Feminist Decision-Making (Or: How I Decided to Change My Name After Marriage)

There is nothing either feminist or unfeminist, but thinking makes it so.

– Shakespeare, basically

Every so often there is a debate, a hubbub or even a furore about whether a woman changing her name after marriage is “unfeminist”.  The only unfeminist action I can think of is declaring “I’m not a feminist and I think all feminists everywhere should stfu” (or words to that effect).  Everything else – nope.  There is no Big Feminist Rule Book stating which things are and are not OK.  There is no feminist hive mind.  Individual women identifying as feminist will hold every opinion under the sun.

The key to making a feminist decision, in my opinion, is thinking, understanding and acknowledging.  So if you’re considering changing your name after marriage, acknowledge that this is an action which has historically indicated that a woman is possessed by a man, understand that there is still a lot of pressure on women to change their names after marriage and plenty of judgement for those who choose not to, and think about what giving up your name will mean for you.  After all that, if changing your name still seems like a good idea, go for it.

This process works for pretty much every other action which is sometimes labelled unfeminist.  You know: getting married, having babies, not having babies, being a stay-at-home mum, undertaking sex work, enjoying casual sex, engaging in BDSM, wearing a bra, allowing men to hold the door open for you (gosh, being a woman is fraught sometimes, isn’t it?)

Here is my story.  I got married at the beginning of last year, and I chose to change my name to that of my husband.  It was a decision made at the end of a conversation that lasted over a year and began with “You know I’m not taking your name, right?” “Yep.”  I had never considered changing my name after marriage.  In fact, I was one of those feminists who was boggled by the fact that so many women still chose to do so, when it seemed to me to be so unnecessary.

My partner and I got engaged and then spent just over a year planning our wedding.  During that time we really started to nail down what being married actually meant to us (possibly we should have nailed it down before we agreed to get married, but engagements are more about romance than logic).  The answer to that is wildly complex, hugely personal and way too much for a simple blog post, but the main thrust of it is: we were choosing each other as family.

That’s not where I made the decision to take his name, though.  Our surnames are often referred to as family names, but I know that a name is not what makes a family.  My mother, my sisters and I all share different surnames, but this sure as hell doesn’t make us any less family.

We all have different names firstly because my mother reverted to her previous name after she and my father split, and secondly because I chose to change my surname by deed poll back at the start of my 20s.  The name I chose wasn’t a surname anyone in our family had held previously, but it had a familial connection nonetheless, plus a wonderful feminist story attached to it and a certain amount of magic and uniqueness, and I loved it.  I’ve also changed my first name in the years since, although not legally (yet), and in the course of working in the sex industry I answered to many, many names.  So names have always felt a little bit nebulous and impermanent to me.

Anyway, once my then-fiance and I identified that one of the reasons we were getting married was because we were choosing each other as family, we started to consider the idea of a family name to reflect that.  I really liked the idea of choosing a whole new name just for us.  However, my husband has a very strong connection to his name for highly understandable reasons which go well beyond the usual “It was my father’s name, and his father’s before him, etc, etc” tosh.  He wanted to hold onto it, so we considered the idea of hyphenating.

I don’t know about hyphenating.  It’s become such a standard compromise both for couples getting married and for couples with different surnames to bestow on their offspring.  I wonder about the next generation, though.  When Jane Smith-Brown marries Kim Davidson-Howard, are they going to take the surname Smith-Brown-Davidson-Howard?  How long are birth certificates going to have to be when it’s time to register little Tabitha Jenson-Steel-Howick-Robinson-Cooper-Osborne-Myers-Jeffries’ birth?  Despite this, we would have likely pursued that option, but for the fact that my former name would, for various reasons, be difficult for my husband to pull off, shall we say.  And as we discussed the possibility, I found myself not wanting him to have ~my~ name.  It was a name that I’d chosen wholly for myself, and it was a name that was chosen as something of an act of independence from my family.  My surname wasn’t my family name; it was more of an anti-family name.  So it made no sense for my husband to take it as a symbol of the fact that we’d chosen each other as family.

And that’s when I got to thinking about how things were back all those years ago when I chose to change my name, and how I’d largely healed the rifts with my family, and how I’d sort of simultaneously felt like I’d spent so long drifting without a family exactly, and how my strange surname reflected that.  THAT’S when I made the decision to change my name.  Because I was no longer drifting, because I was choosing to anchor myself to someone (who was likewise choosing to anchor themselves to me).

I’m not going to claim it was a profoundly feminist decision.  But it was a profoundly personal and thoughtful decision made by a feminist, and thus it was definitely not unfeminist.

Dianic Wicca and Women Without Wombs

To be honest, although it sounds lame, my spiritual “aha!” moment came reading The Mists of Avalon at 13.  That was literally when I realised that Christianity was not in fact the only spiritual option (Yeah, the city I grew up in was pretty monocultural).  As far back as I can remember, I had tried to engage with spirituality.  I’d tried praying on my knees before bed like they did in the picture books.  I’d tried reading the Bible, tried talking to Jesus.  It all just left me cold.  But The Mists of Avalon opened up a whole other world of possiblities for me.

