Monday, June 29, 2009

Proud To Wear His Name

This was how getting married was described in a recent radio program I listened to: The woman shows that she is proud to wear the man's name! He's worthy!

The comment was made by a man, but it sure has been the case in the past that becoming Mrs. John Smith was the culturally condoned dream of many little girls. Well, not to get married to the same John Smith, but to lose themselves in LOVE! To become invisible, except for the mention of who it is that they are wives to.

Writing about the topic of whether a woman should take her husband's last name or not is one of those feminist topics I have avoided, mostly because the discussion always divides into two streams:

Those who insist that anything less than keeping your own name is Letting Down Feminism and then those who explain, in great detail, why taking the husband's name is AOK, because their initial last name belonged to their fathers in the first place, so it's all patriarchy anyway. Then come all those practical problems of having more than one last name in the family and societal pressure on women to change their names and how it's important for HIS family that SHE changes her name and on and on and on. Add to that the problems of changing your name, of disappearing from the annals of history and on and on and on.

So if you want to start a feminist fight you can do it with this topic, because it pushes a lot of buttons about who is a good feminist and who is not and which topic is worth looking at and which is not. It's not an important topic, compared to many others that I could write about, but it does offer an interesting glimpse to the ahistorical nature of so much of feminism, ahistorical in an odd way.

To see what I mean, think of the arguments from those who are opposed to any change from the old usage of calling a married woman Mrs. Husband's First Name Husband's Family Name. Those are always about The Family, The Marriage and The Proper Role Of Wives (Not To Be Uppity Women).

The intention is to lump the last name choice together with all sorts of values and beliefs that in fact have little to do with the initial practice of 'disappearing' the woman in marriage. I argue this, because all those other values were quite well and alive before last names became that common, and they certainly have been well and alive in societies where the women didn't take their husband's last name at marriage. The historical meaning of this custom is something different. Or so I believe.

Another example of the ahistorical nature of this debate comes from within the feminist arguments over this topic, where the question is often seen as judging the independence of the woman's choice against some wider background of societally enforced rigid feminism or its opposite. This is an attempt to seek balance in the discussion, in ways which don't flow directly from the basic topic under debate. For example, one might argue that the whole family should take the man's last name, because women always know who their children are but the men need something external to tell the world that same fact. Or one might argue that feminism should let women choose without interfering in that choice or judging it, whether the choice goes one way or the other.

All this is ahistoric in an unusual way. At least I can't think of many other arguments where something so clearly linked to traditions is removed from them for the purposes of debates.

And what are those traditions? It seems to me that they are based on patrilocal marriage, the assumption that when a woman marries she leaves her birth family and moves in with her husband's family. In some ways she stops being a member of the former family and becomes a member of the latter family. Indeed, the traditional assumption that only men can continue the family line tells us how common this tradition has been. Add to that the introduction of last names for families of individuals, and you can see the logic behind all those Mrs. John Smiths.

Most women in the U.S. don't literally move in with their in-laws at marriage anymore. But the taking of the husband's last name is a metaphor for that. She now belongs not to the Joneses she was born among but to the Smiths she has married into. Thinking about the topic in this way suggests a different way of understanding why men are often (or so I have read) hesitant to drop their own family names at marriage. They are being asked to change families! Not just their last names but their family affiliations!

But this is exactly what women have been asked to do. Perhaps those women who defend their name change by stating how very much they dislike their birth families have a point?

Am I making any sense here? It's not that people are unaware of this history on a formal level but that the debate itself forgets about it and turns into a debate about feminism today and who it is who really forces women to take one name or another. I'm hunting the invisible elephants on the living-room sofas in many of these discussions, the ones which let us talk about France's burqa ban by completely ignoring Muslim men, for example, and their religious and family powers. Usually I don't see the invisible elephants on the first reading of some topic in which they hide, because we all have the same blind spots. I think we should point them out, even if they ultimately don't matter in the conversation.