What’s your choice? Names as a microcosm for a feminism at the crossroads

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.

Actually, this is kind of how I pictured patriarchy...Run! it's coming for our choices!

Actually, this is kind of how I pictured patriarchy…Run! it’s coming for 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?

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I’m not taking career advice from old white dudes anymore.

Recently, a senior emeritus professor called me out because he hadn’t seen me at a talk in a different department (let’s say it’s Astronomy). “I’ve never seen you at a single Astronomy talk,” he admonished. “You really need to go to those.” I patiently explained that I typically have a teaching conflict, which he brushed off, and repeated his imperative that I really needed “to go to those talks.” He was angry at my laziness in failing to attend these critical seminars in a tangentially related field, and didn’t respect my explanations that 1) I couldn’t, and 2) even if I could, I have to make hard choices and don’t always have the luxury of doing everything I’d like to.

Now, I’m an interdisciplinary scientist– in fact, my position is split between a departmental home and an interdisciplinary institute, which means I go to twice as many faculty meetings and probably four times as many seminars as most of my colleagues do. But the advice of this retiree was that I needed to add yet another seminar to the list, and he wasn’t afraid to scold me about this front of my colleagues. This particular professor is of the opinion that I need to be just like him — or, rather, like his retired incarnation, which has a lot of free time to leisurely enjoy talks — in order to succeed. It’s just a small example of a phenomenon I’m starting to grow tired of, which is this paternalistic attitude some of my senior colleagues — all older, white men — have. They give advice liberally, these silverbacks, from the comfortable position of retirement or full professorship.

And you know what? It’s really, really shitty advice. Continue reading