The Politics of Taking, Keeping or Bestowing Your Name

A piece on Yahoo, “Hyphenated married name fight heats up on Facebook” by Janelle Harris for CafeMom’s blog The Stir, caught my partner Sally’s attention. The piece invokes feminist principles including calling out patriarchy as the problem, but the political act that the author is marshaling her arguments for is in my world view a pretty tepid one, though in the author’s it may seem pretty radical. The other aspect of this piece that caught Sally’s attention were the 2000 plus comments at the time (now more than 3100) that in engendered, with a wide spectrum of opinions.

Harris reports on a discussion with her male significant other in regards to the path forward toward their upcoming marriage…

Conversations with my man about our future always produce juicy material that I turn around and exploit for purely editorial — and, OK, sometimes basic entertainment — reasons. A recent chat about hyphenating my last name kicked up dust as we talked about my dreams of finishing (which means I’d actually have to start) my PhD within the next five years.

The first phrase of her opening paragraph sets that tepid tone in my opinion, as she refers to her future life partner as “my man”, which in my opinion is a kind of “men are from Mars women are from Venus” deference to the testosterone soaked part of his ego, and to me does not bode well for the future of any sort of real partnership between them.

Okay… so maybe you think I’m blowing that out of proportion.

My rule of thumb for evaluating terms used to describe men or women is a variation of the Golden Rule that is basically “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander”. If her fiancée wrote a piece on this topic and referred to her as “my woman” wouldn’t that sound kind of… icky… in a sexist sort of way?

What jumped out to my partner Sally immediately was that even though Harris was proposing keeping her birth surname as part of a new hyphenated one, this was yet another instance where the woman was changing her name and the man was not. That in fact was the overriding political act of the piece, confirming rather than really challenging male-centered patriarchal convention practiced for thousands of years since women managed to become men’s chattel.

But even Harris’ mild break with orthodoxy ran afoul of her intended mate…

Boyfriend 4.0 jutted his bottom jaw, something he does when he’s about to serve up a verbal smackdown… Seems he takes offense to the idea of me tacking his last name on to the one I already have. The move — according to him — says I’m wishy-washy about my commitment and (gasp) that I’m not ready to leave my family and be a wife.

If it were me I’d certainly be getting wishy-washy about my commitment to this marriage. To continue the computer software metaphor… seems to me version 4.0 is still a little “buggy”! Harris might want to wait for version 4.1 to be released or looking at the other choices before making a buy decision.

And again her whole description about his “men are from Mars” jutting of his jaw seems to me more appropriate to describing a prize pet than a life partner.

Guess I should be confessing my biases here because Harris’ piece is apparently pushing my buttons.

I was raised by egalitarian progressive parents and in particular by a circle of feminist women mentors (my mom and her closest friends, see my piece “My Feminist Aunts”) during my teen years. After moving to Los Angeles as a young adult, I became a full-blown feminist activist in my own right, working as a volunteer and then paid organizer for the National Organization for Women (see my series of pieces beginning with “Once More in the Company of Women”), which is how Sally and I met each other.

After being comrades for two years and a couple for a third, she and I decided to become life partners. After further negotiations, we decided that to have our families fully recognize our partnership and to facilitate raising a family (should we decide to do that as well), we would follow the convention of getting married. We had to assure ourselves that participating in this traditional institution would not somehow undermine our full partnership. (That perhaps sounds a bit grandiose now, but at the time it seemed like a critical issue for me!)

From the beginning of the marriage conversation we both assumed that neither of us would change our name. I certainly would not have wanted my soon to be spouse pressuring me to be something other than the person I was growing into since my birth, along with the name that was associated with that person. So by the principle of the Golden Rule (applied to the goose and gander) how could I even conceive of doing that to her? It was a good sign for the future of our life partnership that we both felt the same way. I think either of us might have reconsidered the union if the other was not unequivocal about keeping their birth name.

