Should I take my husband's name?

I thought I would do the traditional thing, but now that the date is approaching, I'm not sure.

Published November 16, 2007 11:16AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I have a relatively simple question that I always thought I knew the answer to.

I'm going to get married soon to a wonderful man. I must include that we are both quite liberal and feminist. We've been together for a long time, always with the intention that we would get married when and if a reason came to do so. Various, mundane circumstances have led us to decide that marriage is the right thing to do now.

I have always had the intention of taking my future husband's surname; it just seems simpler to me, with having kids and things like that. I obviously respect anybody's decision to keep the name s/he is born with, but I just always wanted to start my own new family as an easily recognizable unit, I guess. I also thought it was pretty un-feminist for a woman to keep her last name, then have children and be the only member of the family with it.

I don't know what is causing me to question my decision. My husband (to be) likes the idea of my keeping my own name, and he feels strongly that if I were to do so, we would give it to any future children as well. At the same time, he's more than willing to grant me free access to his. I don't have any particular attachment to my last name or the heritage that comes with it; if anything, I would rather separate myself from my father. It might be a societal thing that causes me to rethink. Am I renouncing some part of myself or my feminist ideals if I do take his name? I don't feel like I am. Maybe I'm worried that people will think I am? I even decided I would just opt for whichever sounded better, but I've been hearing my own name all my life so I can't really get any perspective on that. Of course, I teach high school, so my surname is a significant chunk of my everyday life.

I guess you can't really tell me unequivocally what to do, but any perspective on the matter in general would be greatly appreciated.

Can't Sign a Name, Because I Don't Know What It Will Be

Dear Can't Sign a Name,

You are right that I can't unequivocally tell you what to do. But I can say this: I think that the groundbreaking work of feminism, the work for which the pioneers, theoreticians, tacticians, adherents, proponents, members-by-charter and even secret, closet members of this world-historically important movement of liberation, the important work, the very crucial work, has been that work which untied the unconscious bonds of slavery that women had worn for millennia, untied those bonds by digging deeply into daily assumptions, those beliefs we held most sacredly because we did not know we held them. It was this difficult and collective work of self-discovery that untied a system of male dominance that was so hard to untie because it was, as it were, tied from underneath and behind, impossible to dismantle by oneself, like a chastity belt locked by the departing master. It was in the peeling back of layers to see how one privilege lay upon another, how the links of chain wound out of sight through hidden labyrinths of oppression.

Those discoveries have resulted in great freedoms for women and in new customs and cultural practices. Some of those practices are important and some are seemingly trivial; it is easy for the young to mock some of these practices if they do not know the history.

So to take a name, and whose name, you must ask, well whose name is it anyway? What is your name? That is, if you had been transformed in some way, given a life outside and beyond the life of your family, then what would your name be? For instance, what would be your stripper name? What would be your wrestling name, your circus name, your prison name, your alias on the lam? Your poetic name, your feminist name? These are all ways we can think of ourselves as divorced from the culture whose chains we have struggled to sever. These are all ways of making concrete that part of ourselves that we feel is purely our own.

And in doing that we would have to ask, what is the significance of your father's name? Is it something you want to escape? What is the significance of your mother's name? And what is the significance of the feelings of others? What do you want to signal to people? For it is not just about figuring out what you would be called, theoretically, if you could unlink yourself from your birth and declare yourself history-less, born again outside of history and genetics and family as pure genderless being. It is about what you are saying to others about your relation to them.

Feminism made it possible for women to declare themselves as exactly who they are. And I suppose it could be said that for all its gains, if women now slip back into the old, comfortable models, then to that extent the historical memory of feminism slips away. Refusing to take the old patriarchal 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.

You, as a woman, having acquired and having been bequeathed certain gifts, a political dowry, as it were, are free to use this dowry as you see fit. But it does come with certain expectations. What are those expectations? Chiefly: freedom from unspoken bondage to family, work and society, freedom to make individual choices about how you present yourself to the world, what work you do and whom you associate with. Freedom from the assumption that the husband has the final say. Freedom from the assumption that in the end, all he has to do is put his foot down. Freedom from the historical assumption that the husband's word in the house is law. It is not law. The law is the law and women can be lawyers and there is no other law, no household law in which man is king. Man is king no longer. That is the gift that you have been bequeathed: You are no longer subject to unspoken authority rooted in family. You are in all respects an independent operator.

Then the question is, might this general independence that has been granted to all women atrophy if not openly and vigorously exercised by women every chance they get, in every instance of public and private interaction, not just now but into the future for generations? Well, yes, of course there is that danger. People are lazy. We like to slip into something comfortable. So 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.

Nonetheless, to take your husband's name is also among your freedoms. You are absolutely free to make your own choice, and you cannot really make a bad choice because, either way, the important thing is that it is a free, conscious choice. My choice, the way I happen to be feeling today, would be to go on record celebrating the world-changing work of feminism and wary of the deeply rooted passions working against it that could so easily chip away at its gains. My choice would be to go ahead and choose a name that puts it in the record books, that puts one in the win column for feminism.

That way, when your kids say, Why do you have a different name from Daddy? you can tell them that there was a time when women were not free to choose what name to take, when women basically belonged to the man they married, when they had to obey him and, in fact, had to obey pretty much any man they saw on the street, whoever he may be, just because he was a man, much the same way that there was a time that black people belonged to white people and had to obey pretty much any white person at all, and could not choose their own names, but were given the names of the white people they belonged to.

But it's your decision. That's the point. If you want to take your husband's name, then take it. You are free. The important thing is that you are free.

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