"Why, in 2013, does getting married mean giving up the most basic marker of your identity?" asks Jill Filipovic in the Guardian today. "And if family unity is so important, why don't men ever change their names?"
A name change can be a powerful move if you're renaming yourself in a way that gives you more agency — maybe you want to change your gender presentation, or maybe you just hate the name your parents chose for you back when you had no say in the matter. But studies show that more than 90% of women still change their names when they get married and 50% of Americans think you should be legally required to take your husband's name. Isn't it 2013? Filipovic writes:
That is fundamentally why I oppose changing your name (and why I look forward to the wider legalization of same-sex marriage, which in addition to just being good and right, will challenge the idea that there are naturally different roles for men and women within the marital unit). Identities matter, and the words we put on things are part of how we make them real. There's a power in naming that feminists and social justice activists have long highlighted. Putting a word to the most obvious social dynamics is the first step toward ending inequality. Words like "sexism" and "racism" make clear that different treatment based on sex or race is something other than the natural state of things; the invention of the term "Ms" shed light on the fact that men simply existed in the world while women were identified based on their marital status.
Your name is your identity. The term for you is what situates you in the world. The cultural assumption that women will change their names upon marriage – the assumption that we'll even think about it, and be in a position where we make a "choice" of whether to keep our names or take our husbands' – cannot be without consequence. Part of how our brains function and make sense of a vast and confusing universe is by naming and categorizing. When women see our names as temporary or not really ours, and when we understand that part of being a woman is subsuming your own identity into our husband's, that impacts our perception of ourselves and our role in the world. It lessens the belief that our existence is valuable unto itself, and that as individuals we are already whole. It disassociates us from ourselves, and feeds into a female understanding of self as relational – we are not simply who we are, we are defined by our role as someone's wife or mother or daughter or sister.
My mom kept her last name and never fails to roll her eyes whenever she's addressed as Mrs. Baker. Her last name is actually part of my full name, on my birth certificate (which is long and complicated, because my parents are insane), so it wouldn't completely fade away when she and her sister got married. I never even considered the possibility of being a stay-at-home mom because my mother worked full-time, and that's probably why I never even considered the possibility of changing my last name under any circumstances, either. It's always bothered me that some women feel getting married necessitates giving that part of yourself up; it seems so archaic.
But perhaps I'm particularly attached to my name because it's my byline, my professional identity. I don't think it's anti-feminist to change your name for your partner, but I'd like to move past the (incredibly heteronormative) assumptions that of course the woman should change her last name, of course the kids should take the man's surname, and of course a woman is a shitty wife if she's not willing to alter the way she's thought of herself throughout her entire life.