The bigger discussion for us was about the last names we would give to the two kids we decided to have. There were four options discussed – giving them both my last name, giving them both our hyphenated last names, giving one my last name and the other hers, or giving them both her last name. The key thing to note here was that we had the discussion and that as they say, “All options were on the table”. To the option of giving the kids our hyphenated last names (Rosloff-Zale or Zale-Rosloff) we agreed those combinations did not have much of a ring to them.

I was the one that suggested that we give them her last name, because she (unlike me) had a big connected extended family using her last name. A family that acknowledged that due to the peculiarities of how Eastern European names were torqued at Ellis Island, everyone they met with the name spelled “Rosloff” was probably a relative. I suppose that lack of a connected “Zale” family could have been a reason for giving them that surname, but neither my dad or I had had any kind of connection to any older generations of “Zales”. (I have no indication of being connected to the jewelry store owners!)

After further discussion between Sally and I to make sure we were sure, we decided to go with the most unorthodox and provocative option. So unorthodox and provocative apparently, that my feminist mom objected when we announced that we were naming our first kid with my mom’s birth surname as his middle name and Sally’s as his last. Upon hearing this and riffing on the Johnny Cash song, she wrote me in a letter, “Would you name your boy ‘Sue’?” (See my piece “A Boy Named Sue”.) Always conscious of the political dimensions of all life decisions, she made the argument that our Eric might be teased by schoolmates and feel disrespected by his dad by not sharing his dad’s last name. Like I had learned to do with my strong-willed parent, I listened to her argument, considered it, then made up my own mind.

So getting back from that confess-your-bias digression to the Yahoo piece, Sally and my bottom lines are that social convention be considered but not automatically trump other considerations. These sorts of decisions around the marriage partnership, if it is truly a partnership, ought to be made with full transparency of all the options and arguments and the unequivocal consent (and not just accommodation) of both parties. Given that context, a spectrum of couples will make a spectrum of choices.

According to the statistics quoted by Harris, our society probably still has a way to go getting to that spectrum of choices…

According to the recently released 2010 Real Weddings Survey from The Knot, only 6 percent of newlywed women opted to hyphenate their names — the same number reported on the stats from the year before. Responses from the roughly 20,000 brides polled overwhelmingly favored taking their hubby’s name, to the tune of 86 percent.

Doing the math, I presume the bulk of the remaining 8 percent of women (like Sally) kept their birth names.

What percent of men do you think changed their names when they married? (There is at least one famous example to a degree… I believe that John Lennon changed his name to John Ono Lennon when he married Yoko Ono.)

It is also pretty rarely that we hear of another set of parents giving their kids the mom’s last name.

If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then Sally and I are apparently from a galaxy far far away.

12 replies on “The Politics of Taking, Keeping or Bestowing Your Name”

  1. I kept my surname when we got married. We weren’t coming from the same place of radicalness as you (I pretty much told my husband I was keeping my name and waited for him to come around. He agrees with feminism, but his gut reaction is to align with social conventions sometimes). I do not regret it, and honestly it feels so natural to do it that way that I struggle to relate to the Yahoo article and remember that, oh yeah, that is controversial sometimes.

    No idea what we’d do with kids’ surnames. I prefer a hyphenation, because our surnames are so common there is little reason to presume they were his, let alone mine!

  2. I’m all for both people changing their name to reflect the new stage of life and the blending of two histories. I would feel equally oppressed/ignored if my partner flat out refused to entertain the idea of changing his/her name if the relationship came to marriage. But, that’s just me. I think the important thing is both partners are on the same page and neither is sacrificing or compromising more than the other.

    Great piece!

