Why feminist brides (sometimes) change their names

Like makeup, changing your name can be a desirable option

Wedding ring
(Image credit: (Thinkstock))

Zoe Holman wants to know why her feminist friends change their names when they get married. Or she says she's curious, but it's clear what she really wants to ask is why they've sold out as feminists. Feminists who oppose name-change — and not all do — tend to assume that name-changers know, deep down, that they're doing something terrible.

We get bogged down in 'choice feminism' discussions — can a woman ever choose the option that's consistent with what's expected of her? The same comes up regarding use of makeup. Given the pressure on women to wear the stuff, can a woman ever choose to do so? The 'choice feminism' conversation makes sense regarding substantive life decisions, but is far weaker regarding symbolic ones.

So let's address Holman's rhetorical question. Why, if not out of internalized sexism, might a woman take her husband's last name?

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Name-change, like makeup, is a hassle and an advantage. A gender-conforming man is spared trips to Sephora — but he doesn't have the option of concealing under-eye circles or choosing a more face-flattering shape for his eyebrows.

Changing your name is a potentially expensive inconvenience. Because it's a gendered-feminine choice, it, like makeup, it is symbolically associated with oppression. But it also has its perks.

Consider the reason Amanda Marcotte and Jill Filipovic dismiss as cognitive dissonance: A woman just happens to prefer her husband's last name. Hearing this led Marcotte "to wonder why only women have bad last names they're eager to get rid of." Writes Filipovic:

Given that men almost never change their names upon marriage, either there's something weird going on where it just so happens that women got all of the bad last names, or 'I changed my name because his is better' is just a convenient and ultimately unconvincing excuse. [The Guardian]

This is the standard feminist interpretation. There's probably some truth to it, but name-change, like makeup, is also sometimes a desirable option, and one that only women generally have access to. Many men and women alike might want to take on a new last name, but it's only socially acceptable for women to do so.

Men who have unfortunate names (e.g., they mean something hilarious in English), who want to mark a break with their families of origin, or who wish to make their ethnicity less obvious, can't do so discreetly. Whether a man changes from Leibowitz to Stewart, or Wilhelm to de Blasio, he will be asked to account for the reason. Ethnic self-hatred? Parental estrangement? Both? A man's name-change, because he had to go out of his way to do it, invites a confession.

Meanwhile, a woman can symbolically cut ties with her family of origin or, in many cases, disguise her ethnicity without seeming to be doing either. She's just taking her husband's name! In doing so, she'll stand accused of being a bad feminist (if, indeed, she identified as a feminist to begin with), but nothing more.

While this doesn't cover all name-changes, it explains quite a few, especially if one includes cases where a woman prefers a more 'ethnic' last name (to match her ethnicity, or not), or just wants a break with her past. Holman and Filipovic both cite Facebook recognition as a reason to keep one's name, but is everyone so thrilled to be located on social media? Putting all this together, it starts to seem as if the women who say they're changing their names because they want new ones aren't making excuses, but telling the truth.

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