Since entering my late twenties, my Facebook feed, and general social life has been inundated with a series of articles and questions shaming me for whatever it is that I am doing as a woman. And there is a difference between close friends asking about my life and random people I don’t know thinking my body and life is somehow public property. People keep asking me to justify my choices while I’m just trying to get some froyo and do my grocery shopping. And if it’s not enough that I have to justify to the people that don’t think my choices/ behavior/demeanor / attitude /intelligence are appropriately femininely, I have to justify them to the people who seem to think a gold star gets handed out every time you make some choice that defies gender stereotypes, authentically or no. So I’m a very bad feminist when I bake cookies, but if I do physics, I’m going to die alone or something. Damned if we do and damned if we don’t. So I was originally going to keep my mouth shut about one of the choices I didn’t want to have to talk about, but then articles telling me that I was letting my husband oppress me because I took his name kept popping up in my feed and being real seems to be the only way to ever to get people to stop asking prying questions.
So yes, I did take my husband’s last name when I got married. No it’s not because I don’t care about feminism.
The reason I took my husband’s last name is because I grew up in the kind of home where no one knows who your siblings are because you all have different last names, and the first day of school is always torturous because someone inevitably reveals that fact the minute your name is called, which is sort of like wearing a badge that says, “broken home” on it. The person whose name is listed on my birth certificate once held a gun to my head while I was an infant, so I could continue to bear the name of my very real oppressor or I could change it. So I did, at the end of college. But it never felt right, because it didn’t solve the problem of my feeling somehow separate from the people I called family because my last name happened to be different. So when I got a shot at a fresh start and a new name, I took it. I took it even though I read those articles and even though I’ve read a lot of feminist literature. Because for me, my last name has been a marker of oppression my entire life so I don’t have fond associations with it or a strong identity attached to it. It’s changed like six times in my life already because of re-marriages and such, whereas my husband feels extremely attached to his name.
The practical reality of the names is this: it actually really does make your life a lot more difficult to have a different name than the rest of your family, and when you marry you are creating a new family (and if you aren’t comfortable with that fact, know that the institution is not mandatory). Marriage itself has patriarchical roots, but most of us will do it anyway because we fall in love and because it has practical implications, like the fact that I can now visit my husband on his deathbed because I’m his wife and legally they can’t tell me no. Or the fact that we can’t be legally compelled to testify against each other when the inevitable purge happens.
You could just as easily take the women’s name, or if you are same sex, one side’s name, I don’t really care. Different cultures do it differently. And if hyphenating or making up a new name for your family works for you, that’s awesome, too, though I’ll ask you to consider what happens when two hyphens fall in love. This isn’t about my gender identity. My husband was attached to his name and I wanted to get rid of mine. So from the outside this looked like a very conventional and conservative choice, but it was rooted in several conscious decisions made between two free thinking people. We had long, thought out, adult conversations about it, like we do about all things because we are two smart and highly verbal people. If roles had been reversed, you’d talk about how progressive and cool my husband is (and believe me, he deserves it for a million other reasons).
Now some people keep their names for professional reasons and that’s cool, but I’ve already changed my names several times in life and I’ve found that people adjust. Plus that concern didn’t override the deep emotional concerns and practical concerns that have haunted me my whole life.
The point here is that institutions are fluid, relative and they mean whatever we decide they mean and in a pluralistic society, they will mean different things to different people at different times. My husband’s last name is not the symbol of oppression that my last name is because that’s how I’ve experienced the world. We should all come together and say, “sister, do you and I will back you to the end of hell and back” about literally every stupid thing we are going to get judged about. That would be true liberation and self actualization or at minimum it would cut down on the number of times people are rude and hurtful in social gatherings about things that are none of their business.
My name has changed. If for some reason, you don’t like using Mrs. Raffin, you may still call me Heather. Or the artist formally known as Ms. Charles. Oh Captain my captain is one I’ve always been fond of. Or Helessi which is obviously a combination of Khalessi and Heather. Whatever you are comfortable with.
I got married. I didn’t have a lobotomy.