Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A Rose By Any Other Name Smells Just As Sweet

Or what's in a name? Like in women changing their name when getting married. A couple of posts on this very old feminist topic turned up yesterday.

Matthew Yglesias thinks changing your name at marriage doesn't make much sense. Imagine if you had to change it every time you change your job, to match the name of the new firm, for instance. That is funny, because Finnish last names were originally often the names of farms, so you actually did change your last name when you moved to a new farm. But most people didn't have last names at all; they were just Someone's Daughter or Someone's Son, the "Someone" always being a man, of course.

Atrios also thinks that keeping your maiden name at marriage is quite all right, and that the whole question of names is not really worth thinking about. Do what you want.

It is pretty trivial in the grand scheme of things, certainly falling far below saving the environment and stopping all wars. But it's an interesting feminist topic to address, for all sorts of historical reasons.

First, the custom of women taking their husband's last name is not a universal one. The Chinese didn't do it, and in many countries people just didn't have last names at all. But where "family names" became the norm those names were always the names of the man's family. Thus, whenever two people married, the woman moved from her family into his, initially physically but later at least in the terms of the last name she adopted at that moment.

For example, Elizabeth Jones became Mrs. John Smith, with just one stroke of a pen on the wedding certificate, and Elizabeth Jones died, to all practical purposes. If you study genealogical records it can be very hard to find out who some "Mrs. John Smith" once was, you know, except for being the wife of John Smith. In a sense, this erases women from much of history.

My guess is that many second wave feminists focused on this topic for the reason that name changes do tend to "disappear" the women from written history, not to mention the obvious imbalance in always expecting her to move to his family group and never the other way around. But then other feminists point out that all the woman is doing is moving from one man's (the father's) family group to another man's (the husband's) family group. The only way around that problem is to pick a brand new family name and to start your own family group.

Except that this seldom happens. Even in the cases where a woman keeps her family name at marriage, even in that case the children mostly get the father's surname. Unless hyphenation is used. But that just reintroduces the problem for the next generation, because at some point there will be too many names to connect together.

I think that viewing the name from the angle of perpetuating a family is the most useful one, and then we are faced with the question of asking whose family it is that is being perpetuated. There are practical solutions to this. For instance, every other child could be given the father's last name, every other the mother's last name, and both parents could keep their own names.

If you find that unappealing it's probably because many feel that families should all share the same last name. The easiest feminist solution to that is to decree that for the next hundred years it will be the men who change their name at marriage and that all children will get the mother's last name. Imagine proposing that. I'm sure that many men would not like it at all. Even if names in general are trivial things, your name is not. Right?

At the same time, the custom of changing your name at marriage has been given a romantic halo by the history, by old movies and books where some poor girl from not-much family becomes a countess by capturing the count's heart. Also, sacrificing your name is part of that gift of love for many women, even today, and the drawbacks of it seem acceptable, especially if you didn't like your original family name that much to begin with. The best way to see those drawbacks is to contemplate that reversal I proposed in the penultimate paragraph.