the name game 2

In the English-speaking world, women traditionally change their last names to their husbands’ when they marry, though women keeping their maiden (or birth) names now make up a significant minority.

These are hardly the only options and there are different traditions around the world. A patronymic (or matronymic) name doesn’t get changed: in Iceland, if a man named Jon has sons, they get the last name Jonsson, and daughters get Jonsdottir. Muslim women traditionally keep their last names, but in light of European (and especially English) influence, it may actually be seen as more “modern” for a woman to change her name.

A last name expresses connection to a family group, but in this culture a woman doesn’t stop being a member of her birth family if she marries and/or changes her name. Does this mean that names are meaningless? No, but they express a different kind of affiliation.

When you have a choice of names, whatever you choose you will communicate something, and a name is part of one’s public identity so it makes a public statement. Name keepers are generally seen to be making a statement about modernity, feminism, and/or career, while name changers are seen to be making a statement about tradition, religion, and/or family and motherhood.

But these aren’t necessarily the reasons underlying any specific individual’s choice, which may be more idiosyncratic. Although feminism is important to me, the uniqueness of my name and my strong attachment to it felt like the single biggest factor for choosing to keep it. In contrast, an acquaintance (who I believe is also a feminist) was very keen to get rid of a name she found embarrassing.

People who agree with a woman’s choice are prone to assume that she shares their values, while those who disagree are likely to assume she rejects their values. Some people go even further, understanding a rejection of their values (any values, not just re names) to be an attack on those values. Because these values go to identity, people tend to get defensive and thus automatically look for reasons why the other person is wrong, which undermines rational consideration.

A branch of feminism critiques the tradition of changing names because it’s patriarchal and reflects a view of women as possessions of men with no independent identity, rather than the autonomous individuals we know ourselves to be. While history is very important, the meaning of a tradition that you choose to observe is what it means to you now. If a woman changes her name because it is her authentic choice, we can safely assume that she either rejects the property connotation or she feels comfortable with it for one reason or another (maybe she’s marrying her dom and it feels deliciously submissive). Autonomy means making decisions for yourself, and if women must keep their names in order to qualify as “feminist”, this simply exchanges male authority for female authority, and a woman’s individual autonomy is denied just as much under either system. To me, the true feminist approach is one that gives women a meaningful choice and honours their decisions.

I think boundaries have a role to play here. It’s important to understand that your choice is “your stuff” and other people’s choices are “not your stuff”. My choice is about me, not you, and vice versa. I’m a name keeper, so if you’re a changer, I may expect to find that we don’t have much in common — just like if I found out you were into jazz — but I’m willing to be proved wrong.

4 thoughts on “the name game 2

  1. I think that’s too tolerant by half. Being into jazz would be an absolute deal-breaker for me.

    But yes, I agree with you. This had enormous political significance a while ago, when it was really hard for a woman to keep her own name after marriage. But now it’s just a choice, it’s not so fraught with meaning. Feminism is about being able to make your choice and implement it, not following a new set of rules on what women should be doing.


    1. Good point: it isn’t just the meaning of traditions that may change, but the meaning of any act if the context is different. It really is the choice that’s important. By fighting for the right to keep one’s name, it imbues both keeping *and* changing with meaning; changing your name arguably has no personal meaning if you have no choice.

      Likewise, a mandatory system that, say, requires you to obey your husband and allows him to punish you if you don’t is sexist and oppressive. If it’s not the system and instead is freely chosen, it can be hot and fulfilling. I can’t see that a mandatory act can ever be especially fulfilling.

      As for the other issue, I don’t think I could ever have a relationship with a jazz fan – the tolerance only goes so far – but I could probably be friends with one. Who knows? Perhaps I am already and they just haven’t come out to me!


    1. Personally, I’ve never gotten any stick about keeping my name. Anyone who knows me well would have expected it, and people around here (though a bit to the right of me politically) tend not to stick their noses in.

      I know the phone book in Iceland is arranged first name first and though I haven’t had the opportunity to use one, it seems like it wouldn’t be a problem. The notion strikes me as kind of fun, actually. I don’t go in for hierarchy and almost always refer to people by first name, so that aspect of the informality of Icelandic culture suits me fine.


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