So for everyone who isn't obsessively following me on Twitter, there was a Thing this weekend. And the Thing basically went like this:
Step 1. Jill Filipovic wrote a piece for the Guardian about women changing their names when they marry men. The title and subtitle of the piece were:
Why should married women change their names? Let men change theirs
Your name is your identity. The reasons women give for changing their names after marrying don't make much sense
Step 2. The piece was criticized online for obscuring common reasons why women make this choice, for treating women as a monolith, for failure to acknowledge the dangers some women face for being "out" as feminists, for eliding the fact that stated "reasons" for personal choices are frequently more complicated than that, for failure to recognize that demanding "sensible" reasons of marginalized populations can be an aggressive act, for focusing on womens' choices at all instead of on social pressures, for invisibling men who do try to change their name only to face legal discrimination, for centering the debate around white cis heterosexual women while obscuring large numbers of non-white cis heterosexual women, and for possibly sloppy statistics.
Step 3. Jill Filipovic posted a defense of her piece, in which she linked to an article by Kate Harding in which she unilaterally declared of feminist women who marry men and take that man's name for any reason that "it is just fucking reality that they made a non-feminist choice in that particular instance."
Which: No. NO. I don't know how to say it any more clearly than that. So I will instead point to my tweet from last night:
Saying OWN IT even louder does not make a position any less bullying, silencing, or invisibling. To the contrary, actually.
— Ana Mardoll (@anamardoll) March 9, 2013
Because that is what I believe. But this is not a post about that. That up there was just background. Because I want to talk about something else Kate Harding said in her post, something that I also do not believe, and it is this:
Oh, I know, I know, Jill’s piece was judgey and shamey and insensitive ill-conceived, and it’s really important that we maintain our focus on that, until we all get sick of talking about it again.
Nope. In addition to the fact that I disagree with all of that, I submit that it doesn’t matter one bit what Jill said, specifically, the other day. Because this conversation happens, in exactly this way, every time. No matter who starts it or how they frame it, the people who want to examine the persistence of this fucking canonical anti-feminist tradition are shouted down by women who took their husband’s names and thus don’t think this conversation is fair to them.
I am a woman who took my husband's name on marriage, and I am a woman who didn't feel the conversation this weekend was fair. But I am also a woman who thinks that it is absolutely possible to address this issue in terms of social pressures and kyriarchal mandates, and I think it's possible to address those things in such a way that we don't bully, silence, or invisible people in the process. And I would like to make an attempt to do that here.
So if I had a magical kyriarchy-cancelling wand (Kyriarchy-Expulso!), here are things that I would like to see happen, and which I say here as a starting point for a larger conversation that I think we should have about this issue.
It needs to stop being socially acceptable to judge peoples' names. Many people (though not all) put a great deal of time, effort, and consideration into their own names and into the names they choose for their children. Yet it is still considered socially acceptable for strangers to pass their judgment on those names after no more than a moment's consideration -- it's not difficult to find online articles decrying the names Apple or Siri, despite the fact that both were in use before the celebrity baby and iPhone app. Name-based bullying is also rife as part of our social and political discourse, such as the proliferation of Santorum jokes as seen in the last US presidential election.
This cultural acceptance of judging people -- loudly and publicly -- based on their names and the names they chose and the names they choose for their children just reinforces a lot of tension and anxiety around a decision (What should I call myself?) which can be deeply personal and should not be up for public debate. And as long as it continues to be socially acceptable to crack jokes and pass judgment on peoples' names -- particularly womens' names -- then we cannot be surprised when a hypothetical Laura S. Cox decides that she's had enough of "Laura Sucks Cocks" jokes and sees her husband's name as a refuge from bullying. The problem here isn't the name change, but the persistent social judging that made the name change overwhelmingly attractive.
It needs to stop being socially unacceptable to change a name. It may be considered socially acceptable in some places for white cis heterosexual women to change their name when they married, but that does not mean it is widely considered socially acceptable for anyone else to change their name for other reasons. And, indeed, as the Guardian article demonstrated, even the white cis heterosexual women can face public judgment for marital name changes. Which brings me back to the point that judging people for changing their names and evaluating their stated reasons needs to stop being an acceptable social past-time.
