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.

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