  3. I’ve always been fascinated by family history and researching the old family tree. I also spent time in the military, where my last name became my everyday name. When I met my now-husband in the National Guard, we knew each other by our last names – it took a few months of living together before it felt natural to say his first name. 🙂 So we kept our names our own – they are important parts of who we each are as people, and reflect the families we come from. For our kids, we agreed that boy children would have his last name, and girl children would have my last name. Luckily, we had one of each. 🙂

  4. Sara… thanks for sharing your story. That approach makes a lot of sense. The name you are given as a child, if well thought out and meaningful, becomes a key part of who you are. That said, I can see other people maybe looking for the opportunity or excuse to change their name, and I suppose getting married (if you are a woman) is one such opportunity. But the fact that men almost never change their name when they marry casts a different context on the whole thing.

  5. Christine… thanks for sharing as well! I think there can be a certain powerful symbolism of joint partnership in a hyphenated name, particularly if the two combined names are not to long and flow well together. Of course if a couple each with hyphenated surnames marry each other, then further hyphenation becomes really awkward.

  6. Thanks Sara… the whole naming process often has religious rituals around it, but only the first time a person is named on or around their birth. Maybe we could develop new rituals around renaming when one came to adulthood or partnered.

  7. I knew some people who, when they married, they both gave up their names and picked a new, unrelated name. They each liked the new name so much that after the divorce they each kept it.
    I’ve been saying for years that I think when two people get married they should take whichever name is easier to spell and pronounce, because after a few generations all names would be easy to spell and pronounce. 🙂 (I’d make an exception for Smith or Jones….)
    When we got married my spouse said she’d take my name, but never really did, except at church. Because my name is easier (it’s Cooper). But we are both female, so the male chauvinism thing doesn’t apply.

  8. Kim… Thanks for sharing your story! I think this whole new era of same-sex marriage is going to highlight the name change issue more. Same-sex couples don’t have an existing entrenched convention regarding changing names upon their union. It may put more of a focus on that convention in regards to the union of different-sex couples, and perhaps call into question the traditional “path of least resistance” of women changing their names and men not changing theirs.

  9. I know of two Boomer-aged professional couples where both spouses have hyphenated names: in one case, they are both X-Y; in the other, the wife is X-Y and the husband is Y-X!

    While I like the idea of an entirely new name for both partners/spouses, this may create confusion for future generations (if any).

    I’m generally in agreement with “Sara.” Married in midlife, I kept my own name. This was not an issue for my husband, but I wonder what we would have done if we’d wanted children: I probably would have stated the case that girls should have my name (with his as a middle name), and boys should have his name (with mine as a middle name). His name is relatively common and mine is somewhat uncommon, so this could have been a factor. Also, I really like a few ancestral names on both sides, some for historic reasons and some for purely aesthetic ones: maybe we would have changed our entire family name to one from family history!

    Does anyone know what adult children with hyphenated names generally choose to do when they become partners/spouses?

    When same-sex couples have a child with one partner as a biological parent, it makes sense to give the child the biological parent’s name.

  10. UUnderstand… Thanks for the comment! Yours is a good question about what people given hyphenated names do when they partner and have families. And now with same-sex couples, as you indicated, it is a whole new ball game. The bottom line is being thoughtful rather than knee-jerk about this and other societal conventions… do what works!

  11. I kept my name – it is unusual, and I had a professional license. When we had kids, we were going to all use my name. But my in-laws objected rather vehemently and we went with hyphenated names for the kids. The first figuring out, which we let the kids do themselves, was how to write-down your initials. They basically keep the 2 last name initials together (3 or 4 total letters depending upon the middle name inclusion). The other interesting aspect is the hyphen. Some computer entries will accept it, and others won’t. Since neither has married, we have no idea how they will handle the, “it’s already a long name, do we want it to be longer?”, question. (Please ignore all punctuation issues.) It also leads to some interesting assumptions about whether it is a first and last name, rather than just a long last name.

  12. Jay… thanks for sharing your story. It adds to the spectrum of all the possible scenarios and outcomes. As I said in my piece, we gave our kids my partner’s last name, and my mom, ardent feminist tho she is, raised an objection to that. My relationship with my mom was such that I could acknowledge her disagreement, consider her argument, and make my own call, which was to stick with my partner’s last name.

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