Monday, 20 February 2012

What's the Name of the Game?

Autumn Leaves Letterpress Wedding Invitation

This is another post in the long established tradition of posts highly likely to offend some of my closest friends. I will still go ahead with it, because as Christopher Hitchens said, one cannot be half a heretic. I do not think that keeping my thoughts inside would make for better friendships; in contrast, I think that better friendships are formed when all the cards are on the table, for better and worse.
With that in mind, let us quickly move to the toxic subject of women’s last names. In particular, the taken for granted habit where women take on their husbands' names upon marriage.
I will leave the discussion of the marriage institution for another time. What is clear, for now, is that this habit of women taking their husbands’ names comes from the not too distant past, barely a century ago, where women were generally considered their husbands’ chattel. If that is the case, then why do women still do it?
I would argue they do it because they are still living in a male dominated world, a world in which the women’s right revolution still has a while to go before true gender equality is taken for granted. My problem, therefore, is not with women taking their husbands’ names, but rather – why do they choose to take their husbands’ names in the first place when they should know better?
The answer I expect to get from most women would be the same as the one I get from non believing Jewish friends when they’re asked why they still circumcise their sons: social conventions. To which I will answer – so what?
Social conventions have been proven wrong many times, if not most of the times. Remember that social conventions regarded women as inferior property till a hundred years ago, and blacks as inherently inferior till much more recently – if not within your life time then certainly within your parents’. I won’t even venture to discuss where social convention used to have religion and the key role religion played in peoples’ lives, roles that even the majority of today’s believers would cast aside in favour of the secular state. Yet all these changes had to come after some sort of a struggle; no power holder gave up their power out of their own free will (a sad testimony indeed for humanity as a whole). What I am therefore trying to say to the women of the world is that our world, their world, your world would not get any better without you sticking up for yourself.
If I try and dress myself in imaginary women’s clothing, I guess I would consider taking my husband’s name were my last name to be along the lines of FuckMeUpTheAss and my husband’s something as exciting as Wildstar (note I fully acknowledge many of us really like it up the ass; that goes with what I am trying to say here). Such a contrast does not apply to most marriages, though, which brings me to conclude with this statement: women will never find themselves truly equal until they stick up for themselves, and the first theatre for such a confrontation should be the one involving the person they love the most. If you fail there, expect to fail everywhere.

Image by Sarah Parrot, Creative Commons license


Sarah said...

Not sure that I am classified as one of your closest friends but as 50% of the readership of the blog I feel it is my duty to respond...

Women never have their own name. They either have their father's or their husband's name. Either way you are being dominated by a male naming system unless you only go by your first name like Madonna or make up your own name completely and who could be bothered doing that.

I'm not sure the naming issue is so strongly tied with equality. It is what woman do with themselves rather than what they call themselves that is important.

What's in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet

Moshe Reuveni said...

First: Yes, you are.
Second: I agree with a lot of what you're saying but I also disagree with some.
I agree there is not much to a name. Mine, Reuveni, was adopted by my father's family when they were escaping the USSR and for some odd reason (a dumb great grandmother, it seems) chose to migrate to Palestine instead of doing what any sane person would do and go to New York instead. At the time Palestine was under British rule, and they limited Jewish entry; the family had to adopt the name of an existing resident and pretend to come to Israel under some family reunion scheme to get in.
There is more to that. Of your four grandparents, only one’s name survives (1 in 8 if you go higher, then 1 in 16 etc): can anyone argue that the rest of their ancestors, the ones whose names did not make it, are useless? When someone says “wow, he’s a Kennedy from a long line of Kennedys”, does that statement make any sense in the first place?
Yet as much as I dismiss them, names do have a meaning. And if all women automatically assume the names of their husbands and never the other way around then there will always be a crack in gender equality. Worse, if all women automatically assume their kids will automatically get their husband’s name instead of theirs then that crack grows into a proper breach.
The name thing is entirely symbolic, I agree. However, I also argue that as long as we allow these symbols to flourish uninterrupted we should not pretend to be surprised when women turn out to earn less or, as I constantly see again and again from men all around me, women are regarded as inferior, pure and simple.

Wicked Little Critta said...

Interesting post.

From my view, I struggled when trying to decide what to do about my last name when getting married. I agree that women taking husbands' last names is representative of a society that views them as inferior. But I think that there are various things to consider when faced with the question, including practicality and personal significance.

For me, I disliked the idea of giving up my last name just because I'm female. To his credit, my husband suggested combining our names to make a new family name, but for me it is important to identify with our families of origin. So I hyphenated my name. And I don't like it. So I've just informally been going by my husband's name. To me there was no option I liked, but in the end it was more important to me for us to have a common family name than to make a statement for societal reasons. Something that leaves me dissatisfied to this day.

One thing I thought was really interesting was how strongly my parents felt about me taking a new name when I got married...when I talked to them about hyphenating, my mom actually said she wouldn't let me keep my name as it is. (Funny to imagine what she was planning on doing to prevent it...)

Do you think your opinion might be different if you were female?

Moshe Reuveni said...

I agree there are plenty of considerations (as noted in my post), but I disagree about other points. Take practicality: my son has my wife's last name (believe it or not, it's for practicality's sake) and as a result I am often referred to as Mr [wife's last name] instead of Mr [my name]. Does it bother me? It makes me laugh, but that's it as far as practicalities are concerned. And one of the main reasons it makes me laugh is the assumption that the child automatically takes their father's name and not, god forbid, the mother's.
I'll let god into the picture again because you asked me whether my opinion would be different if I was a woman. Obviously, I cannot answer this question with much reliability. What I can say is, to repeat my post, I discovered that I cannot be half a heretic; when I see a wrong, it is hard for me to pretend it away, harder to picking up a fight. Thus I will pick up a fight with anyone on matters of religion, as I have with my family on numerous occasions (circumcision? check!). I would therefore like to think I would have picked up the fight on my last name as a woman, too, under the assumption that until people start picking up the fight nothing will ever improve.

With regards to hyphenating names as a workaround: I agree, the result could be nasty (although I don’t think it is in your case). It gets worse when you think what your children will need to do after they get married.
I therefore think the right solution is to agree on a name with the husband. It could be that you’ll pick the husband’s name out of this discussion, but the point is to have the discussion in the first place and agree to a solution based on rational reasons rather than tradition. Before honouring tradition, for you mother’s sake or whatever, always remember that tradition would happily regard you as inferior property.