The other day I had a long discussion with Bitch Ph.D. in the comments at Unfogged about women keeping or changing their names at marriage.
My basic argument is:
a. I parse “fist name + last name” as “individual name + family name”.
b. My concept of marriage is two individuals founding a family.
Therefore, it makes sense for all individuals of the newly-formed family to have the same last name.
The problem for me then becomes one of what that name should be. In my case, for a number of reasons, my wife chose to share the family name I was born to.
I understand that many people have different concepts of both a and b, and those people should of course be under no obligation to change their names. I am only arguing that this public expression of family unity can outweigh other concerns like not wanting to reinforce a patriachal institution.
Bitch Ph.D., whose blog I read regularly and whose opinion I respect quite a bit, was saying that women taking their husbands names was appalling. Ordinarily when someone judges my actions wihout knowledge of my cricumstances or decision processes, I either ignore them or tell them to fuck off. In this case, however, as a fan, I found it difficult to ignore that she was in effect judging my wife’s choice with no knowledge of the context of that choice. (I know her comments weren’t meant to be taken personally, but it was difficult not to react to them personally.)
We had an interesting (to me, at least) discussion about the issue, and she has many valid criticisms of the practice. I believe that they are outweighed by the argument above alone, but as this is a matter of balancing the values involved, reasonable people can disagree about this.
During the discussion I refrained from bringing up the other reasons why we chose to share my name, because I thought it would be a digression, but since some of those reasons are interesting in their own right (and because I want to get it off my chest), I thought I’d post about them here.
We are an interracial couple living in Japan, and we had to overcome a lot of racist bullshit in order to get married, so racial and cultural issues are a bit more personal and immediate to us than gender issues.
My wife gets a kick out of the fact that merely stating her name is a big publc “fuck you” to those who think she’s a race-traitor.
Keeping her parents’ name would also be seen by many as an attempt not to rock the boat, to keep her choice of a foreign husband in the closet, and to hedge her bets in case of divorce, since everyone knows those Gaijin men tend to be unfaithful.
We also felt that, given that any children we have are going to be dealing with all sorts of racial issues growing up, sharing a common family name could reduce the number of confusing identity issues to deal with.
There were also less important aesthetic issues like the cool factor of an anglo-saxon name tacked onto her common Japanese name, and that she had never liked her surname to begin with. Her surname attached to my name really didn’t scan well, so we rejected that on aesthetic grounds.
She also strongly dislikes her father, and welcomed a chance to separate herself from him symbolically.
And of course there are the reasons that are really just excuses, like the sheer volume of paperwork and bureaucratic nonsense we would have had to go through to choose another option. It is here that I have to agree with Bphd’s assertion that it’s less of a “choice” if government and society coerces it. But we had to go through bureaucratic nonsense to change her name to something that can’t be written in Chinese characters, so this wasn’t a major factor anyway.
So maybe we are failing to send a message that helps subvert the patriarchal norms of society, but I think we’re sending other powerful messages to society on other fronts. As for gender issues, I know that our openly egalitarian family structure has caused fights in more than one neighborhood household where the husband has until now expected to be waited on hand and foot.
In the context of the cultures and societies in which we live, we all sometimes have to make choices between imperfect alternatives, and I believe that we should generally withhold our judgement of others’ choices until we understand that context.