What’s in a name? (A lot)

Since getting married, a lot of people have asked me if I feel “different.” I always say no. While my relationship feels a bit different, I am the same person I was before getting hitched. Yes, down to my name.
As I’ve written before, changing my name – even to a hyphenated last name – was never really an option for me. Didn’t want to do it. (So you can imagine my annoyance when I received this in the mail) I feel the same way about the ‘Ms.’ title. I’ve always used it, always will.
I’m thinking about this after reading Judy Berman at Broadsheet, who writes about how Time‘s Nancy Gibbs thinks that the “Miss, Ms. Mrs.” debate isn’t really necessary anymore.

Whether my children’s friends call me Ms. Gibbs or Mrs. May or any combination of the two, I view it as a sign of respect and don’t worry about the particulars. My husband never remotely suggested that he was bothered by my not taking his name; in fact, he’s accustomed to occasionally answering to Mr. Gibbs. My late father, a fine writer, thrilled to see that name in the pages of this magazine. All these identities are me: Ms. when I’m out slaying dragons, Mrs. when I’m in the company of those I love most, Miss when I want to stay home under the covers and daydream. Feminists a generation ago fought for the title and dreamed of Freedom and Choice and Opportunity; maybe the surest sign that they’ve won is not which title we pick, but that we can have them all at once.

But isn’t this the problem? That each title announces something specific about who we are, when the truth is every woman is more than the sum of her married or unmarried parts? Men are always ‘Mr.’, and in that way they’re always themselves. I understand the inclination to embrace all parts of yourself – but language matters, and titles that exist to categorize women by marriage don’t do women – or men! – any favors.

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139 Comments

  1. Mrs.s
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    When my husband and I were legally married I retained my surname. However, when we had our wedding ceremony a year later, I took on my husband’s name. Not because my original surname sounded weird, or was hard to misspell….but because..I wanted to. Simple as that. I don’t want to be told that I’m a bad feminist simply because I choose to do something that has it’s roots in a possibly twisted patriarchal history. I know that I am a great feminist, however, I am not going to live my life politically correct 24/7 just so I can conform to an ideal of what someone wants me to be.

  2. sangetencre
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    I concur with everything you say.
    Simple fact of life: not all our decisions are driven by feminism or enhance our feminism.
    At the end of the day, we must do what we must in order to be happy/fulfilled. Sometimes that means making decisions that please us which also coincide with patriarchal traditions. Sometimes it’s making decisions that please us that challenge patriarchal concepts.

  3. kandela
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Here’s a thought: Why can’t we come up with a title that applies equally to women and men?
    If we don’t want/need to know whether someone is married or not from their title, then why does their title need to indicate their gender?

  4. NellieBlyArmy
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Why are you demanding to know if you’re still a “good” feminist? Someone said that one choice you made is “relatively patriarchal.” That does not have to be commentary on your entire self. If you’re comfortable with your choice, fine, but that doesn’t mean other people can’t question it (and only it. Not you as a person).
    Furthermore, there is no such thing as “good” and “bad” feminists. JM certainly did not question your feminist cred, just the logic you put forth. To try and drag it there strikes me as a disingenuous tactic designed to dodge discussion. Instead of responding to her point (it’s not simply your father’s name, it’s also yours), you decided to play wounded and accuse feminists of being too rigid to accept you. That’s not what’s going on.

