Among its many dubious achievements contemporary feminism has transformed the relationship women have to their names.
It did not have to litigate, legislate or regulate. By the force of argument it convinced large numbers of women and small numbers of men that what used to be called a woman’s “maiden name” is really “her name” to have and to keep, even in marriage.
For most people it did not seem to be very important. A woman can choose freely to call herself what she wishes and to define herself as she wishes in marriage.
But then, there was the matter of the honorifics. Feminism decided to banish Miss and Mrs., the better erase the invidious division between married and unmarried women. It did not want to grant a special status to a woman who was more closely attached to a man.
Since men, married or not, are always Mr., feminists decided that the same rule should apply to women. It chose the more neutral, content free, Ms. for all women, married or unmarried.
As you know, Ms. is pronounced Miz. I have it on good authority that it’s short for misery.
Since the media has decided that it is easier to acquiesce, nearly all women in the media are referred to as Ms., whether they like it or not. For the record, a few notable married women are still referred to as Mrs., as in Mrs. Bush and Mrs. Obama.
Since Ms. was an assertion of ideological commitment, it should have felt strange that all women had been signed into the feminist cause, regardless of their own views.
Be all that as it may, feminists who married, kept their names and did not change their honorific were faced with a dilemma: what name should they give to their children?
Blindly handing down the father’s name did not seem to be feministically correct. Wasn’t the patronymic a form of institutional patriarchy?
Some pioneering feminists decided to give their children hyphenated names.
Children could bear the names of both of their parents, the hyphen symbolizing the connection that made the parents one flesh… or something like that.
By now, most of these changes to the marital designation are not even controversial. They have not elicited too much discussion and debate. Precious few people fought back, for fear of being taxed with misogyny.
Let’s examine some of the issues raised.
In some cases it makes perfectly good sense for a woman whose has an established professional identity to keep her name.
If you are Mariah Carey or Celine Dion, it does not make very much sense to change it.
If you have established a career as a lawyer under one name, it makes sense not to change it, if only for professional purposes.
A woman who decides, as the saying goes, to keep her name might encounter problems when she visits her a child’s school. There she might have to explain why Johnny Smith’s mother is named Rebecca Witherspoon, but, this is usually not too much of a bother.
On a more theoretical level, we should question this idea that when a woman chooses not to change her name she is “keeping her name.”
This does not make a lot of sense. Your name is not your private property. You do not own it; it is not your possession; if you change it you are not giving it away.
If Rebecca decides to keep “her name” she is, effectively, keeping her father’s last name. Keeping her maiden name means, by the old customs, that she is designating herself as her father’s daughter, not her husband’s wife.
To call this a sign of independence and autonomy stretches things just a bit.
You name designates your place within a family and therefore within a community. It defines a set of relationships with other members of the family. It does not assert your individuality or define you as the property of anyone else.
Historically women have, at times, been treated as property. This is not what it means for a woman to take her husband’s name. If a child receives his father’s (and his mother’s) name that does not mean that he is their property.
Of course, some women do not want to take their husband’s names because they do not want to be thought of as anyone’s wife.
They believe that being his wife entails being a possession, because, after all,some feminists believe that possessive pronouns make you someone’s possession.
Of course, this is absurd. A husband’s wife no more belongs to her husband than a wife’s husband belongs to his wife. They may belong together, but that does not mean that either one is the property of the other. Being your father’s child does not mean that he possesses you; it doesn’t even mean that you are possessed!
Since adopting the honorific Ms. and retaining one’s maiden name makes a statement, it is fair to say that changing one’s name and being called Mrs. also makes a statement.
A woman who wants to be identified publicly by her husband’s name is telling the world that she is part of a couple, that she is married, and thus, unavailable.
Since she chose freely to get married was presumably free why should she appear to be hiding the fact?
Similarly, a woman who bears her father’s name is announcing that she is unmarried, and thus, available.
If a woman is married, why would she want to cultivate ambiguity? And, what does the reptilian region of the male brain think about it. Why might he imagine that she refuses to declare publicly that they are married? What does it mean that she wants to be ambiguous about her marital status.
The same male brain might also imagine that if she is going to be ambiguous about her marital status, then he can be so too.
In a strange way, if you redefine the marital relationship, if you remove the fact that two married people have the same name, you might also be undermining the institution.
It does not seem accidental that contemporary feminism has provoked massive numbers of divorces.
Women have argued that men are not obliged to designate their marital status by changing their name. But the fact is, a man’s marital status changes when his wife changes her name, when they become Mr. and Mrs.
And besides, for all I know this might have something to do with the epidemic of single motherhood that has drawn some considerable attention of late and that everyone, with the exception of Katie Roiphe, recognizes to be a bad thing?
These customs exists for a reason. That reason involves the fundamental uncertainty about paternity. The identity of a child’s mother can be known with absolute certainty. The child's father, not so much. On that score, you are obliged to take the mother’s word for it.
When a woman gives birth, she names the child’s father. Her word is the law.
Normally, no one asks her explicitly who the father is. It is assumed that her husband is the father, and therefore, that her married name will be given to her child.
The custom is based on the assumption that women are trustworthy and honorable.
A woman has a right to keep her maiden name, thus, to assert her independence and autonomy. She has the right to say that she does not want to feel bound to her husband.
But then why would a man not think that perhaps she was also asserting her independence and autonomy when she got pregnant? If she refuses to be attached to him in the public eye, why would he assume that she wasn't acting as a free agent when she conceived a child?
If a man is supposed to provide for children because his wife says that they are his, if she refuses to identify herself as his wife is she also saying that they may not be his?
Will he therefore feel a much weaker obligation to care for children that may or may not be his. Could it be that this new feminist custom has contributed to the epidemic of single motherhood?
Of course, there are always a few in every crowd, a few married couples who have two different names and who decide to give their children both of their names.
They have chosen to make a political statement by calling their children Smith-Jones or Atherton-Rumpelstiltskin.
Apparently, this custom has gone out of favor because, as NPR points out, when young lovers Brendan Greene-Walsh and Leila Rathert-Knowles think about getting married, they are faced with the rank impossibility of merging their names.
This is to say that those zealous parents who decided to live their ideology by saddling their children with two names did not think past the current generation. To NPR it is a joke. Its article is entitled: “When Hyphen Boy Meets Hyphen Girl, the Names Pile Up.”
Wanting to strike a blow for gender equity a certain number of parents have only succeeded in humiliating their children, reducing them to hyphen boy and hyphen girl.
The great minds of feminism succeeded in reinventing the wheel. By setting out to break the hold of traditional customs they have succeeded in demonstrating why the customs are as they are.