That was in the early ’90s.  Back then, I’d never heard of the terms “wicca” or “pagan”.  There had been no Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, no Charmed, no entire shelf in every bookshop filled with everything from How to be a Teenage Witch to The Dark Goddess and the New Mythologies.  There was no internet (now, that’s showing my age!).  OK, the internet existed when I was 13, but I had no access to it and didn’t know anyone who did.  What there was was two books in the local independent bookstore: Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance and Zsuzsanna Budapest’s The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries.  I saved up my pocket monies and bought them both.  The Spiral Dance made a lot of sense to me, but it was The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries which really resonated deeply.  Zsuzsanna Budapest’s woman-centric Dianic wicca was the spiritual framework I had been looking for. (A little Wikipedic overview for those with no blessed idea what I’m talking about.)

A good 20 years has passed since then and my spirituality has obviously grown into its own form, in some ways departing dramatically from Z Budapest’s writings, but her book will always be a significant foundation stone for me.  So I felt seriously, deeply gutted when I decided to seek her out on Twitter recently and came across this tweet:

Just recently the trannies(if they can call me names i can call them names) has disrupted and shut down a very… http://fb.me/19oGqu6hW

(The link inexplicably leads to actually a pretty interesting Ms article on transgendered feminist bloggers.)  This truncated statement didn’t look very encouraging, I have to say, but I figured maybe there was a context.  I found the rest of her statement on her Facebook page:

Just recently the trannies(if they can call me names i can call them names) has disrupted and shut down a very important feminist gathering in London. They are a very well supported male organization in skirts and make up. The other 1 percent. (actually they are more 0.03 percent of the population)but with money and male egos driving it, they are very affective. They have hijacked our words (feminism) they “invaded” our institutions by force of lawyers, (who paid them?)but they look all innocent here, as individuals. Just a bunch of words, and plenty of blahbalhbalh.

And there was worse.  Much, much dismayingly worse.  I could fill a heartbreaking entry with her transphobic vitriol, but here are a couple of tastes:

The transies fight us like Marines with lipstick.

The trannies are powerful, foul mouthed and hating us women because they are never going to be us, but they can push us aside if we whimp out.

The core of this right wing work to silence women, take away even our name, not done by the nice ts people, but the many many more who are organized, get paid, have orders and a global plan to disrupt feminism from gathering in public places. Power over women, power over where we gather, power over to intimidate, ruin your day and progress. They act like men. If they were women they would fight like women, “bond and nourish.”Instead its burning down our institutions with their rhetoric and lawyers.

Imagine a group of males banging on the door to be allowed into a all women skyclad circle. There is no sense of decency amongts them. Its occupy, and bother naked ladies.

All [sic].  And also sick.  So, it turns out one of my heroines is a paranoid transphobe who is convinced that the Big Council of Men has ordered some of their members to become transgendered just so that they can infiltrate women’s spaces, and that men would go through gender reassignment just so that they can see skyclad titties at a women’s ritual circle.  What the actual fuck?  Wouldn’t popping down to their local strip club be a seriously easier option?  Yeah.  I was going to say it’s a bit like finding out that Santa Claus isn’t real, but it’s more like finding out that Santa Claus stole all your favourite toys and made a toasty bonfire with them while laughing manaically.  There were some vociferous dissenting comments on her page, but even more in support of her.  A lot along the lines of “they can’t know what it means to be a woman.  They don’t menstruate or nurture life in the wombs.”  If you feel so compelled, you can read them here.

What inspired me about Dianic wicca is working with feminine energy, which seems so much more powerful (to me) than masculine or neutral energy.  Being a woman is part of it.  Yes, menstruation feels spiritual to me, with its rhythm reflecting the lunar cycle.  When I sought long-term contraception recently, I eliminated the Mirena from my list of options specifically because it prevents mentruation, and that doesn’t seem right.  However, my ability to menstruate is not the seat of my spirituality.  I will not feel less spiritual after menopause.  I would not feel less spiritual if I had to have a hysterectomy*.  And the other supposedly wondrous things about my female body?  Creating life in my womb, nourishing my offspring at my breast?  I have no intention of doing any of that stuff.  Does that make me less spiritual, less Dianic?  Hells, no.

Ultimately, spirituality is just not about the bodies we happen to be born in (fucking duh!).  And I think an argument could be made that trans-women have more deeply embraced feminine energies than cis-women.  They’ve had to actively seek it and fight for it, through societal sublimation and discrimination.  We cis-women are passive in our feminine energies.  Moreover, I can see absolutely no reason why actual male-born, penis-having, testosterone-y males should be excluded from Dianic wicca.  If a bloke wants to work with feminine energies, more power to him, I say.  Plenty of women seem extremely happy to address a male-form god and his son.

________________

* Z Budapest stated for clarity that only “women with wombs” were allowed to join her women’s ceremony.  Which makes me wonder where she stands on women who have had hysterectomies.