Battlepanda: Naming trouble


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Naming trouble

I suppose there really are more important things in the world than this, but Matt Yglesias's recent post about women changing their names has touched off quite a lively comment section. Can you say flame bait?
For the record, I take an extremist line on this question. Adopting your husband's name isn't the worst thing in the world to do, but it's still wrong. And, no, feminism isn't all about choices. It's about equality. And, yes, given the historical dynamic changing names is often the individually rational thing to do in a self-interested sense.
Now, this really touches quite close to home since, not too long ago, the subject came up in my circle of friends from college and I realized to my surprise that most of my female ones are actually planning to change their name to their husbands after marriage. Now, I don't believe in censoring an individual for making the best choice for them personally, but I found it hard not to be disturbed that all those smart and successful women (all of them more accomplished than I) have decided to give up a part of their identity they have had since birth for the sake of name-uniformity in marriage. Individually, they all have good reasons for doing so -- many think about the children, and how awkward their name might sound doubled-barreled. Some simply doesn't think it's that big a deal. I have no problems with any individual changing their name to that of their partners, be they male or female. But a disturbing pattern starts to emerge when you realize that it always seems to be the woman that is expected to make this hobson's choice -- sacrifice your name for the sake of unity, or keep your individuality and be responsible for a (nominal) division in your family.

Understandably, many liberal women are very tetchy about the suggestion that they are bowing to societal pressure to change their name as opposed to making a free and personal choice. But for me, there's no way to separate where societal pressure ends and your free will begins in an intellectually honest way. I have heard many women who have changed or are changing their names say "it really could have gone either way...but my husband's name was shorter/more interesting/easier to pronounce." Since I have yet to hear a man who changed his name give this justification, I have to conclude that it is a comforting fiction for a woman to pretend that, had her surname been more melodious, her husband might have given up his name instead.

If you're interested in this issue at all, go to the comment strand and look out for comments by "Latts", "Dan Kervick" and Bitch. I think Latts summed up what I have to say much more elegantly in just one paragraph:
I don't think it's an issue of absolute right or wrong, but we might as well acknowledge that acquiescence to an outdated and generally unequal social standard perpetuates it, regardless of personal motivation.