  5. sangetencre
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    I remember reading something on one of the many blogs I browse:
    You can control your actions. You can’t control how they’re perceived.
    Which is kind of the summation of this and many other feminist (or progressive) arguments, I think.
    No matter how much I examine a choice, think about it, debate it, consider other paths…when I make a decision that aligns with patriarchal traditions–even if this decision is what’s best for me as an individual and makes me happy and fulfilled in my life–there are still going to be people thinking I’ve done it because it’s “what you do.” Or people who think I’ve capitulated. (And on some level, I probably have. It’s a tangled web.)
    What’s best for the individual doesn’t, necessarily, challenge patriarchy or promote feminist ideals. (I’m not sure that’s the phrase I want, but ah well.)
    That’s o.k.
    It’s impossible, not to mention exhausting, stepping up to the challenge in everything that we do.
    We all pick our battles and not all of us pick the same ones. (Which, obviously–reading the comments–can be frustrating. We’re not always on the same page. And when our personal choices are analyzed/questioned things can get a little heated.)
    For me, the name changing thing is one of the battles I will gladly fight.
    I won’t change my last name. I want to be in that small percentage of women who doesn’t. I want to help that percentage grow. I want to make this more common place.
    Admittedly, this is one of the easier battles for me.
    I’m not up against annoying relatives who belittle me for this decision. My partner has no problem with it. (He’s even mentioned taking my last name…which, doesn’t sit well with me, frankly, but I’m glad he’s open to the idea.)
    Personally, I have to say I will find women changing their last names to their husbands’ more socially…palatable, if you will, when ideals shift.
    When just as many men change their last names to their wives’. Or when that, at the least, becomes a topic of conversation when marriage is brought up.
    When women are not constantly asked if they’re changing their last name. When it’s no long just assumed that if a woman has married, her last name is changed. When people stop calling women’s last names “just their father’s” while ignoring the fact that a man’s last name is also “his father’s,” but assuming that it “sticks” better to him (or something). Etc, etc. ad nauseum.
    I have a feeling that shift is going to take a while, though.

  6. bbrutlag
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Maybe people should go back and read some work by Patricia Hill Collins to undertstand that:
    ” A linguistic choice is also a political choice”
    I am still amazed that people do not understand that they can not separate a word from its history and all of the meanings that word has ever had. It’s a package deal, you want one meaning you get them all. There is no picking and choosing meaning.

  7. momo
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Not an English native speaker here. Help me out: how does one pronounce Ms? To my untrained eye, it would seem that it would be indistinguishable from “Miss” in spoken language.

  8. Melissa
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    It sounds like “Miz.”

  9. Alessa
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    I think there is also a lot of pressure from men.. I have a feminist boyfriend, but obviously he was raised in a patriarchal society, and thus with the expectation that one day he would find a woman, and that woman would take his last name.
    Well, he told me he would be fine with me not doing it, but expressed his disappointment in losing that thing that he had always thought was a given. But he told me he wanted me to do what I thought was best.
    Now I’m conflicted. Because what I want is to make him happy, but I am a feminist and it just goes against what I believe. I’m not going to take his last name, but it makes me sad to think that it might disappoint him even a little bit. Of course, he would keep it from me because he understands that my reasoning is valid, but it is still depressing to think that I am giving him something less than what he had always thought would be a given.
    But then he is so supportive, and knows that I just can’t bring myself to do that.

  10. Cora D
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    When I married five and a half years ago, I opted to take my husband’s name. Here’s why:
    1) I had grew up in a household where my mom and step-dad had one last name and I had a different one. My spouse and I wanted to have kids, and I wanted all of us to share a name.
    2) Both our last names are long, so hyphenation was out of the question. We tried blending the names but didn’t come up with anything we liked.
    3) My “maiden” name is hard to spell and pronounce – I wanted an easier name, which my husband has. Plus, it’s my father’s name – I didn’t see that keeping it would be a big blow to patriarchy.
    4) I wanted to try living life with a different name and here was a chance to easily change my name.
    I do insist on my called Ms. despite having taken my husband’s name. My marital status is no one’s business but my own and my spouse’s.
    Linguistic choices are political – and they’re also personal.
    Side note – prior to changing my name, I was the only person (according to Google) with my first and last name. Now I share it with at least three other women in the U.S.

  11. raoulJraoul
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Stop the donations for a few months. That will get their attention.

  12. raq
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    My boyfriend and I recently got into a discussion about name-changing (my grandmother is getting remarried and planning on changing her name; this provoked the discussion). I have a deep attachment to my name; he has little to his (as he puts it; it’s just a name). We discussed, when we were married, for him to take my name to provide ‘familial unison’– however, we realized that this would involve a large amount of paperwork and money (for administrative fees) … so, we’re keeping our own names and blowing the approx. $500 on something more significant.
    As for our children, what extraordinary benefit is there from siblings having the same last names?

