked off the track team), and she didn’t even mind the hour-long wait, which gave her the opportunity to jog in place in the little ditch on the side of the highway while we both got hit with sheets of rain churned up by passing cars, but once we sat down at the table, she was no picnic.

My parents were united in their bafflement at her refusal to ingest food, so they tactfully ignored it and urged me to eat twice as much to make up for it. And, well, my sense of self-preservation wasn’t so strong in those days. So by five o’clock on Thanksgiving Day, I was usually either lying on the floor as my bowels rioted in protest, or trying not to throw up in the ditch by the bus stop.

Once I moved away for college, I never came back for Thanksgiving. I spent a lot of happy holiday afternoons strolling around upper Broadway, eating Tasti D-Lite and loitering in the Barnes and Noble when the weather got bad. But now I have the great misfortune of living in my hometown, and we’re invited to my mom’s house for Thanksgiving (I am thankful that my dad has since moved away; does that count?), and, the pièce de résistance, my sister is now living with my mother (having fled her latest fucked-up relationship once again), and so we will all be together.

I can barely contain myself. In fact, I can’t think of a better way to commemorate the day, except maybe being forced to march a thousand miles in bare feet and smallpox blankets.

What are you thankful for?

I like to think I have a reasonably Zen-like humility, at least in my good moments. I like to think that I am capable of at least having enough perspective to realize that, in the long run, any slights to my own self-importance are simply reminders of my infinitesimally small place in the universe, reminders that both free me and allow me to more fully live my life without the intrusion of ego.

Still, it bothers me that my in-laws don’t remember my name.

Oh, they remember my first name. But they keep sending me cards and checks addressed to some mythical person with my husband’s last name or, sometimes, with my last name demoted to a middle name, à la Hillary Rodham Clinton. (They’re big ones for checks. Birthday checks, anniversary checks, Christmas checks, birth of a child checks, etc., and while I feel a smidgen the ingrate getting snarky when I’m holding a check in my hand — I know the bank will cash it, they always do — I can’t help it, because this mythical person who took my husband’s last name exists only in their imagination, and I am not sure I like her.)

It boggles my mind. Really. Because we reiterate, several times a year, that my last name is not the same as theirs, that I did not change my last name when I got married, that we are a two last name household. Recently, it’s become even more of an issue, because we gave our daughter my last name, and for the more than seven weeks of her existence she has been the recipient of dozens of thoughtful gifts, all misaddressed; she has his last name as a middle name and mine as her last name, and somehow all the relatives on his side manage to blithely invert this in favor of the patriarchy.

Now, part of me knows that they are probably well-intentioned, it’s just that people have a hard time divorcing themselves from their expectations, and their expectations are that We Will Carry On the Family Name of the Adult Member of this Household Who Has A Penis because That is The Way Things Are. I get that. I understand it. But another, larger, part of me wonders how anyone can be so colossally dense, in the year 2007, that they don’t see the way things are rather than simply the way they expect things to be, that they can’t wake up and smell the century of civil rights expansion and realize that a few aspects of life have changed, maybe for the better. We no longer levy poll taxes on African Americans. We no longer refuse to admit the testimony of Asian Americans in court. And we don’t have to change our names if we get married, which is part of a larger cultural change that allows us to not change our identities if we get married and, specifically, to not subordinate our personal identities to our marriages (any more than is absolutely necessary).

So, yeah, when they forget that I elected not to become Mrs. So-and-so I’m a little surprised. Faintly amazed. Mildly appalled.

I shouldn’t be. We had been talking about marriage for weeks before, in the course of a casual conversation (I think about checks again, which just goes to show how we’re ruled by our bank accounts), my then-boyfriend revealed that he thought I’d be taking his last name. Or, more to the point, that it never occurred to him that I wouldn’t. He was amazed that I was amazed. Me, I was just. dumbfounded. Totally. You know when you think you know someone, you feel comfortable in your understanding of them, and then they go and do something totally out of character, like when you found out that the Dalai Lama ate a hamburger and then you learned that he was eating meat all along and he was not the person you believed he was? Yup. Like that.

So one of the major points of our engagement was the name talk. “Why wouldn’t you change your name?” he asked. “Why wouldn’t you change yours?” I riposted. We agreed that, in this case, separate but equal was inherently equal.

Of course, when we discussed naming our first child the same thing happened. “So, what last name do you want to give the baby?” I asked. After he finishing picking his eyeballs up off the floor, he gave me to understand that he assumed his son would have his last name. That was a longer talk, but eventually we agreed on my name as the middle name, then his as the last name. I gave in out of compassion for the fact that this was all very new to the poor man, he was obviously thrown by the concept of doing anything other than giving everyone, including the family cat, his last name, and, though he was trying to stretch his imagination to include a world where woman aren’t the factotum/sex toy combo plate in the restaurant of men’s lives, and he was almost making it there, there was still a little bitty comprehension gap.

