Much to their social circle’s confusion, Hugo Schwyzer’s tough-as-nails feminist wife insisted on taking his last name once they were wed. The fact that she chose an outdated tradition wasn’t necessarily a feminist move, but the fact that she made that choice entirely for herself was.
“You know I’m taking your name, right?”
It was July 2004. A few hours earlier, I’d gotten down on one knee and proposed to Eira, the amazing woman who is now my wife. We were out at an elegant restaurant, celebrating our engagement, when my new fiancée let me know in no uncertain terms she’d be changing her last name to mine after we were married.
Eira is my fourth wife. My first three wives (it gives me no pleasure to type those words) were as different as could be, but they had one thing in common: They all kept their surnames after we wed. I had never asked any of them to consider taking my name. I wouldn’t have dreamed of it; I took my first women’s studies course shortly before I started dating wife #1, and started teaching women’s studies at Pasadena City College while engaged to wife #2. Whatever the other shortcomings in my feminism, I was darned clear that it would be grotesquely inconsistent to ask any woman to give up her name for mine. Raised by a divorced feminist mom who often remarked that she’d regretted taking my father’s name, I grew up enchanted (obviously) by the marriage ideal—but not by the idea of a woman surrendering her surname.
Fortunately for all concerned, my first three marriages produced no children. Alyssa and Elizabeth, my first and third spouses, had each expressed a desire to give any future kids hyphenated last names. My second wife Sara and I had another idea; we’d gotten married in 1994, the same year a young local politician named Antonio Villaraigosa was elected to the state legislature. On our honeymoon, we read an article about him and learned that his last name was a fusion of his birth surname (Villar) and his wife’s (Raigosa). No hyphen, just something altogether new. Sara loved the idea; I thought it was both very romantic and feminist. But we couldn’t figure out how to put “Griggs” and “Schwyzer” together. Griggzer? Schwyziggs? We decided to leave it for when we had kids.
Divorce came sooner.
Sitting in that restaurant, I asked Eira if she only wanted to take my last name to distinguish herself from the choices of my first three wives. Whoops. My fiancée’s dark eyes flashed angrily. “They have nothing to do with this,” she said; “this is what I want, and it’s what I’d want just as much if I were marrying a man who’d never been married before.” Eira explained that for her, getting married without taking my name would feel like “hedging bets.” When I protested that that was unfair to the legions of people who manage to make enduring commitments while keeping separate names, she nodded. “I agree,” Eira said. “But I’m not judging anyone else’s relationship. I’m not doing this because I have to, or because my family expects me to. This is what I want. For me.”
My fiancée’s annoyance softened, and she grinned mischievously. “So, Mr. Feminist Professor, looks like you’ve got a real dilemma. Isn’t feminism about empowering women to choose what they desire? Wouldn’t it be totally hypocritical for you to talk me out of what I want?
I was speechless.
Eira is an extraordinary woman. Raised in poverty, the daughter of an illiterate single mother from Colombia, my wife was the first in her family to graduate college. A high school soccer star, she’d lost an athletic scholarship thanks to a torn ACL—and then used the money she made as a Ford model to pay her way through USC. By 23, she’d become a successful business manager in the entertainment industry. Eira was—and is—tough as nails, a feminist through-and-through. And she wanted to take my name.
As we talked over dinner, Eira made it clear that taking my name was her personal choice. She didn’t believe that this was something every married woman “ought” to do. At the same time, she rejected the idea that, as she put it, “I should be forced to keep using my father’s last name out of feminist principle.”
What Eira helped me realize was an important distinction. There’s a difference between a feminist act and something a feminist can do without losing her feminist credentials. In other words, there was nothing inherently feminist about Eira’s desire to take my name. At the same time, it would be absurd to say that all that my fiancée had fought for in her personal and political life would be rendered meaningless if she became a Schwyzer. Eira knew full well that her reasons for wanting to take my name were at least partly rooted in the patriarchal ideals with which she’d been raised. But she trusted herself—and her fiancé—enough to believe we could create something that was both similar to and radically different from the traditional marriages she’d seen growing up.
One of the unhappiest aspects of the last name debate is that most defenses of one’s own choices end up sounding like harsh judgments of other’s different decisions. Many of those who do defend the traditional practice of having a woman take her husband’s name suggest that to keep separate names indicates a lack of unity. That’s obviously unfair: Commitment has far more to do with devotion than nomenclature. At the same time, my wife regularly encounters pushback from women and men alike who are astonished at her decision to take my surname. Just last month, at a party, an acquaintance of ours gaped in astonishment upon learning that Eira was a Schwyzer too. “But you seem so independent,” she gasped. My beloved cocked her head to one side, took a deep breath, and firmly set the woman straight.
There’s a lot to criticize about a simplistic “I choose my choice!” feminism. Our choices are never made in a vacuum; rather, they are mediated by a host of complex—and frequently sexist—cultural influences. This is why we should always discuss options and explore alternatives. At the same time, however, we can’t fall victim to analysis paralysis. We can’t live out our inherently messy private lives in perfect political consistency.
In the end, of course, the strength and equality of a marriage isn’t defined by the surname issue. There’s no evidence that heterosexual marriages in which a woman doesn’t take her husband’s name are more egalitarian. Antonio Villaraigosa (now mayor of Los Angeles) may have fused his name with his wife’s, but that didn’t stop him from cheating on her in a series of well-publicized affairs that ended in divorce. His modernity was, it turned out, superficial; in his private life, he was that most familiar of figures, a philandering political husband.
I’ll be honest: If I’d had my way, my wife wouldn’t have taken my last name. But I figured out quickly that Eira felt far more strongly about the issue than I did. For a host of reasons rooted more in sentiment than politics, this was a deal-breaker issue for her. As Eira pointed out, while her desire to take my name might not have been particularly feminist, it would have been even less feminist for me to insist that she keep hers.
In the end the fact that she chose was modern; what she chose wasn’t. Whether there’s any inconsistency there is the sort of thing feminists can and will continue to debate for years to come.
Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.