This is the third post in a three part series about changing your name as an academic. Be sure to check out our earlier posts: Changing my surname was a personal choice, and No good options: when your name change indicates a gender change.
I kept my name when I got married. Growing up, it had never even occurred to me to change, and by the time I got married keeping it had become a matter of principle. The process was quite smooth (considering there was no paperwork), and aside from correcting a few stubborn family members who insisted on mailing things to Mr. and Mrs. Husband, my choice has been drama free. I’ve had my share of awkward customer service interactions, and I’ve had to explain to strangers that my husband and I have two different names. We don’t have kids together yet, and so haven’t had to decide how to handle that (right now we’re leaning on any hypothetical baby taking my last name, since my husband has a child with his last name already; it seems only fair.). I had already published under my own name, and it was nice to not have to worry about making any changes — to my drivers license, my CV, my Social Security card, my life.
Over the last few years, I’ve watched a growing number of my friends and colleagues get married. Naïvely, I’ve been surprised that the vast majority of them have taken their husbands surnames. I watched as some of my staunchest feminist friends have had to defend their choices — or, more commonly not defend them. Because what you do with your life and your name is your choice; you don’t have to defend it. This is the promise of third wave feminism: we are now responsible for our bodies, our selves, our lives. Our choices.
But… What happens when our choices are the same choices that The Patriarchy would have made for us? Bear with this clunky metaphor for minute — I don’t mean to think of The Patriarchy as some sort of 1950’s supervillain that bears a mysterious resemblance to the Mecha-Hitler at the end of Castle Wolfenstein. Rather, the patriarchy in this context is shorthand for both an overwhelming societal pressure (the kind our great-grandmothers would’ve faced); but also a more subtle, insidious socialization.
Basically, after decades of feminism, it surprises me that so many heterosexual married women still take their husbands surname. Is it really is a choice, if the choice isn’t changing?
I want to be 100% clear here: I am not blaming individual women for their decisions. As a feminist, it’s extremely important to me that women support one another. If you changed your name for any reason, please do not take this as a personal attack. Rather, I want us all to interrogate the broader culture that results in the overwhelming patterns of inequality that persists for time. Similarly, I would never hold it against a woman for leaving a career in science, or for being a stay-at-home mom. But I am interested in pushing back on a broader culture that results in fewer women in science, and an the overwhelming majority of stay-at-home parents being women.
As individuals, “it was my choice!” Is a satisfying and respectable answer– we should not have to defend our choices. As a society, though, I worry that by focusing on — and ending at — choice, we are letting ourselves off the hook. Because our choices do not just affect us; they participate in a broader society that is still unequal. Most heterosexual married women still take their husbands’ surnames. Most stay-at-home parents are women. Women are not paid equally for equal work. Women are more likely to be the targets of sexual harassment and assault. In an unequal world, individual choices are subversive. They are powerful.
I really started thinking about the perils of choice feminism when the 50 Shades of Gray movie came out (bear with me here). First, people critiqued the movie for its problematic depictions of BDSM culture and abusive behavior. This in turn sparked a number of rebuttals from those who argued that that what we choose to find sexually gratifying is our own business, and we don’t have to defend those choices. Here’s the problem I have with that: what we find sexual is highly influenced by society — our kinks are largely socialized. It therefore follows that if the society that those kinks come from has problems, some of those problems are going to carry through to what we find kinky. This doesn’t mean that we should stop enjoying things (so long as we’re not hurting anyone); rather, it means that we need to take personal responsibility for how those things might reinforce unequal societies and harmful power structures.
Similarly, we may not need to defend our individual choices as women to take our husband’s name or not — or to stay home, or not; or to have babies, or not; or to wear makeup and skirts, or not; or to enjoy cooking and sewing, or basketball and carpentry; or to be tops or bottoms, CEOs or secretaries. But we cannot end at “choice.” We have to dig deeper, and understand how our choices (and our actions that follow from those choices) reinforce or undermine the work for equality. We have to do the personal heavy lifting of asking ourselves why we are making the choices we are, even as we respect the choices our fellow women make.
It may seem contradictory to say that it’s okay for individuals make choices, but it’s not okay for a broader group of individuals to make choices. I don’t think so, because we can simultaneously respect women’s autonomy while also critiquing broader patterns and the cultures that produce them. We also need to take responsibility for equality of individual women (even as we encourage subversion), and place that responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the institutions, cultures, and societal structures that are unequal. We also need to place responsibility on the people who stand to benefit from that inequality: guys. Someday, I’d like to see men taking their wives’ surnames, and couples forming new names, and for those choices to be just as common.
As long as individuals of one gender disproportionately make the most sacrifices for the other– to stay home, to change their names, to abandon a career to support the other’s — I worry that our choices are not really, fully our own. So while I will always support my fellow women and their choices, I will continue to interrogate my own, and to take the opportunity to be an activist in my own choices. The personal cost to me is small, and the goal is pretty damn awesome. It’s going to take a lot of choices, big and small, to get there.