Monday, June 14, 2010

A Sobler by any other name...just isn't a Sobler

Yo, I totally got married.

I can hardly believe it myself, but the husband and I had the weekend of our lives and I have a whole lot to write about regarding the successes and failures of my feminist wedding. Ironically, I expect to write more now on this subject than I did while planning the wedding, mostly because I will have more time, but also because I feel like I have gained some valuable perspective.

And if I was ever wondering whether I was going to keep this blog up after getting married (I didn't really, but still...) I opened up my Alumni Magazine to an enraging article about one woman's under-examined choice to take on her fiance's name.

I was meaning to write about the name change thing for a while, and so I am most excited to have this inspiration, negative as it may be.

You can find the article here, it's very short, and worth reading to gain context on what I am about to say.

I don't know Ms. Grose personally, and she is an editor at Slate, which is a well known site, so I would be interested at some point in engaging in an actual conversation an maybe even a debate on this subject...maybe give her an opportunity to further explore her decision to take her husband's name. Because from the content of this article one would have to assume she hasn't actually put much thought into it.

Look, people do it... a lot of friends of mine have done it, and despite my aversion to making that choice personally, I recognize that people have their reasons. Some people hate the idea of having family members with different names, like their kids and husband won't be readily tied to them. Maybe their life is now about being a wife and mother and so it only makes sense to adopt that identity. And I have spoken to some women who just like the tradition. Choosing which traditions to keep is obviously a woman's right, so far be it for me to judge that choice.

Blah, blah, blah. I can give an argument against all of the above reasons, but the bottom line is people have the right to make their own choice.

That said...

This article really rubbed me the wrong way. First of all, according to the writer, the ultimate reason she has chosen to take her husband's last name is it is "sweet decision". Wow. How thoughtful. I only take issue with this because she herself admits that she had never even considered changing her name. She claims her fiance was "upset" by this, but couldn't really articulate why. So rather than truly ask him to examine his motives and desires for her to give up a large part of her identity, they both shrug their shoulders at the question and decide to go with tradition. Ain't that sweet?

One of her friends, who had a most "un-traditional upbringing", whatever that means, made her case by...get this...surprising her.

"I think you should take his name." she said. "You didn't think I would say that, did you?" I didn't.
Well I don't know about you, but I'm convinced. This un-traditionally brought up friend goes on.

"I hate having a hyphenated name," she added. "And besides, I think it's sweet to take his name."
And that was what did it for our author. It was a "sweet" decision. Never mind that the history of the practice is steeped in property laws and ownership of women. And while the practice may no longer translate to complete submission and the forfeiting of your identity, the fact that it is no longer legally necessary makes one wonder...why is it so expected? When women full expect to maintain their identity after marriage, why is changing our last names such a given practice? And why is it that for someone that is not a given is so easily persuaded by the argument of "sweetness"? And sorry, but does that even mean?

In her essay, Ms. Grose touches upon two points that are almost passable, and would have certainly been a much more satisfying catalyst for a name change, at least for me. The most practical reason is that she has never liked her own last name. I have to concede, it's not the best one, and I am sure she took some abuse growing up. Her fiance's last name is a wonderfully WASPy Winton...a vanilla dream for someone who grew up with the last name pronounced "Gross".

The other argument that borders on intelligent in this article is one made by her friend. For many of us, our current last names are the names of our father's, not our mothers. And so maintaining that name is maintaining the patriarchy we were raised with. OK...

However, I do take issue with the idea she (through a "friend") asserts that "Technically, taking your husband's name is just as patriarchal as keeping your father's." We don't choose our given last names. Our parents choose for us. We re swept along in the patriarchy of our childhoods and upbringings whether we like it or not. But going on being who you are, and choosing to change your name to be the same as your husband's are simply not "the same" as the writer asserts. And anyway, you would hope that by the time you are getting married, you had established enough identity of your own that you are not merely going from someone's daughter to someone's wife.

I won't even get into the fact that at one point in her article someone questions "Is it really such a contentious issue anymore?" and she goes onto matter-of-factly state that it is not. As if now, as women, we've made our point with this whole hyphenating mess, and we can revert back to the way things were, because it doesn't matter what we do...everyone knows what we mean.

I really struggle with this issue because a lot of strong, smart, independent women I know have chosen to change their name, and so I know there is validity in it. But the masquerading of this article as an examination of this decision really irritated me. Not because she changed her name, but because I still don't understand why.

If I made the statement, "I am going to be Alix Sobler until I die," and my fiance looked upset by this, expressed that he expected me to take his name, and then couldn't articulate one reason why, I wouldn't be thinking so hard about whether I could change my name and still be myself. I would be taking a good look at the man I was about to marry, and asking "who the hell are you?"


  1. Thank you for writing this blog. I also struggle with this issue and I would greatly appreciate your feedback/insight regarding my own situation.

    I married young and divorced my first husband about 10 years ago. I had not developed my feminist identity (at that time) and was indifferent about changing my name to his. So, I did.

    After the divorce (there were no children) I retained his name out of convenience and also because after 10 years, it felt strange reverting back to my birth (maiden) name. Plus, I harbored no resentment toward carrying the name, etc.

    Now, I am getting ready to remarry. I am an established academic professional with publications, etc. My partner is loving and accepting.

    However, most of our relatives *assume* that I will change my last name to my fiance's.

    However, I am greatly conflicted. At this stage, I resent the burden of having to change my name (again). As a woman, why must this "choice" be thrust upon me?

    I would prefer to retain the name that I have had for the last decade, even though it is my ex-husband's.

    Is this a selfish decision or a feminist one?
    How do I respond to others who feel that retaining my current last name is disrespectful to my fiance?

    Your thoughts appreciated...

  2. Two thumbs up!

    Its worth pointing out that sons take their father's names too. Taking one's father's name is a bit patriarchal in that the mother's name isn't incorporated into his identity, but it cannot approach the sexism inherent in a grown adult being expected to lose their life-long family name and take on the family name of their spouse, someone they've known and been shaped by for a shorter period of time.

    On the other hand, some of the most female-oppressive, patriarchal societies in the world don't change women's names at marriage - or ever. And daughters take their mother's family names (and then are trafficked or married at 9 years old, etc.). So its not as if to-change-or-not-to-change is a pivotal driver or sustainer of sexist mindsets.

    On a personal note, I hate - HATE - my birth family name. I was mocked constantly for it from preschool onward, and "Gross" would have been a colossal up-trade. Now, having married well into my 30s, I find myself very reluctant to give up the crass monstrosity - there are a lot of career milestones and friendships tied to me as Ms. Gross-would-be-an-improvement. I think I will postpone the decision until we have kids - and fortunately, my husband doesn't care whether I take his name or not. So socially - so as not to have to explain to my many friends the feminist rationale behind it - I do go by his last name when it's convenient. Legally, I'll keep my own as long as the spirit moves me.

  3. I don't understand why people still have this debate. When we married, I never once suggested my wife take my name, and she never once considered doing so, and the only time it has ever been an issue is when somebody writes a cheque to her with my last name on it, and then we have to ask that they rewrite the cheque. I can't imagine it still being a consideration. Once in a while family bring it up. Then we tell them that if they like my last name so much, they can adopt it themselves. Otherwise they can mind their own goddamn business. So then that family member doesn't bring it up again. A lot of life's problems can be solved by just not being a pushover.