It’s that time again. The time where we get to discuss name changing, or not, from a feminist perspective (part of our ongoing series of posts on the subject). APW has a 100% feminist staff, but we have a pretty even mix between those of us who didn’t change our names (Maddie and me) and those who did (the rest of the crew). I would argue that this blend is pretty typical of the current young(ish) feminist generation. Because of that, I think it’s important to discuss why and how changing your name after marriage can be a feminist choice. And this post from Taylor Behnke puts name changing in a better feminist context than I’ve ever seen.
In about nine months I will celebrate my twenty-second birthday. Three days after that I will graduate college. That same day I will become completely financially independent from my parents for the first time. Three weeks later I will get married. Two weeks after that, I will (hopefully) start my first full-time “real world” job. Along with marrying what we now call young, I’m throwing myself into a pressure-cooker of big, weighty decisions, knowing I will come out the other side a newly minted independent adult woman.
So when it came to making the adult decisions surrounding my marriage, like changing my name, I didn’t want to be quiet about it. I talked to my fiancé, Luke, about what would become of our names after the wedding. When I expressed reservations about traditionally taking his name without thinking about why, he encouraged me to keep my given name if that would make me happy—but that wasn’t what I wanted.
See, with all the big rites of passage that I will participate in around the time of my wedding, I wanted a symbolic representation of the new person I will be on the other side. Plenty of cultures allow (or even require) people to assume new names upon rites of passage to mark their new identities (see Catholic Confirmations, Buddhist Shinbyu ceremonies, fraternity initiations, and so on).
I know many women choose to keep their given names because they feel that those names are tightly woven into their identities. But my given name almost feels like a cocoon I need to shed to feel truly independent and self-sufficient in this world. I’m going to be doing a whole lot of transcending in the months leading up to and after the wedding, while assuming a bunch of new identities—college graduate, wife, badass independent adult—and I want a new symbolic identity to match. Marriage just gives me a good legal excuse to do so.
So we talked. Would I come up with a new name just for myself? Would we combine our names to form a new one? Would we pick an arbitrary name for both of us? (I lobbied really hard for becoming Mr. and Mrs. Awesome, you guys, but it just didn’t stick with him.) Ultimately, I decided I wanted to share names with Luke, and he is quite attached to the name he has, so I’ll be taking his. I’m moving my current last name to the middle to carry that identity with me as well. Woo hoo! Choices that feel good for us! Success, right?
As it turns out, it did not quite work out hearts and rainbows from there. When I started announcing my decision to friends and family members, I took a lot of heat from some my fellow feminists. My future mother-in-law, who kept her maiden name, seemed disappointed in me. What I was doing totally negated my feminism and independence, people told me. To them, I was just implying that I belonged to a man, never mind that I got my current name from a man anyway. It really hurt, honestly, and I spent a lot of time second-guessing my decision. I tried to tell myself that Luke’s last name sounded weird with mine, that my current signature looks so perfect and I would never get it right with the new one. I tried to tell myself that if I was a good feminist I would keep my name, so that keeping one’s name would be more common. So that future generations of women—my future hypothetical nonexistent daughter, perhaps—could chose to do whatever they wanted with their names and other people wouldn’t question them.
Oh wait… so that they could chose to do whatever they wanted with their names and other people wouldn’t question them? What was I doing? I realized that in a subtle way, changing my name was a good feminist decision. I had to go with my original choice to take Luke’s name so that other people, either for or against name changing, could not pressure me (or my future hypothetical nonexistent daughter) out of doing what I truly wanted to do. Since that realization, I’ve tried to change the conversation around what I am doing with my name and why. When anyone gives me an opinion on what I should do with my name, or how I should configure it, I don’t even try to defend my decisions anymore. I just state clearly and assertively “Nope. You don’t get a say.”
Because really, names are just the containers in which we hold our identities—sometimes we find freedom in those containers changing shape, sometimes we take pride in them remaining steadfastly the same. But our names belong to us alone. My name is my name. I am the only one who has to live in it. I am the only one who gets to decide what it looks like, and what it means. You don’t get a say.
I’m excited for the months ahead. Turns out I am taking on my badass independent adult identity pretty well.
Photo of Taylor and Luke by: Emilia Jane Photography