Girls and women are still under tremendous pressure to define themselves and their public identities relationally, in ways that men aren’t.
Last year, after a seven-hour drive with a carful of children, I arrived at a hotel where, despite having used my credit card to secure a room, I could not check in. We were traveling with a sports team, and the person who made arrangements listed the reservation as “Mr. and Mrs. My Husband’s Name,” even though he had nothing to do with making it and was not traveling with us. The agent, who could have chosen any number of words, despite the fact that I had the correct credit card, actually said, “Your husband needs to give his permission before I can allow you to check in.” The children scattered for cover. He was adamant. For six minutes. In the wake of a detailed history of conservative gender norms, women as property, quietly tolerated sexism, and a elaborate vision of an online customer review, he let me check in.
Women who keep their names are part of a distinct minority. A 2009 study examined 35 years of data and found that women keeping their own names peaked at 23% in the mid-90s, gradually declining to today’s estimated 8% and 10%. One bridal survey even found that one in five women seem to be replacing their names with men’s before they get engaged.
Girls and women are still under tremendous pressure—tacit or overt—to define themselves and their public identities relationally, in ways that men aren’t. It’s why we still have Mr. as the sole qualifying prefix for men, but Ms., Mrs. and Miss for women. Sixty percent of Americans think that women should take their husbands’ names, and more than 50% think it should be legally required.
Not only are men not expected to change their name, but they are stigmatized and shamed for doing so. Aside from the occasional article about why men should change their names, no one is suggesting that this is an issue that men truly consider. It’s what men do that matters, and what they do is a three-part equation.
One, how men feel about women keeping their names. An anonymous Men’s Health survey found that 63.3 percent of respondents would be very upset if their wives didn’t give up their birth names. As one so pointedly put it, even “hyphenation is a direct “f*ck you” to a man’s masculinity… it elevates his father-in-law’s manhood over his own.”
Two, how men (and others) feel about changing their own names instead. The same survey revealed that 96.3 percent wouldn’t change names if their wives-to-be asked them. Almost half (46.5 percent) of people surveyed think men shouldn’t take wives names and more than 30% strongly disagree with the practice.
Three, what men are able to do if they decide to change names. Only six states allow partners in heterosexual couples to change their name under equal conditions: Georgia, Hawaii, North Dakota, Iowa, Massachusetts, and New York. Laws, which vary state by state, actively discriminate against men, arguably violating their right to equal protection. The process for men is onerous, sometimes requiring court filings and fees, prolonged court engagements, even having to place an announcement in local media.
Proponents of women changing their names upon marriage have many compelling reasons: pride, family unity, commitment, and the fact that people think it’s easier if children come along. Some women just dislike their last names and prefer their spouses’. As Melissa McEwan put it, “Even though not every one of those conceivable choices is implicitly feminist, having a choice is evidence of feminism’s reach.” However, a decision that might be positive for individuals and representative of the fact that women can and should choose for themselves is still not automatically a decision that contributes to a more egalitarian society.
Any in-depth conversation about the incoherence of gender imbalanced expectations almost inevitably leads someone to biblical arguments, among which my two favorites are that “woman is to man as Christ is to God” and “Adam was given the right not only to name the creatures of the Earth, but Eve, too.” These beliefs, very much institutionalized in the way we organize labor, are based on the idea that only men can and should be people with their own rights, heads of household, wage earners, and leaders. This is, in religion, couched in terms of men and women having complementary roles—which, in any case, still also doesn’t require a woman to give up her name.
Male dominance, however, does. It’s the traditional organizing principle of Abrahamic religions. It is neatly articulated in Catholic dignity-of-women theories, evangelical “true woman” credos, and Mormonism’s Proclamation.
All told, the issue, so frequently and sloppily described in catfighting terms between two types of women and their right to choose, isn’t about family unity, ease, commitment, names, or even feminism and choice. It’s not even about women. The issue is supporting a culture that continues to centralize men, in this case prioritizing their names, and, in the process, extending patriarchal protection in the form of comforting, conservative, traditional gender roles. When same sex couples, now finally able to marry freely, choose one person’s name over another’s, the gender imbalance in heterosexual marriage expectations often comes into starker relief. When it comes to names, a rare upside in terms of the impact of the past, same-sex couples are free of the weight of history (which we are rarely teaching people).
The legal and socio-cultural background of the tradition isn’t particularly romantic. It is one of property rights—including rights to the woman herself. Names indicated whom a woman, and any property associated with her, belonged to. The rights of white women, and freed black women, in the 18th and 19th centuries, were directly tied to marriage and their names, which they were legally required to give up with their autonomy. Eventually, when women ceased themselves to be a form of property, women were required to give up their names in order to gain access to the most basic privileges, like having a driver’s license, true as recently as 1975.
These histories, attitudes, and legacies have long tails. Studies show men and women both assume that we aren’t as committed to our spouses, or as compassionate, as women who change their names. It’s an irritating and misleading false dichotomy with a long-tail. That mistrust of women who keep their names is an abstracted effect, but there are practical ones, too.
In addition to the routine time and money costs involved in changing a name, women voters, for example, encounter significant and substantive expenses in order to vote. An estimated 32 million women are currently affected. Interestingly, and somewhat ironic, conservative women most likely to be GOP voters might be the most affected.
A name, the first gift any human being is given, a “symbol of one’s self,” is important. If people claiming they believe in gender equality want meaningful symbols, then they should be egalitarian about creating them. As Jill Filipovic explained several years ago, when girls and women “see our names as temporary or not really ours…that impacts our perception of ourselves and our role in the world. It lessens the belief that our existence is valuable unto itself, and that as individuals we are already whole.”
This simple reality is rarely discussed with girls and boys growing up basted in Disney movies, religious mythologies, the canon of Western art, and a multi-billion dollar bridal industry, but it should be.
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.