  13. SprigofIvy
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    This is an extremely passionate topic for me, as I was married 2.5 years ago, and I am still getting people who feel they should weigh in on my choice to keep my name. People who have purposefully (although knowing my choice), called me by my husband’s name, or told other subordinates to call me by my husband’s name.
    I think there is even more pressure on Men, not to change their names to ours. My husband at first said he would not take my name as my sister’s first name is pronounced the same (Aaron/Erin)… but now that my sister is changing her last name to her future husbands, he still won’t change his.
    My husband expects that if we have any children that they would default get his last name, which I disagree with. We have no conclusive decision here.
    I know that not having the same last name, has not made us any less a family but I routinely have to deal with peoples BS over the whole situation. Its MY choice, and I have an abundance of reasons for that choice.

  14. queenb
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    “YOU grew up with that name. It is yours, and has been your whole life (in most circumstances).:
    Honestly, as someone who plans to keep her own last name, I don’t think this argument holds much water. It doesn’t matter that it’s the name you grew up with. We learn early on in life that that is DAD’s LAST NAME. We learn it when we find out mom used to have another name. We find out when it is explained why mom has a different last name. We find out when the parents get divorced and mom changes her last name but the kids don’t. We know our whole lives that our identity is shared with dad. It’s not really OUR OWN in the way you’re making it seem. At least not in my opinion.

  15. zes
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the reply!
    Alas the fee is annual so we’re already paid up this year. I also fear that if all the progressives left, religions would keep going (because they make women have so many babies!), only with no reforming voice to fix what’s wrong with them. Plus they do things like meals on wheels for old folks and have a strong interfaith connection with the local mosque, which we support.
    My husband suggested putting our membership fee next year into microloans through kiva.org, since we already do that a bit. Then we’ll write about it in the synagogue newsletter and they can’t possibly say we aren’t doing something positive!

  16. wickedwench
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    A (male) friend of mine married a wonderful woman this summer. They are now Mr.and Ms. “her name his name”.
    No hyphen, basically they both go by three names.
    It often seems that the extent of a man’s feminism does not always correlate with the extent of his espoused liberalism, especially when it comes to this business of naming.
    Even though my friend is a very liberal guy, I was a little surprised (and very impressed) that they decided to handle it in this way.
    On the other hand, another male friend of mine got married a few years ago and they are Mr. and Mrs. “his name.” They are both great people and she is career-driven and independent.
    So you can’t derive personality traits from this one issue, though many people try to.
    Here’s my opinion:
    I think people’s differing reasons for not changing their name, for changing it to a partner’s name, for hyphenating, etc., etc., are all valid. Though I do wish more people would think critically about why they should or should not change their name, instead of merely following patriarchal tradition.
    Addressing a woman as “Mrs. Husband’s First Name Husband’s Last Name” is insulting as all hell. Talk about eradicating all identity. This seems to be dying out, but I’m not sure how popular it is outside of the Northeast–I would be curious to know if it’s still popular in the South, for instance.
    I would like to see Ms. replace both Mrs. and Miss (making it effectively marital-status neutral, like Mr.)

  17. Emma
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    I had a wonderful photography professor in college that explained commented on this one day in class. As one of my classmates introduced herself she said her first name only, he proceed to demand that she tell the class her first and last name. Stating that she was an artist first, an adult individual, and not just a product of her parents or a woman waiting for a husband.
    Now, I definitely don’t think he handled that in the most appropriate way, but it made me think about the the point.

  18. jdv1984
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Just because you are a feminist, does not make every choice that you make a feminist one, just because you have made that choice.
    For example, I *choose* to shave my legs and wear make up. I identify as a feminist. It does not make those things feminist.
    It’s not a judgment of a person as a feminist, but pretending that the choice made is feminist is just silly.

  19. jdv1984
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Cliff notes of what I said above: Being a feminist doesn’t make all of your decisions feminist. I’m not judging her decision, I’m just saying that it is not a feminist one. There’s not anything wrong with that, but I am really tired of seeing the argument “I am a feminist. I made a CHOICE. Ergo, that choice is feminist.” Because it’s really not.

  20. GiaCor
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    It’s nice to see another post on this! I deal with the issue of having my own name very often. We have separate accounts and separate library cards and on and on, just out of habit really.. but we are on the same insurance now and it is really annoying the ‘reaction’ I sometimes get here in Arkansas from physicians office employees when I’m just trying to get signed in.
    Every once in a while someone will demand an explanation BEFORE doing whatever it is I’m trying to do (get a prescription filled).. and I tell them I kept my name.. no big deal right? I have had people then ask WHY? Because I FELT like it.. now give me my birth control, thank you!