People can wish to change their name for a variety of reasons. They might feel that their birth name misgenders them. They might feel that their birth name is linked to a history of abuse that they wish to avoid being reminded of; for some victims of abuse, their birth name can be a trigger. Perhaps they feel that their birth name does not reflect their ethnic roots, and wish to undo a marital name change or anglicizing name change made by their parents or grandparents in a previous generation. They may simply feel that their name doesn't reflect who they are, or they may have religious reasons for changing their name. Really, there are about eleventy-billion good reasons why someone might wish to change a name -- and there are relatedly a lot of good reasons why that person might not want to have to continually justify and defend their name change.
The cultural disapproval of name changes -- people wide-spread refusing to use a new name, people demanding that the name change be justified and explained to their satisfaction, and people insisting that birth names are immutably part of someone's inherent identity even over that person's objections -- makes it that much more difficult for people who want to change their names to do so. As long as it continues to be socially acceptable to aggressively hector people about their name changes, it should not be a surprise that the people to whom a socially acceptable method isn't available don't change their names in large numbers while people to whom a socially acceptable method is available (i.e., white cis heterosexual woman) do change their names in larger numbers. The problem here isn't that white cis heterosexual women are taking their husbands' names; the problem is that they and everyone else are being systematically discouraged from taking a different name at any other time, should they so choose.
It needs to stop being legally difficult to change a name. Related to the social discouragement of name changing, there are legal hurdles in place for anyone wanting to change their name but who isn't a white cis heterosexual women recently married and willing to take her husband's name as the new name. Many states in the US treat name changes as attempts at fraud, and even an attempt at changing one's name can leave someone vulnerable to a criminal charge. Trans* persons can be denied a name change, even on blatantly discriminatory grounds. Gay and lesbian couples can be denied the right to change their names. Heterosexual married men can be denied the right to take their wife's name. Over and over again, we see that legal hurdles are specifically erected in order to prevent anyone other than white cis heterosexual married women from changing their names -- and even then, the range of options available in that case are fairly limited.
As long as it remains difficult to legally change a name in all cases except a handful of kyriarchal approved exceptions, we should not be surprised that the majority of name changes continue to take place under those kyriarchal-approved exceptions. The issue here isn't that those name changes are taking place so much as that no other changes are being made easily accessible. Once accessibility is increased for all people, then we have a greater chance of achieving name-change parity.
It needs to stop being socially unacceptable to reject the kyriarchy. Because names are so publicly visible, the act of changing (or not) one's name can have serious social consequences if the choice to change (or not) "marks" one socially as something undesirable in that community. Changing a name because it misgenders the owner can mark that person as trans*. Changing a name or names so that a gay or lesbian couple will have a shared family surname can mark the owner(s) as non-heterosexual. Changing a name for religious reasons can mark the owner as non-compliant with the local religious majority group. A man changing his name at marriage or a woman choosing not to change her name at marriage can mark the owners as feminist, liberal, or otherwise politically or socially unacceptable.
As long as we live in a society where name changes are given social and political significance, and where name-changing is considered worthy of note and commentary, then large groups of people will be faced with safety concerns surrounding any potential name-change discussion. People who feel compelled to cover their gender, sexuality, religion, and/or political leanings, will feel forced to take into account the impact a name-change (or a choice to not change their name) may have on their efforts at concealment.
I think it's tempting for some people to address this problem by declaring a moratorium on name changes. This would, at least, solve the problem faced by women who don't want to change their name on marriage but don't want to be unsafely outed as a feminist. But this rule -- no name changes, ever -- just makes it that much harder for people with legitimate name-changes to acquire and defend their name change. The trans* person who changes a misgendered name is all the more noteworthy in this system; the abuse survivor who changes a triggering last name is all the more questioned about his reasons for changing; the woman trying to escape a stalker is all the more easy to find when more hurdles are placed in the way of changing her name. And a name set in stone at birth is simply not desirable for many people who have -- and should need -- no greater reason than "I just don't care for this name".
There are a lot of things that can and should be said about how our society treats names and name-changes. And I think there are a lot of conversations that need to be had about this subject. But it is my opinion that this issue will be solved not on an individual-level, with white cis heterosexual women choosing whether or not to change their names, but rather on a larger social and legal level about individual rights to carry the name one wants without widespread social disapproval or legal hurdles being erected every step of the way and without the choice to change one's name being socially linked to marginalized groups who fear for their safety.
I think this is an important issue. I also think it matters how we frame it.