Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Do feminists care that I changed my name?

A friend and reader of this blog submitted a comment on my last post about changing my last name that has been making me think for weeks. Weeks. I asked her if she wouldn't mind me making her thoughtful observations a little more public and she agreed. Stacey is an exceedingly useful friend to have, always reminding me to look at things a different way. Below I'll share her comments and offer my own responses.

Is it all a matter of choice?
I always find myself surprised when women change their names. I would think that the pain-in-the-ass of going through the paperwork of the name change itself (for every piece of ID, bank account, email address, etc etc etc etc), and forever having to explain to people "yes, I am *that* Stacey, that was my maiden name" would be pretty annoying too.
I was always surprised when a friend chose to change her name, too. I was even more surprised that I wanted to change my name. I thought I knew myself pretty well. But five years of marriage and two children later, I regretted my decision, as I described here and here. Even just considering a name change felt foreign to me, but in the end it still felt good. Yes, it is terribly annoying to change all the details. Here in Ontario most people just assume a new name in marriage (rather than having it legally changed), which is both cheaper and easier to reverse. This is what I did. Changing my license and health card took five minutes, but changing everything else is a bit of headache. There was a new email address sent to contacts, which annoys me just thinking about it (I've always groaned when friends change their details because I'm terrible with following through with these details). I can change my name at the bank but need about ten documents to do so (haven't done that yet). The HR department at my job is rolling its eyes at me, since this change requires action across a few different university systems. But you know what? I want my name changed enough to deal with all the headaches, annoying as they are. I like it when one of us calls out our name and we all come running, because it is the name we all share.

Giving in

But I know Stacey's comments are more about understanding my choice within the context of feminism. Stacey and I are friends and she knows that I come to many things from a feminist perspective. Here are her comments about making choices as a feminist:

[I]t's reassuring to me somehow to know you're conflicted about it Danielle! :) We are *all* walking contradictions, and being a feminist doesn't mean you have to be "pure". But at the same time, the fact that we "choose" something doesn't make it feminist. Sometimes feminists are going to capitulate to the patriarchy because it makes their lives easier in some way -- our culture makes it a struggle to resist the patriarchy and rewards us richly for conformity. And so we all choose to capitulate in one way or another -- I shave my legs because I don't want to feel self-conscious and have people staring at me. It doesn't make me less of a feminist.

Each of us has to figure out how to best navigate our lives in a sexist culture, and sometimes we're going to resist and other times we're going to capitulate. We definitely don't need to be beating ourselves up over it, but at the same time let's not kid ourselves: shaving our legs (or changing our names) *is* a capitulation to the patriarchy. That's cool. We don't have to fight everything all the time. If you'll excuse me now, I'm going to go upstairs and re-do the nail polish on my toes.

Is changing my name necessarily a capitulation? This is what's got me thinking the most, but let me get back to this in a moment. First, I agree with Stacey that couching a decision as feminist simply on account of having made a choice between different options (my name, his name, a hyphenated name), doesn't work for me. Feminism has given (and keeps on giving, let's not forget) a lot of things, but the range of choices facing women today on account of feminist activism is about specific rights, dignities, and freedoms, not about a general ability to choose. Yes, feminism has widened the choices women make, but it isn't as relative as some might think. The choices women make are complicated, of course, but they are not feminist decisions simply on account of being made. Sometimes I hear women defend choosing a particular decision by declaring that even though it might not look like a feminist choice (because it might go against a common feminist position on work or health, for example), the content of the decision doesn't matter because it was the choice itself that was valuable (privileging the act of choosing over the actual choice itself). I don't see my own decision to take my husband's name as our family name in this light. If feminism is only the choice itself than it loses its sense of urgency, its game plan. But let me explain some more.

