I hope to hell this is the last I have to say on this subject.
Let’s start with three facts.
1) Heterosexual marriage is a tremendously antifeminist institution. It’s all tangled up with times when women were considered their husband’s property, with religions in which they still are, with the exclusion and marginalization of queer people, with the expectation of childbearing, etc., etc.
2) In 2008, I got married. To a guy.
I still really like being married to him.
3) I am a proud feminist.
I can easily reconcile all of those facts because I don’t believe a feminist is defined as someone who never, ever makes a non-feminist, or even downright anti-feminist choice.
I, for one, am a feminist who made a conscious decision to exercise more than one form of privilege in order to participate in the father of all patriarchal institutions. This doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. It doesn’t mean anyone has the right to revoke my feminist card. It is just plain old fucking reality.
I didn’t take my husband’s name, but I did marry him. I also shave my legs, and I dye my hair blond, and I’m growing it out again. I wear make-up. I do all the cooking in our household, and a lot of the menial tasks. I love action movies. I say “bitch” a lot.
I do multiple intrinsically non- and/or anti-feminist things a day, basically. None of it changes who I am or what I stand for–but those things also don’t magically become feminist just because I’m the one doing them.
And that’s basically what I think of feminists who are among the 90% of American women who choose to take their husbands’ names at marriage. They’re not bad people. I don’t want to collect up their feminist cards. But it is just fucking reality that they made a non-feminist choice in that particular instance. It didn’t magically become feminist because they were the ones who chose it.
And yet, when somebody tries to say that, and discuss why it’s troubling that so many women still follow this particular patriarchal tradition, the conversation stalls out within five minutes, because every fucking feminist who took her husband’s name wants to sit you down and tell you why her choice was made free and clear in a vacuum, as opposed to within the shared cultural context in which 90% of straight married women take their husbands’ names, and 50% of Americans think it should be legally mandated. (ETA: Maggie Koerth-Baker goes into where that number comes from, and concludes that it’s not as bad as all that. Still, out of 800 randomly chosen people, about half agreed–strongly or not–that legally mandating a name change was a good idea. It’s one small study, but it’s not like Jill pulled the number out of her ass.)
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.
You know what I’d rather focus on until we all get sick of talking about it again? That “50% of Americans think it should be legally mandated” thing. Half of us! Half of us think women should have NO CHOICE AT ALL in the matter. Half of us think the state should be able to force women to take on men’s names, reinforcing the notion that women’s pre-marriage identities are essentially disposable, and that we are solely defined by the men who share our homes.
So, go ahead and tell me how your decision was deeply personal and meaningful to you, and had nothing to do with sexist traditions. I understand that impulse, because my non-feminist decision to get married was also deeply personal and meaningful! I did it because it mattered to me, because it was what I wanted for myself and my family. I feel extremely fortunate to have had choices in that respect, and I hope people don’t think too harshly of me for that choice.
But it did actually have quite a lot to do with sexist and heterosexist traditions, nonetheless; that is simply inescapable. I cannot sit here and fucking pretend that people who criticize the institution of marriage as anti-feminist and anti-progressive, or who write impassioned articles arguing that we would probably all be better off if we did away with it, are in fact the ones being anti-feminist and anti-progressive, because I’m a feminist and I’m married and they hurt my feelings.
Look, you’re a feminist who, in this particular case, made the non-feminist choice. That’s all. I assume it was the right choice for you, or you wouldn’t have done it, and that’s fine! But feminism is not, in fact, all about choosing your choice. It is mostly about recognizing when things are fucked up for women at the societal level, and talking about that, and trying to change it. So sometimes, even when a decision is right for you, you still need to recognize that you made that decision within a social context that overwhelmingly supports your choice, and punishes women who make a different one.
Having to listen to other feminists talk about why the tradition of wives taking their husbands’ names really sucks, and feel as though you’re being judged by them, is not punishment. Having your ex-husband use the fact that you didn’t change your name as evidence that you “weren’t committed” in a custody battle is punishment.
For the record, I’ve never experienced anything like that, and I generally have no problems going through life with a different name from my husband. I’m not trying to claim my people are horribly oppressed here. But we are the minority of straight married women in the U.S., by a lot. If you took your husband’s name, you basically have our entire society’s approval for that choice. That’s the reality. And even if it’s not happening (in the open) among you and me and our feminist pals, we are still living in a culture where it’s considered normal for a man to feel hurt if his wife doesn’t want to take his name–but highly abnormal for his wife to be hurt if he won’t take hers. We live in a country where it’s easy for a woman to change her name upon marrying a man, but considerably harder for men to change their names for any reason, for gay people marrying to take their partners’ names, for trans people to adopt new names that reflect their gender, for any of us to just up and change our names because we’re grown-ups and we’d like to–why do we treat this one circumstance, being a woman marrying a man, as such a special case? We live in a country where loads of people, feminist and not, feel it’s important for a family to have a name that identifies them as a cohesive group–but almost no one considers making it the female partner’s name in a het couple, or a blend of the partners’ names, or a made-up name that suits them. People use “Don’t you want to have the same name as your kids?” as a guilt trip to get women to change their names, not as the beginning of a conversation about what a “family name” means to them.
So all I’m saying is, you made your choice in that environment. We all do. We all have our own individual and family and community and ethnic and religious contexts to consider, too. But in America, women who marry men are widely expected to take their husband’s names, and almost all of them do. That is a fact. So acting as though any of us can stand outside of that deeply sexist context and make a free, individual choice to take a man’s name is plainly fucking ridiculous. The end.