Feminism | Posted by Tanvi S on 12/23/2013

On Keeping Your Last Name

There are so many little things we do that unconsciously lock us into the mindset that women are inferior. There are of course the big things that cause inequality that we obviously need to change, like the wage gap and violence against women, for example. But I feel like we can’t truly be equal until we also abolish all of the little sexist traditions that are so common. This can be anything from social conventions, like how men are expected to lead in dancing and pay for dates to the gendered way we use language, like calling a group of girls or a mixed group ‘guys’.

One of these issues that may seem small in context but is actually impactful is the convention that dictates that straight women should change their last name when they marry men. It’s still so commonplace as to remain largely unquestioned, but I will never understand why people still do this. This tradition of course started to indicate the change in ownership of a woman from her father to her husband, and yet even though we can all agree that women are no longer considered property (legally or otherwise) this tradition persists.

The thing that baffles me most is that women change their name voluntarily. No one makes them, it’s not mandatory, but people seriously want to! It seems the biggest reason for wanting to is that it’s a tradition. This seems like the weirdest reason to me because virtually any sexist or otherwise horrible thing can be justified by saying it is a “tradition”. This just shows that people blindly partake in rituals without critically thinking about their meaning or effect. Calling something a “tradition” hardly seems like an adequate justification.

My issue with women taking their partner’s last name is not solely about the history of ownership. I actually understand if any women want to take her partner’s last name — whether that partner is a man or woman– because it symbolizes their love or union, but it seems to me that should be a mutual decision that’s made carefully and intentionally. But I feel like more often than not, women rarely have a really have a solid defense for why they want to change their last name: they just feel it’s what they’re supposed to do and it’s just the way things are. Especially if a woman takes a man’s last name without question because it’s just what’s done, how does that symbolize mutual love? Why is it so frowned upon for a husband to take his wife’s last name, or for partners to choose a totally separate last name that symbolizes the new family they are creating?

The bottom line seems to be that women can’t continue to partake in “traditions” — no matter what those traditions are — without critically questioning them: doing so will only enforce a (still largely sexist) status quo.

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  • Talia bat Pessi @ at 11:46 am, December 24th, 2013

    Interesting. At first I wasn’t sure if I agreed with you, but your bottom line about having to critically analyze traditions is spot-on. Even if we come to the same conclusion as we did before, it’s just important that we do so with an active understanding of what we’re doing.

  • andi @ at 12:18 pm, December 24th, 2013

    I’ve been married just over a decade now, & am still seriously annoyed every time I have to explain that “we both kept our original names. ” Somehow no one ever asks my husband what his name was before he married. Also, its not just an offensive patriarchal custom, but once you have your career started, its a problem to change your name. Makes it hard to verify former employment, etc.

  • Gina M @ at 7:12 pm, December 24th, 2013

    1st marriage I took husband’s name, had no kids. After divorce, re-took my maiden name, and kept it for 2nd marriage which is still trucking along. Kids have his last name, but like having my independence :-)

  • Jacqueline @ at 7:18 pm, December 24th, 2013

    We thought through the decision pretty carefully, and my husband made it abundantly clear that he didn’t expect me to change my name, that it symbolized all these things you remark on in your post. Ultimately, I decided to change my name, but it was a decision built 100% upon liking the other surname better. I kept my original surname and made it into a second middle name.

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