I get a lot of dumb pushback at my job (itinerant lady-yelling), including but not limited to frivolous contrarianism, unhinged vitriol, and angry unsolicited advice (so angry!). But the shit that gets to me the most intensely and consistently is also the simplest. Just, "Nu-uh." Nu-uh, silly girl, that's not real. Nu-uh, shrill bitch, we fixed that already.
The message, obviously, is that your understanding of your own life is incorrect. Thanks, feminism, you can go now! Good hustle! Grab a gift bag on your way out! (The gift bag is full of snakes.)
It's basic gaslighting, but it still fucks me up sometimes. And that's why there's almost nothing more satisfying than when the structural inequalities women face are blatantly and casually laid bare. It's almost cute—the easy naïveté with which certain hypocrisies reveal themselves—as though they genuinely don't understand what they are, what they mean, why it might be a bad idea to get naked in public. That's how deep sexism goes; it's so seamlessly blended into the foundations of our culture that we don't even notice when it's walking around in the nude pointing at its neon dong. Today's stellar example: this Women's Health piece about brides keeping their last names.
While more than 25% of women surveyed in a UK poll said they'd like to keep (or at least hyphenate) their maiden names, 63.3% of male Men's Health readers said they'd be pissed off if their wives decided not to take their names. And a staggering 96.3% of respondents said they wouldn't take their wife's name if she asked them to. The individual responses are astonishing:
“I’d like her to want to be a part of my family and be proud of our name.” —Anonymous respondent, via a SurveyMonkey poll
“One family, one name. If she didn’t take my name, I’d seriously question her faith in us lasting as a couple. And I don’t want hyphenated kids.” —Brandon Robert Joseph Peyton, via Facebook
“I believe the purpose of marriage is raising children, and children take their father’s name (as a way of identifying paternity). Mothers always have a special bond, carrying their young. Fathers don’t, so [passing on our name] is our compensation.” —Matthew Bratcher, via Facebook
See? It's just about family. It's just about togetherness. It can't be sexist, it's tradition! And lighten up—traditions are just rituals through which we fetishize and deify the past, confining our modern social mores to shapes that our great great grandparents would be comfortable with if they happened to time travel here for a drop-in status quo inspection. NBD. THAT'S ALL. How could anyone complain about a tradition? Ugh, historically marginalized groups are such killjoys. (PS Happy Columbus Day!)
Whatever your opinion on 21st-century women taking their husbands' names (more on that in a second), can we all just agree up top that it is a historically proprietary maneuver with shitty roots? It may mean something different to you now, but it was designed to signify ownership. It's the equivalent of getting your Dockers home and cutting the tags off and writing your name in the waistband. (STEVE'S DOCKERS! DON'T TOUCH!)
However, here's where this gets complicated—here's why "tradition" is an insidious concept and why feminism is a beautifully nuanced discipline—I, Lindy West, despite all of the above, personally find the idea of taking my future husband's name kind of...romantic. I would probably do it if he would let me (doubtful, though—my current boyfriend takes a way more hardline feminist stance on this than I do). The thought of taking the right person's name doesn't feel mandatory, but it does feel good. Even though I know, intellectually, the shitty implications of becoming Mrs. Husband, I love the idea of becoming one family with one name. (I would obv keep my maiden name professionally because that shit is boss.) And anyway, even if I could, I'm not sure I want to escape the instinct to mould my future family into the shape of the family I came from. No amount of critical thinking about our warped, oppressive system can change the fact that I grew up in it and feel its pull in my cells. I do want to be like my parents. I just want to do it on my terms.
If I'm going to make that choice, if I'm going to concede to those admittedly comforting traditional gender dynamics, if I'm going to sit there and let my boyfriend Hulk out over the flat tire (and I AM, because let's not forget, that structure is comforting to him too, plus it's probably raining), it needs to be done consciously, pointedly, and without coercion. I need to make it clear that taking my husband's name is my choice, and if we decided that he would take mine (because, I don't know, maybe his name is Mike Diarrhea or something), that would be a completely legit option too. Just like no one should take away a woman's freedom to keep her name, no one should take away a woman's freedom to take her husband's name. CAN I LIVE, IS WHAT I'M SAYING.
So do I begrudge couples who choose to drop the wife's maiden name? Not at all. But do I wish I lived in a world where this system never existed in the first place? Absolutely. And do I think that men (and women) who recoil in horror at the idea of a man consensually adopting his wife's name have some issues with misogyny? YUP. They simply must. It is pure math.
If you want you and your wife to share a last name, that's great, but you should consider taking her name as seriously as she considers taking yours. Otherwise, we have a problem.