But of course he eventually came around, which is why we’re still married, and when I proposed that we flip the middle name/last name combo for our second kid, resulting in her legal last name being the same as mine, I detected only mild resistance (“Don’t you think our kids should have the same last name?” “Not really; we don’t, so why should they?” “Well, okay then”), and I was very proud of him for overcoming his unreflective adherence to the status quo.

But his family is another story.

I’m actually stunned that his mother took his father’s name; they were married in 1978, both students at Reed College at the time, supposedly very liberal, enlightened feminists. I used to wonder what in the world possessed her. But we were talking about it the other day, and she remarked, “You know, when I got married a lot of people were shocked that I changed my name. But I had no problem with it.”

This is a statement that continues to haunt me. I know it seems innocuous, but it’s not; it’s insidiously anti-feminist and, in fact, anti-change of any sort, the kind of argument used to maintain school segregation during the Civil Rights movement, and all the more effective because it makes it difficult to disagree. After all, you wouldn’t want to be a person who had a problem with it, would you? You wouldn’t want your mother-in-law to have a problem with it when she was clearly over her issues and it was those pesky, interfering feminists (men and women, I might add, which is probably obvious to those who know anything about the Reed College scene in the late ’70s) who had a problem. The day after that conversation, I woke up with the phrase echoing in my head and I thought, hell yes, I have a problem with it. I have a problem with the implication that anyone who encourages a woman to consider keeping her name when she marries is somehow a troublemaker, or emotionally disturbed, or unable to just be cool and enjoy life. I have a problem with the idea that the only reason you should keep your name when you marry is if you have a problem with the idea of taking your husband’s, like maybe if his name is Hooker or Fuchs or (I swear this is a real name) Dumbkowski. I have a problem with the idea that a decision that is about identity and individuality should signal to others that you are somehow conflicted, a person with issues, unresolved, deficient.

But I was unable to articulate exactly why it bothered me so much, so I just went around with that little phrase working its way deeper into my skin like a tick that will eventually give you a bullseye rash and a dangerous disease, until I read this letter in Cary Tennis’s Salon advice column. Cary’s advice is gorgeous in its accuracy: choosing to keep your own name is “a way of extending a certain idea of freedom into the future and into future generations. It is a powerful step. It is a reminder.” He goes on to remind the letter writer that “every time we encounter a woman who has a different last name from that of her husband we are reminded: Yes, you can do that. Whereas when we encounter a woman who has the same name as her husband, although this, too, was a choice, we are not reminded, oh, yes, you can do that. Not so much. We more slip into the historical slumber of the status quo.”

Before I read that letter, the closest I got to stating why it was so important for me to keep my own name, and to pass it on, was to wax eloquent about the five thousand years of Chinese culture, about the fact that my name is the first of the Hundred Names, about how I’d spent my childhood being teased and ridiculed for my name and my epicanthal folds on the playground and, now that I’d finally grown into the name, I’d be damned if I was going to give it up. These things are all true, but they are not the whole story.

The whole story is that even though a lot of people, a lot of women even, think “feminism” is a dirty word or think “refusing” to take your husband’s name means you don’t love him or you have issues or you’re just a castrating bitch, I don’t think that’s what it means. I think it means you recognize the importance of both your history and your future. I think it means you view marriage as a partnership and not as a transfer of property. I agree with a reader who wrote in to respond to Cary’s column, describing her predicament as a national of a country that does not allow married women to keep their names and saying “There are many options that are consistent with a feminist world view. Taking his name, is not one.”

So this week, I’m grateful to Cary Tennis. My ‘problem’ is now something a lot more affirmative. I am a reminder. I am a person who reminds others of the way it is possible for the world to be, of the values of acting on ideals rather than out of pragmatism, of the importance of examining your choices and not sinking into complacency or cowardice. I knew this about myself — I do, after all, have a day job that motivates me chiefly because it gives me the opportunity to remind young and not-so-young adults of all the choices they have and all the knowledge that’s available and all the things education can be — but I haven’t often put it into words. It’s hard to lay your idealism on the line. It’s not cool. It opens you up to ridicule, to prejudice, to the suggestion that maybe you should just get over your problem. Get over it, and bake some muffins.

Well, I’m happy to do the baking (especially since I’m the one with the sweet tooth). But I wish more people would think about the implications of these conventions we have and consider starting new conventions, ones that more accurately reflect what we’d like marriage to be. And I’m keeping my name.

Now if only I could get my in-laws to remember it.

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