  21. GiaCor
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    I totally agree… why should my children get HIS name automatically.. they came out of ME anyway… My husband is a “3rd” like his dad/grandpa all have the same name and 1,2 3…
    I think it may stop with me and I’m sure his father will be furious.. but I’m not planning on children for a long time… so maybe they’ll come around..

  22. jdv1984
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    I can’t agree enough with what you have written here. Hitting the like button once wasn’t enough, I had to comment again.
    Also, noticed lower down that you used shaving as an example. That was what popped into my head too, and I think it’s an excellent analogy.

  23. sangetencre
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    I would like to see Ms. replace both Mrs. and Miss (making it effectively marital-status neutral, like Mr.)
    Ditto.
    I think this actually ranks a little higher for me than the name change itself.
    Get rid of the relationship signifier that women are pushed to carry around.

  24. jdv1984
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    I actually understand what you’re saying. One thing I think about often in thinking about my relationship with my partner is the sacrifices that he makes as a feminist’s partner. As such, he is expected to give up his male privilege.
    Because that’s what we’re taking about here: MALE PRIVILEGE. He won’t have the same things that other men have, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Those privileges come at the cost of others.
    Maybe it’s sad, but it also makes me hopeful.

  25. cyanideandsugar
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    I am from Georgia, and this is still pretty popular. When I was writing thank you notes for all of the graduation gifts I received from various family members and members of the church, my boyfriend’s mom told me to address them to “Mr. and Mrs. Hisfirstname Hislastname.” I refused, and looked up all of their names so that I could address them to both individuals.
    I also remember my sister wondering if she should address her wedding invitations that way or not. In the South, at least, it seems to be the “formal way” of doing things.

  26. kandela
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Possibly we could define a feminist choice as:
    1. One that furthers the goal of gender equality.
    2. One that breaks down the normality of patriarchal practices and traditions.
    We could then define a equalist* choice as:
    1. The choice that the individual would make in the absence of the patriarchy.
    A woman’s choice could then be a feminist choice, an equalist choice, both, or neither; as can a man’s.
    * I’m coining a phrase for the purposes of distinction, maybe this isn’t the best word to use, feel free to suggest a new one.

  27. kandela
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    Try talking to one of the rabbis – which ever one you think will be more receptive.

  28. baddesignhurts
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    i actually really dig that.
    i mean, we could reemphasize that it’s a “personal choice”, because, in my view, it pertains to me alone. it’s *my* name, after all. and what i choose to be called should have nothing to do with the right of other people to be called what they decide upon, for whatever reason. but, unfortunately, there are people who make assumptions about others based on what i do, not knowing the consideration i’ve taken when making my decision. this is how we’ve framed the right to abortion: as part of the right to privacy, which i consider funda-freakin’-mental.
    (this is a really weird discussion for me to involve myself in, because i didn’t change my name the first time i got married, but i will be when i remarry in 2 months. (holy shit lots to do!))
    i just don’t like the phrase “feminist choice”, because it implies that (a) only feminists make feminist choices, and (b) if you don’t make the aforementioned choice, you’re not a feminist. to me, creating an environment in which everyone can choose without fear, societal backlash, pressure, etc., should be the goal, and it strikes me as purely reactionary to assert that women should make personal choices in the name of challenging patriarchy, even if that isn’t the best thing for themselves in their unique situation.

  29. i_muse
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    I just heard the most unusual and humorous reason for taking a husbands name!
    My friend is in her 60′s and has been married 6 times. When I asked her about it, she looked at her sleeve of tattoos and said, “I collect their names like I collect tattoos. Each one signifies another chapter, another story, another path, in a rich life story that is full of adventurous twists and turns.”
    love that.
    Still keeping my name and my un-tattood skin.

  30. zes
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    GiaCor – the best reason I heard of is that yes everyone knows the children are yours. But how does he know they are his? You told him so and he took your word. So giving them his name is publicly declaring his faith in your word on this, and accepting the responsibilities and duties of being a father to those children.
    This is not necessarily a slam dunk argument but for me it was powerful enough to feel that my kids will have my husband’s name somehow. They may have mine too. In what order and as middle or last I’m not sure yet.

