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    Tuesday, February 07, 2006

    What's In a Name; And Does "Choice" Feminism Include a "Right" Choice?

    Yesterday, in my post about housework, I discussed my vision of "choice feminism":

    That's feminist ethics to me. When you can choose, choose the liberatory choice for other women (and men). When you can't, we're not gonna get mad at you for it, because we get it.

    What I meant was that some women have more options (legitmately and undangerously) available to them. Those of us with more options must realize that there are values attached to our choices, these choices are not all equal in their "feminism" just because we chose them as individual women. But there shouldn't be any shame in making choices that don't necessarily have liberatory potential. That's sort of the neutral level and, yes, you do get some extra feminist points for pushing a bit beyond the status quo. I believe this strongly and apply it to the issue of names.

    (Names have serious racial, ethnic, and class connotations, as well as gendered ones beyond the realm of what I discuss here. Here, I am only talking about choices made in partnerships over which name and which partner changes it.)

    Jill Feministe takes on names in a few ways, most particularly as naming relates to marriage bonds. She references this article from the NYU newspaper on the "surge" of women taking their husbands' names and this article on making up shared family names in NYT's Sunday Styles (where else?).

    Jill: The point is, names matter, and while I don’t have a problem with the idea of a married couple sharing a last name, the fact that it’s always the woman who is expected to give up her name — and that it’s discussed in terms of “giving up” and “taking” — says something. Which is why I think Judy Rudoren’s idea is pretty novel: She and her husband enjoy the benefit of sharing something as intimate as a last name, but one party isn’t bestowing it on the other — they’re creating it together. While there may be something to be said for “carrying on the family name,” for me, making something just for the two of you and your future family to share is more of a draw.

    I have to say that something about the whole making-up-of-a-name issue, as it is usually explained (we don't want our kids to have a different name), may sound radical, but is indeed not so much. There are few reasons why.

    The alleged need to "share" a name with your partner may have some romance to it (and I'm unfortunately quite the sucker for that) but its roots are obviously in a tradition of legal marriage as the ultimate validation for pair bonds. Two people in a relationship must prove their feelings for each other to everyone else by sacrificing some vestiges of individuality under the law? Maybe that's okay for some people; I do think that sacrificing some vestiges of individuality in fact comes with the territory of committed long-term partnership.

    Why should your child share your name? This is probably most important when the child is of a different race (or appears to be of a different race) from her/his parent. So, the parent in this situation can be forgiven for trying to forge a public connection to her/his child, as their relationship will be consistently misunderstood.

    But it is for this reason, among others, that sharing a family name is problematic. It makes assumptions about the nature of family. For one, that in a "real family," every member is biologically tied and has been together since the birth of the youngest member. It also assumes patriarchy: though Joan Rudoren and her husband changed their names together and their children will be wearing a last name that is basically an amalgamation of their former names, most people who didn't happen to read her article in the New York Times will assume that she took her husband's name and that the children are named patrilineally. Her choice to do this actually makes her part of an overall pressure on women to take their husbands' names.

    Certainly, I prefer that Ms. Rudoren made the choice she made over taking on her husband's name, no question. But, as a heterosexually-partnered (MARRIED) middle-class (at least) woman who is thus far without children, Rudoren was in a position to make just about any choice on this issue and her choice, particularly as a semi-public person, would make a difference. She chose to inscribe her "family" in traditional heterosexual, biologicalized matrimonial ways, despite her radical agenda. I don't think what Ms. Rudoren did was wrong, by any stretch of the imagination. I'm not judging her. I am glad she and her husband made the choice that they felt most comfortable with.

    I also feel strongly that, if two people in a heterosexual pair feel they must share a name, it should be a given in "feminist"-identified partnerships that the male partner changes his name. Why? Because, despite the concerns I have above about people sharing names, it changes a power balance more dramatically than having both partners change. It means that the male partner is the one "giving up". Eventually, I hope neither partner in any partnership feels s/he must "give up" "their name", but, given the current climate, things would be better off going the other way.

    In general though, I'm glad that people are thinking through the naming issue in their own relationships and determining how important it is to them to share names with people they call their "family".

    I found Matthew Morse's suggestion interesting:

    The other option that appeals to me is that both people keep their own names and adopt the other name when it’s contextually appropriate. If Joe Brown marries Jane Smith, when they go to his company holiday event they go by Mr. and Ms. Brown, but at hers, they go by Mr. and Ms. Smith. I suspect this idea would work better in the abstract than in practice, and leaves questions like what to name the children.

    And zuzu had this to add:

    Thing is, there are ALL KINDS of naming traditions. You have your nuclear-family traditions, you have your peerage traditions, you have the Latin-American/Spanish model, you have the Chinese model, where it seems that the women don’t take the men’s names on marriage, but the kids take the father’s name, you have the Scandinavian model, which is actually quite recent. I mean, isn’t Bjork’s last name Gudmandottir, indicating that her brothers would be Gudmansons? And all of your Mc and Mac names are “son of” — so at one point, Kenzie MacDougal’s son would be Ian MacKenzie. The family name, then, was less important than the clan name, which is what eventually took over as family name.

    Indeed, there are plenty of places in the world today where family connections are known yet nobody uses family names. And given that many family names are descriptive, either of trade or place — mine means “sea warrior,” apparently — how important could it have been to have family names from the start?

    This also brings up an issue about ethnic identity. Are we okay with this idea of co-mingling names if it strips both names of their ethnic connotations? Is this assimilation better? And, if one partner takes the name of the other partner, and their ethnic backgrounds differ, is there an argument that perhaps one ethnicity is somehow more valuable for conserving than another? And how does the adoption of an "ethnic" name that does not correspond to "biological realities" of ethnicity intervene (or not) in the biologicalizing of race and ethnicity? Does it, in some way, mean we expect women to be less tied to their born-ethnic community than men? Or does the fact that the origins of women-taking-husbands'-names came from a time of assumed intra-group marriage nullify that argument?


    Blogger Omnipotent Poobah said...

    Interesting post.

    I used to work with a woman who decided not to take her husband's name. They were both OK with that, but apparently the woman's mother wasn't. To this day she continues to send all mail to her daughter addressed with the woman's "married" name.

    As for my wife and I, she opted to take my last name, not because she was all that traditional, but because she hated her father and had been looking forward for years to dump his name.

    Me, I'm OK with it either way.

    2:05 PM  
    Blogger EL said...

    As for my wife and I, she opted to take my last name, not because she was all that traditional, but because she hated her father and had been looking forward for years to dump his name.

    Yeah, I've heard a lot of women feel this way and I'd put them in the camp of people who have fewer options. It may sound strange, but I actually don't associate my last name with my dad; I feel complete ownership of it even though, technically, neither of us has as much ownership as a likely Ellis Island clerk back in the day, but ... I don't know. It feels "mine". I have no idea what it would feel like to have a last name you felt belonged to someone you hated.

    2:18 PM  

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