Marriage and surnames: All right, I’ll bite

So the topic of name changes associated with marriage is making the rounds, with a bunch of really strongly articulated opinions and perspectives that I feel like I’d like to deconstruct a little bit.

We’ve got Jill Filipovic writing at the Guardian about how most of the reasons that people women give for changing their names when they get married don’t make any sense (to her, anyway – Melissa over at Shakesville takes down Jill’s dismissal of the reasons pretty soundly). Her article is very focused on the idea that one’s name is one’s identity, which I simply don’t buy. Or at least, I don’t buy that as an argument not to change your name.

Jill’s argument on this point is as follows:

…Jill Filipovic is my name and my identity. Jill Smith is a different person.

That is fundamentally why I oppose changing your name (and why I look forward to the wider legalization of same-sex marriage, which in addition to just being good and right, will challenge the idea that there are naturally different roles for men and women within the marital unit). Identities matter, and the words we put on things are part of how we make them real.

There’s a number of issues with this. The most glaring is her opposition to anyone changing their name being justified by her own personal feelings of identity around her own name. Newsflash: we don’t all have the same relationship with our names as you do with yours, Jill. Further, all of her anti-name change arguments are systematically weakened when she makes points about how she’d like to see man changing their names, and how the existence same-sex marriage will ultimately help straight women escape the patriarchal nature of marriage. I’m not going to probe too far into this, but Jill does seem to argue two contradictory positions throughout the article, wherein she points out problematic nature of the prevalence of women changing their names to match their spouses, and the lack of other viable options (which I generally agree with) by giving reasons why no one should ever change their names (to which I say, wait, what now?).

Ok, but she also points out that the way we label things, and what we choose to call ourselves, are important and meaningful ways of constructing identity. Absolutely, this is true. The words we choose to apply to ourselves, and the ones we eschew, are important. But I don’t think that my last name, in particular, is as important as Jill has made it out to be here. The fact is that if I introduce myself to someone new as Firstname Lastname, regardless of which last name I use, they aren’t going to know whether I am married, or whether my last name is the same as my husband’s. Yes, people who already knew me before I changed my name will note the change, but I would hope that the things they actually know about me and my identity are more important to those people than my damn name, which since I didn’t choose it in the first place, never had all that much to say about me, really. It never identified anything about me other than “this is the name my parents chose to give me”. And it doesn’t carry meaning in the way that other labels that I actively identify with (queer, poly, nonbinary, etc.) do.

But this isn’t even my core objection to Jill’s argument that names shouldn’t be changed because they are tied to identity. Even if I accepted that this tie existed, quite frankly, my identity isn’t static. It’s constantly fluctuating in all kinds of ways. My online personae are multitudinous, dependent on the time of my life when I joined various communities, and many other factors – I only use my real name on the facebook. Thus, the fact that I’ve changed my name before, and I’m toying with doing so again, simply doesn’t make me feel like I’m risking losing my identity.

Ultimately, I think that names are very important to different people for different reasons, and changing your name can be a great way of claiming control over your identity and expressing yourself.

Of course, I don’t really think that it’s valid to say when women change their last name to match their husband’s, it’s a great act of self-expression and control. It’s not, really. It is, in many ways, a great act of acquiescence and conformity to traditions that are inarguably based in fucked up ideas of women as property, of a woman’s identity being truly and entirely contained in first, who her father is, and then later, who her husband is. I mean, that’s pretty not okay, and the degree to which this “tradition” has stayed strong as we’ve managed to change and redefine so many other aspects of how marriage works is baffling and disturbing to me, truly.

Not least because it’s so often men that are so strongly attached to the idea of the women they marry changing their names. Confidential to the dudes out there: if you’re the one who cares so damn much about you and your future wife having the same name, you should fucking well be willing to go through the effort and sacrifice of changing your own damn name. If you’re unwilling to consider this option, either a) it’s not actually that important to you, or b) you think it’s really important to have control over that aspect of your wife’s identity, which is creepy and misogynist, and indicates that you actually don’t see her as your equal.

That said, I have the same last name as my husband (a cis man, no less!), and I’m the one who changed my name to make it so. It’s never been a choice I’ve been 100% comfy with, because, yeah, I know all of the above to be true. I’m also not entirely sure where I fit in this conversation, as a nonbinary person, but for the purposes of this post I’ll have to admit that in general, my husband and I benefit from het cis privilege, even though neither of as are straight, and only one of us is cis. We just do, and even though I carry classic queer guilt about, I’m not going to give up what we have on the basis of that guilt (nor do I think any reasonable people would actually suggest I should).

And knowing all of that, I changed my name. For a lot of reasons, really. But at the heart, it came down to something really prosaic and simple: it happened that I had been wanting to shed my existing last name anyway when we decided to get married (for reasons that aren’t important here, but suffice to say for Jill’s sake, that due to the nature of my name, I’ve always felt my identity was more strongly tied to my fairly unique first name than my surname). And where I live, you can change your name to match your spouse’s really easily (and for free!), while the process of changing your name in any other way, for any other reason is far more laborious, involves a lot of hoop jumping and paying some fees. And I am damn lazy – even taking the easy route, it took a couple of years to get most of my IDs updated, and my passport is still in my old name (and I’m still registered at school under my old name, with no plans to change that. I have reasons!).

Yup, I bought into the tradition because institutional sexism makes it easier to make that choice than to exercise any of the other options Jill presents (all of which I think are valid, I should say. I particularly love the idea of a newly married couple picking their own surname and both changing their names – I’m just saying that these options are not as easily exercised, and generally involve getting your birth certificate altered). And it really is as simple as that.

So my point here is that if we want to change the choices people are making, we need to change the system. We have to make all of the choices equally accessible, and we have to acknowledge that the whole name-change-upon-marriage phenomenon is not just about buying into societal biases, and taking the easy route in terms of not pushing back against societal norms, it’s about taking the easy route institutionally as well.

Despite (and also because of?) all of this, I am still considering a brand new name change – though my existing first name is rare enough that I occasionally get people who don’t immediately assume a gender when it’s the only information they have on me (the fact that it’s technically a surname probably contributes to this), most people who see the name associate it pretty strongly with the gender I was assigned at birth. And in fact, everyone I’ve ever heard of with the name has been of that gender.

That said, as I noted above I’m actually quite attached to my first name as a part of my identity, so if I were to change my first name to something more gender-neutral, I’d also make my current first name into my new surname (I’d be Kasey [current first name], which I kind of like).

The idea of changing my surname in this way really intrigues me, actually. I was given the name I have because the patrilineal surname tradition was going to kill off a branch of our family. There were no male heirs to the name, and since there’s clearly no other way to pass on a surname, (no matter how important it is to the family to keep the name alive, apparently) the name was totally necessarily changed into a first name, and bequeathed to me. To change the name back into a surname, as it should rightfully be, would be a wonderful, mildly subversive, feminist act for me, especially if it were combined with passing the name on to my child/ren. And it would totally make up for the guilt I’ve felt about my prior name change, at least.

But, as I say, I am lazy. So this is a thing I’ll probably be sitting on for a while. We shall see!

3 comments

  1. We did pick a new name and both changed. It involved a trip (or 2) to the courthouse and an inexpensive fee, but was definitely worth it for us. It was *his* idea (het / cis couple). Good luck with your choice and your future choices.

    1. Thanks! When I mentioned changing my name to my husband, he basically immediately started planning to change his last name to match :)

      He’s also been contemplating a first-name change, so I figure one day we’ll both go in for a full name change together, which’ll be awesome!

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