What’s In A Name?
Taking my husband’s name wasn’t a feminist choice. Here’s why I did it.
Nearly three years ago I stood yoga mat under my arm, belly protruding, lining up to register before beginning my prenatal yoga class. I’m not sure if the practitioner was doing her own little case study, but for the more ‘interesting’ names, she’d ask “is it yours, or did you marry it?”
Most women had married it, myself included. When she came to the woman in front of me who said proudly no, she loved her name and would never change it, she said “So many women are changing their names still — I mean, what happened to feminism?”
I rolled my eyes. Keep your opinions to yourself, I thought uncharacteristically, smiling through my teeth as it was my turn to declare that I too, had ‘married it’. Maybe it was the smell of delicious cooked food wafting in from busy and fashionable Jetty Road making the pregnant me hangry, but I was annoyed. Pissed off, actually.
She had, of course hit a nerve.
Bad, bad feminist!
Because “what happened to feminism?” was something I’d been asking myself around that time too, directly thinking on my name change. Was it un-feminist of me to change my name? Or being married all? Was it all academic and no action?
Mona Eltahawy has tweeted feminism is “the lens through which I critique everything”: as I get older, and more feminist, this is true for me as well. I don’t love being bad at things generally, but who wants to be a bad feminist?
Asking myself whether it was un-feminist of me to change my name had crossed and re-crossed my mind. I was even at the stage where I was deeply questioning why I’d even gotten married to begin with.
Let me be crystal clear here: I wasn’t questioning the relationship I have with my husband, which is loving and respectful, but the actual getting married part. He’d always said marriage wouldn’t change us — and it didn’t, it hasn’t. (Like many other couples, having children was the game changer. That’s what my book is about. Watch this space.)
Good reasons not to change your name
When I take my dog to the vet, his last name is the same as mine, indicating ownership; the added surname shows the dog is my property. In a dispiritingly similar fashion, traditionally Western women would take their husband’s name on marriage. Women have disappeared in history because of this, only searchable through their husband’s initials and surname.
In many cultures, the new wife would become part of her husband’s household, property, part of his family, and see very little, if any of her own. In ancient Greece, they held mock-funerals so mothers could grieve the figurative ‘death’ of the daughters they’d often never see again. I completely understand why taking a man’s name is considered unfeminist, where as Eltahawy’s stats show (quoted below), it very rarely goes the other way.
Prominent Australian feminist Clementine Ford is also critical of women who change their name. In her book, Fight Like A Girl she says the common counter-argument is that it’s just another man’s name, so what’s the difference. But it’s your name, wrote Ford, on your birth certificate. And I agree with her.
In a tweet mocking women who protest, as I’m about to: ‘“But it’s all about choice!” Stop taking men’s names’, Ford retweeted Mona Eltahawy:
“In a recent study of heterosexual married men, less than 3% took wife’s name when they got married. Among 97% who kept their name, 87% said their wife took their last name, 4% said their wife hyphenated her surname while they made no change,6% said that neither changed name.”
Those are USA stats, but Australia would be similar. And I agree with her, too. I don’t support the ridiculousness of ‘choice feminism’, and do not accept that any choice a woman makes is a feminist choice. Is ‘taking’ a man’s name a feminist choice? Strictly speaking, no it’s not.
But if you believe taking a man’s name is the legacy of an instrument of oppression, my changing my last name in marriage was a conscious choice. I made it in large part because unlike my partnered/married life where my choices have made all the difference, through my childhood and teenage years I felt powerless, oppressed by, and owned by a man I hated, whether I liked it or not. That’s patriarchy right there.
Taking my husband’s name was a choice. I think I can continue to try and smash patriarchy equally well having made it. Was it a feminist choice? Well, no — but also yes.
From my reading of Fight Like A Girl and Boys Will Be Boys, I get the sense that Clementine Ford has a strong, imperfect, but loving relationship with her father, whose name, I assume from what she’s written in the former, is on her birth certificate.
That’s not the way my story goes.
Divorce — not just for ending marriages
In Australia, you can divorce your parents. Deep, deep in my bones, as a teen I wanted to divorce just one of mine; my dad. Dad hit us, whipped us and threw furniture, toys, cutlery — our things — against the walls when his rage was whipped up. His temper was a ticking time bomb, his presence, a pall of smoke across a blue sky. It was always worse when Mum was at work.
My sister and I begged our mother to leave him, until we realised she never would. I went through years of referring to him as ‘Mum’s Husband’ — I felt powerless and angry that I had no part in choosing him, or choosing to have him in my life. I certainly didn’t want his name. This was pre home-internet. I never found out the details I needed to know to make an application to the case children’s court.
The older I got, the more I gave back , learning which words to use to hurt wound him as much as he wounded me with his — he would scream for me to grow up and get out, then remove the spark plug from my car so I couldn’t go anywhere (we lived 20km from the nearest town). He’s the reason I left home. My relationship with him is still strained, and only exists because he’s with Mum.
For a while I thought I’d change my surname to my mum’s maiden name. But thinking on the violence and terror he’d put his family through, that held very limited appeal: he was much, much worse than my dad. I was never one of those girls who dreamed of marrying — at that point, I swore I never would. So I made an uneasy peace with my name.
Years went by. Just when I’d decided stay single, I met my husband — but it would take nearly 7 years for him to become that; neither of us were fussed about marriage. But when we did get married, I chose to take his last name. You could say I got that divorce eventually.
A rose by any other name
I have daughters, and when they get older, I will encourage them to keep their last name, which is the same as mine, the same as my husband’s. I’ll talk to my son about feeling free to take his wife’s name — if he even has a wife. I hope my girls won’t have the same motivation to want to reject their name as I did; I’ve chosen a man who is vastly different from ‘Mum’s Husband’, so it’s looking good on that score.
As an adult, could I have got myself that divorce by changing my last name to anything I felt like? Flower? Rainbow? Windcaller — I fancy this one because I used to think I could sing the wind into a gale. Yes of course I could have. And if I had my time over again, knowing what I know now, maybe I would have done that; maybe I would have stuck with my ‘maiden’ name.
For now, I am happy to be a Zeven, an imagined wind singer — and a feminist.