  31. zes
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    That’s a good idea, thanks. I think they both will be actually. They are a great poster couple for non-patriarchal religion.

  32. Bohdana
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    Completely agree. I like my name and the history of my family it links back to. Which is why I got so peeved off when reading this:
    http://www.madisonmag.com.au/blogs/his-say-whats-in-a-name.htm
    you shouldn’t have to trick your girlfriend into taking your surname!

  33. Zeez
    Posted October 22, 2009 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    The discussion at hand prompted me to look up the rules & regulations re: surnames in my country.
    Turns out that upon marriage, both partners get the mutual right to use their spouse’s surname or any hyphenated combination of both – their own name does not legally change although it is possible to document a preferred use with all government bodies.
    A first child may receive either parent’s name (no hyphenated ones), though all subsequent children will automatically have the same surname “for the sake of family unity”. In the case of two mothers, the biological mum gives the surname.
    I have never felt any inclination or pressure to change my surname. It is me and I am attached to it. Potential future children will bear my name, too. Potential future marriage partner: deal.

  34. zes
    Posted October 22, 2009 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    But losing generic male privilege is very small next to gaining a strong partner. I remember saying to a male friend who was bemoaning that his (yet another very submissive) girlfriend never stood up to rude wait staff and just accepted a less good room than they’d paid for when their hotel lost the booking, and that if they had kids he was worried she wouldn’t be a role model to show them to stand up for themselves. I suggested that if he wanted a woman who would fight his corner or teach their kids to fight theirs, the flipside is sometimes she’ll fight him too. Trading in having a kitten on your side for a tiger means you might get scratched, but on the upside, they have a lot more to offer.

  35. Porter
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 12:38 am | Permalink

    Question: My last name is definitely my dad’s name, for my own view and personal experience. When you say, “my boyfriend’s name is always his and never his father’s” – how have you seen/experienced that?
    Statement: My name, like most things, is something that both makes me and is made by me. It in-part defines me, but not totally. What it meant before me somewhat defines me, and what I’ve done to define it (i.e., how I live and what people remember, good, bad, etc) is also at play. I’ve taken ownership of it in part, but I can’t ever fully own it, because I can’t control how other people perceive it – I can only influence.

  36. Sarah the Kabocha
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    FYI, Picasso was Pablo’s mom’s maiden name.
    Also, I changed my name after giving it a lot of thought. Nobody I knew in my family except my dad had my last name, and my dad was not very nice to me. My husband’s family was lovely to me, they all shared his last name, and I wanted to be totally part of the family. So I changed it, and I’ve been glad because to me the name represents the clan more than the person.

  37. elinroth
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Mamram,
    It’s interesting you view your boyfriend taking your name as being “dependent.” Do you view yourself taking his name as you being “dependent”? Does he? Is dependency a bad thing?

  38. kandela
    Posted October 24, 2009 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    Ben Zimmer (the language expert) writes on the history of Ms. in the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/25/magazine/25FOB-onlanguage-t.html?_r=1 and in VT: http://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/wordroutes/2043/

  39. gilraen-surion.myopenid.com
    Posted October 25, 2009 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    I think if you are really taking about freedom it should be a choice and to each their own, which should be respected by all including society.
    There are reasons why people take their spouses name. I did and I am not ashamed embarrassed or anything like that for it, nor does it make me his property.
    Professionally I did not change my birthname as it is quite unique. My husbands name is not unique, kinda run of the mill. It gets lost in many by that name. Plus I career wise I am well known under that name.
    Socially I did take his name. Why you may ask. Because I loath my birthname, I abhor it. It is the name given to me by the man married to my mother at the time of my birth, my spermdonor. A man that never did anything for me and left his family when I was 5 yet raised other children as his own. It is a name that I associate with disloyalty and dishonesty.
    For my personal situation being able to take my husbands name was a benefit, almost a relief to now carry name that has a positive loving and caring meaning, instead of being a constant negative reminder.
    PS in my country it is not possibly to change your surname unless there are exceptional circumstances.

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