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.

Advertisements

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.