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.

The Morning After April 17

For the longest time in my mid- to late-20s, I dated women. Then towards the end of that decade, I found myself seeing a man.  It was nothing serious – just shags and giggles.  He was never my boyfriend; I was never his girlfriend.  One night we popped out to the supermarket, probably to pick up some more wine.  We climbed out of the bloke’s ute, and as we crossed the parking lot, he took my hand.

And I freaked.

When I’d dated women, yes, I’d held hands with them in public.  But there was always a risk to this.  We’d get curious looks or words hurled at us – “lesbians!” “fucking dykes” “pussylickers” – and we’d worry about something worse happening.  A decision to hold hands in public was always a negotiation, a thoughtful “Is it OK?  Is it worth the level of risk in this particular instance?” Strolling to brunch on Ponsonby Rd when there was virtually no risk, we’d hold hands with no hesitation, a declaration of “yes, we can hold hands here, and hooray that we can hold hands here.”  In less welcoming environments, we may just quietly brush our fingers, a way of saying “I’d be holding your hand now if I felt safe to do so.”

So being able to hold hands with someone I wasn’t even that into in a supermarket parking lot in South Auckland like it wasn’t a thing felt utterly alien to me, and I just felt so fucking ill that he did it without even thinking about it – a natural action, to take my hand.  And an enormous privilege that I hadn’t had with the women I’d dated.  We’d evoke no curious glances, no threatening glares, no vile words.  People wouldn’t even look twice at he and I holding hands.  And that made me feel so uncomfortable – that in this instance, because he was male and I was female, our holding hands was a completely accepted, even expected, act.

That’s little bit like being engaged felt to me.  I was always aware that it was one of those privileges that I had simply because I’d happened to fall in love with a man, and that did not sit well with me.  I was clear from the start that we’d only actually be getting married if marriage equality was a reality by the time of our wedding – something which my fiance took absolutely zero convincing on.  He has his own reasons for feeling strongly about marriage equality.

There was a lot of talk about words during the marriage equality debate – about how same-sex couples should be OK accepting civil unions only, how “marriage” as a word has always been defined as between and man and a woman throughout all time and cultures, how it’s definition had never changed and never ought to change*.  There were fears that words like “bride” and “groom”, “husband” and “wife” would disappear, and people felt strongly about that because those are incredibly powerful, meaningful words.

There is the none-too-small fact that married couples are able to adopt, while civilly united couples are not.  However, like I imagine the vast majority of couples, we don’t plan to adopt, so there is no appreciable legal difference between the two relationship solemnisation options for us.  Therefore, our desire to be married rather than civilly united is entirely down to words.  We want to be married. I want my fiance to be my husband; he wants me to be his wife.  I even want to be (ack, I can’t believe I’m saying this) a bride!  Yes, we could have a civil union ceremony and just use those words anyway, but that would feel to me like a bit of a charade.  Besides, the one bum note at the beautiful civil union ceremonies I’ve been to is always the “I now pronounce you partners in civil union.”  Which I’ve always felt lacks the poetry and gravitas of “I now pronounce you husband and wife” or “I now pronounce you wife and wife” or even simply “I now pronounce you married”.  As I’ve said before, words are powerful.  Words are what this debate was all about.  And I wanted those words, and my fiance wanted those words.  Just not at the cost of sublimating aspects of ourselves, and not at the cost of feeling like a privileged other to some of the people we hold dearest.

So the morning after April 17th, the morning after the bill Marriage Amendment Act had been voted into law, I woke up full of joy and peace about getting married for the first time.  Because it’s no longer a privilege my fiance and I are lucky enough to enjoy because I happen to be female and he happens to be male.  It’s not something we get to choose that our gay friends and relatives don’t.  It’s open to anyone who wants it, and it doesn’t deny any part of either of us.  And that makes it so much more meaningful for both of us.

___________

* To which I simply say: “snort!”