Monday, September 6, 2010

Women and Last Names

I was watching TV and saw a commercial for Chase Quick Deposit. The concept is pretty cool: you take a picture on your phone of both sides of a check, and it gets deposited. The commercial shows a couple who just got married using Quick Deposit on their wedding gifts. “Mr. and Mrs. Walker? Why did she write a check for my parents?” the husband asks. They both laugh and enter matrimonial bliss together.

This commercial really irks me. I understand that most women abandon their maiden names - the Lucy Stone League says 90% of newlywed women a year - but that still leaves 10% of women who don’t. Why should the woman in the commercial be assumed to take his last name?

I suppose I have my eighth grade Torah teacher to blame for my sensitivity to women and last names. We learned the book of Deuteronomy with her, and 29:19 says, “God will not be willing to forgive [an idolater; as punishment] God will erase their name from under the heavens.” Our teacher then had us write a composition about our Hebrew names and their meaning. My essay was pretty great, and she gave me a check-plus-plus, but the name I wrote about was all wrong. I wrote about the Hebrew name that my parents gave me at birth. However, my legal name was always Talia, and I always went by it. I recently discovered that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein said that if someone has others call them by a different name for thirty days, the new name is his or her official name in Jewish law. So I became Talia. I was thrilled. I had been looking for a way to change it for ages.

But this post isn’t about my name; it’s about women taking their husbands’ names upon marriage. As virtually said above, it’s not something I support.

Is the feminist movement about choices? Yes! Of course! It’s all about women feeling comfortable as women. (See my previous blog post about women and leg shaving.) But there are some things that no woman should feel comfortable doing. “There are certain rights of women that do have to be absolute….No one can condone any practice of any society that…denies [women’s] personhood,” Betty Friedan wrote in her autobiography Life So Far. She was discussing the chador and its feminist implications, but it can also apply to women and name change at marriage. A woman taking her husband’s name denies her personhood. It says that she is unimportant, that her name, her history, is not important. Her name is erased “from under the heavens.”

So if we’ve established that women’s taking their husbands’ names is a sexist behavior, the question arises as to how to avoid said sexist behavior. To me, the easiest solution is to merge the names. Instead of saddling a child with a name like Rosenberger-Silverstein, they can be Rosenstein or Silverberger or Rosensilver. Some names aren’t as easy to merge; Erica Paladino-Sweeney complains that she couldn’t figure out a way to merge her maiden name, Paladino, and her married name, Sweeney. To me, isn’t Palaney a viable option? I think any names can be merged. It avoids the whole Rosenberger-Silverstein issue, and the future issue of a Rosenberger-Silverstein marrying a Horowitz-Spiegelman. I actually knew of a couple where both parties had a hyphenated name, and they merged all four names into one, so I suppose Rosenberger-Silverstein and Horowitz-Spiegelman could become Spirosteiner, or something like that.

Women should of course be able to use their husbands’ names as middle names, keep their middle names as their maiden names, or solely go by their maiden names. The only reason I disagree with this is because then their children go by their father’s name, which just perpetuates the patriarchal system. We have to pave the way for our daughters to have different lives than we did, not just leave them with the same problems that we dealt with.

I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to end this post off, so I think I’ll leave it to Lucy Stone, one of the first women’s rights crusaders, and the first recorded woman to keep her name after marriage.

“A wife should no more take her husband’s name than he should hers.”

1 comment:

  1. You give me hope for the future! I live in what's supposed to be one of the most progressive places on earth, Manhattan's Upper West Side. You can't even go to the dog run without realizing that folks here are hypersensitive to language and the power of naming, what with Ophelia, the Springer Spaniel, and D'Artangne, the Boxer mix. But when it comes to naming in marriage, sometimes I wonder if attitudes have budged an inch since the fifties.

    Part of me suspects it's some sort of cosmetic coping mechanism, a way to maintain a semblance of "normalcy," or a way of securing a connection to the past despite the very different lives women and men are living these days. My husband didn't blink when I said I wasn't changing my name when we got married. I was older, a professional who had gotten degrees and been published ... but he was heels-dug-in insistent that we be announced as "Mr. and Mrs." for our first dance. It made no sense to me, but as I'm sure he's had far more head-scratching moments in our relationship, I went with it.

    I've been friends for years with a man whose marriage helped convince me that the institution might just be big enough to accommodate my (big) mouth and me, but it wasn't until I was addressing my wedding invitations that he admitted his wife hadn't taken his name when they got married. (And for him it really was admitting. His words: "It wasn't something he advertised!")

    Maybe we're all pushing the boulder of "tradition" a little bit further up the hill. Change may come way too slowly, but at least it's coming.

    Love your blog! So glad I've discovered it.