If you are a feminist, do all decisions need to be feminist ones? Does this decision in particular need to be feminist? Patriarchy is certainly behind women losing their own family name when they marry. Marriage started out entirely as a religious event for most people in the world, and if my long, long, long years spent in academia have taught me anything, it's that patriarchy loves religion. It loves to divide women and men along their gender lines and often arranges them hierarchically. Religious marriage has historically been a process by which men acquire a wife, and even if many people no longer understand marriage this way and relinquish any desires of "acquiring" anyone, I don't think we can entirely distance ourselves from this history. (In many ways I have little interest in distancing myself from this history because I married Matt in a traditional Jewish wedding celebration with no pretense of stepping beyond history, though we did take steps beyond tradition with some of our ritual choices. And the knowledge that the only thing we were "acquiring" was each other's student debt. While it was very important to both of us that our marriage be rooted in traditional Judaism, we certainly understood our relationship in the context of our other values, like feminism, for me. But this will have to wait for another post.)


Do feminists only make feminist choices?

Stacey suggests that navigating a sexist culture involves resistance and capitulation. Am I capitulating to a patriarchal institution? I guess I am. My primary reason for changing my name is that I felt left out of the party, the odd woman out. I was tired of reminding people--at Alyce's school, at the doctor's office, on the bus when that woman told me there was no way that these blonde children were mine-- that yes, I was a part of this family, too. The truth was that not everyone was playing by the same rules. I am well aware that our culture is structurally designed to privilege not only a particular kind of gender roles, but a particular kind of family as well. This family has a mother, a father, and the same last name. Feminism has led the way in critiquing this status quo, in part by making the bold suggestion that women aren't required to buy in to the traditional understanding of marriage and family, and this has helped other critiques develop and to support a new definition of family. So yes, I am conflicted by my own decision to reach back to a tradition I am grateful that feminism helped to dismantle. I admit that changing my name makes me fit better within a system stuck in an old structural model.

What catches me is that my original decision to keep my previous name was most definitely a feminist one. I was choosing to value a woman's right, my right, to maintain my independence as an individual. I understood my decision to keep my original name as a public commentary on how I thought marriage ought to be understood-- the joining together of two people, equal before all. It was a non-issue for the both of us. But now, five years later, as I've come to regret my original decision and change my mind, taking Matt's last name does not feel feminist. What I'm struggling with now, having considered Stacey's comments, is trying to figure out if it doesn't feel feminist because it stands against feminism (or disagrees with feminism, which sounds nicer), or if it doesn't feel feminist because I didn't give feminism a role in the decision making. The distinction is important to me and it's something I don't have an answer to yet.

I'm not apologizing to feminism for my decision. Whereas I never would have imagined that I would "give in" to the status quo, I also never would have imagined what it would feel like to have a family, to have a partner and two little girls standing next to me. The world looks different from here and that's ok. While the act of choosing my husband's name as our family's name, myself included, might not be a feminist decision, it remains a part of a larger feminist conversation nonetheless. Frankly, I don't know how to engage with the world otherwise. I am coming to understand that I can redefine my boundaries of feminism as it continues to change and adapt. I am also confident that my marriage to Matt reflects the part of feminism I have always adored. We treat each other with respect and kindness and define our roles based on our mutual needs, not on according to any predetermined structure. Our daughters will grow to see both traditional and non-traditional roles in our family (I build stuff, Matt does the laundry; I light the Shabbat candles and Matt teaches the girls Hebrew). They will learn to respect themselves, their bodies, and the dignity of all people. That we will do all of this under my husband's name troubles me not at all.

I love that Stacey's comments have challenged me to think more critically about all this. Mostly I love that she celebrates the complicated, even in her critique. I also found (via Cup of Jo) a wonderful site that collects peoples' reflections on why they did or did not change their name in marriage. Read more about The Last Name Project over at The Feminist Mystique.

Thanks for your comments, Stacey!

1 comment:

  1. You and your friend have raised some very thought-provoking points. I grew up not really thinking about the feminist implications of whether or not to change my name to my husband’s. My mother had done it without a second thought, but I’ve always seen her being very much her own person. I like to look at it more as SHARING the name than TAKING it. Marriage is sharing your lives together, after all, so why not the names as well? Still, if it is against your own principles and beliefs, then no one can force you to change if you don’t want to.