Your name, by definition, is yours. It is your most YOUR thing. It's as much yours as your body. More, even, because you can change it at will. A lot of people are born with bodies that aren't right for them, and might never be right for them. But if you're born with the "wrong" name, you can make it right, and yours, in an instant. To take that away from someone—using a power as emotional and overwhelming as "tradition"— and to do it systematically to only one gender is sexist. You showed your hand, bros.
If you think I'm overreacting and exaggerating about the symbolic power of naming, then perhaps you'll listen to a more trustworthy source: the men of Men's Health. They're quite candidly fixated on it. Their clarity is indisputable.
“My name is part of who I am.” —Anonymous respondent, via a SurveyMonkey poll
“Call it pride or ego, whatever. It’s not happening.” —Anonymous respondent, via a SurveyMonkey poll
“It sounds like she’s trying to hang onto her “single person” identity and not identify with the fact that she’s married now.” —Anonymous respondent, via a SurveyMonkey poll
Translation: My name is part of who I am. To change it would be unthinkable. It would be like giving up my identity. My identity is too important to give up. It would be a sort of death. So here, women, YOU DO IT. His identity supersedes yours. And any desire to maintain your "'single person' identity"—your you-ness—is an insulting affront to the institution of marriage itself.
This is not esoteric academic feminist theory. This is in goddamn MEN'S HEALTH. This is shit you hear from your mom. This is normal.
It's a double-standard that simply cannot stand without examination. There's nothing wrong with holding on to our traditions (feminists feel the pull of ritual and nostalgia too), as long as we work long and hard to declaw them.
This is what feminists are reacting to when we say (over and over) that "women are people." Because no matter how definitively we prove ourselves, women (along with everyone else who isn't a straight white male) are basically treated like off-brand men. We're the Malt O'Meal of humans. We're Dr. Skipper. We're gin with a J. We're probably fine, we have our uses, we'll do the job if we're your only option, you know intellectually that we're made of the same ingredients and we cost less, and you'll even pay lip service to how surprisingly high-quality we are, but when it comes down to it (especially for something really important!), you'd prefer to splurge on the name-brand. You just feel safer that way, you know? You can't help it—it's not a prejudice, it's a gut feeling.
Yeah, well, I don't have to live my life by your guts. And no matter how loud you bleat that sexism is over, you cannot completely suppress the fact that this is still a mainstream opinion. Like a poll respondent says:
“Hyphenation is a direct “f*ck you” to a man’s masculinity… it elevates his father-in-law’s manhood over his own.” —Anonymous respondent, via a SurveyMonkey poll
We know what you think of us—all Dr. Skippers do. You treat us (blatantly! In your own words!) like a game piece in whatever creepy sperming contest you're having with our dads. But...could you stop? YOU ARE BEING WEIRD. All we really want to be is your wife or your colleague or your president or your fellow human being. We don't want to abolish name-changing or sexual touching (or, not most of us, anyway)—we just want to have a genuine say in when and why they happen.
Beyond the broader implications about gender inequality, leaving this double standard unexamined (i.e. privileging male identity over female identity with absolutely zero slanty-mouth) is shitty for your relationship on a junk-to-junk level. That's some bush-league garbage romance. Case in point, here's what the Men's Health respondents have to say about disobedient sluts who keep their maiden names:
“It’s not a close relationship.” —Anonymous respondent, via a SurveyMonkey poll
“She puts herself ahead of her marriage.” —Anonymous respondent, via a SurveyMonkey poll
“Their sex life is probably terrible.” —Anonymous respondent, via a SurveyMonkey poll
When I read that, I don't hear anything but pee-pants fear. If you believe that your relationship (which is built on mutual affection and genuine closeness...right?) is in grave danger if you don't perform this borderline-superstitious old-timey ritual, then your relationship probably blows. If you think that you won't be able to fully trust your wife if she doesn't take your name, then you don't understand how trust works at all.
"I tied you up 'cause I trust you!!!"
"Ow, the rope's really tight."
"Well, I trust you a lot!"
This isn't just about taking or keeping names. This is about "letting" your wife be her own person—with or without her maiden name—which isn't only good for her, it's also good for you, good for the relationship, and good for society in general. We need women out there doing things, making noise, being people. If you two decide, mutually and consensually, to go in a completely opposite direction, that's fine, too (there's no BDSM, for instance, without consensual objectification)—but that decision should only be made by two people who are consciously making that choice. If you're going to spend the rest of your life with someone, then it is better to be with someone who's choosing to be with you. Whatever the fuck their name is.
Image by Jim Cooke.