Names and Identity, Part 2

Part 1 is here.

In a nutshell, the issue with a woman taking a man’s name is the way it folds her identity into his. We’ve mostly gotten past the idea that women are the property of their father, until he hands them over to their husbands. (I say mostly because of the “giving away” tradition at weddings, and please don’t get me started on Purity Balls.) So, we should maybe *not* have the default be that her name reflects that handing over from one guy to another, with the idea that a woman’s only identity is in terms of the man she belongs to.

At the same time, your identity does change when you’re married, so having a name change reflect that isn’t wholly a bad thing. It’s just that the husband’s identity should, presumably, change too, rather than the wife’s identity just being subsumed. In the more or less egalitarian society we’re supposed to have, he’s made a major life change and commitment, not acquired a new piece of property. And yet, most of the time, the wife’s name is the one that changes.

There are times when one partner’s identity is subordinate to the other’s. Like, when I go to a work picnic with my hubby, I’m Mrs. Matt–anyone there who knows me knows me in relation to him. That’s not a bad thing. When he goes to my cousin’s wedding, he’s basically Mr. Kelly.* In that context, people know him in relation to me. And when we have kids, their friends and teachers will know us first and foremost as “Billy’s mom” or “Susie’s dad.” Identity is complicated and multifaceted, and the people you have connections to–particularly your spouse, the person you share your life with–do define facets of your identity.

Ideally, there’s a balance there. My identity isn’t wholly subordinate to Matt’s–there are times when my role is “Matt’s wife” and I’m in a certain place doing a certain thing to support him. And the reverse is also true. But for most people, the name change pretty much only works one way (though in fairness to Matt, I should point out that he offered to take my name if I wanted him to).

There’s really no way your name can incorporate every part of your identity, because no one has the time or inclination to string all the facets of identity into a person’s name. I can’t very well introduce myself as Kelly, daughter of M and C, wife of Matt, sister to A and sister-by-marriage** to D, M, and B, daughter-by-marriage** to T and K. And that’s just the close family portion of the identity. Start the whole thing off with a dozen key things about me, like where I’m from or where I live now, where I went to school, what I do for a living, or the fact that I’m a Christian or a writer or a sci-fi geek, and it gets supremely ridiculous.

And I don’t really expect that a name should encompass every piece of your identity. That’s not really what names are for. They’re there to give the people who know you something distinct to call you that’s unique, or close to it, in the circle of people they associate with, so they can distinguish you from everybody else. But how names are formed, and when and how they’re changed, does say something about what we define as distinguishing one person from another. And it’s problematic for the first thing that distinguishes one woman from another is “who her husband is.”

*I will say, by the way, that I love the trend among feminist bloggers who are married to casually refer to their spouses as Mr. [Theirbloghandle]. It’s so perfectly appropriate, because as their readers, we know about these husbands only in relation to the wives whose work we’re reading.

**If it were feasible to incorporate all your familial relationships into your name, I like “sister/daughter-by-marriage” better than “in-law” because it better conveys my relationship with my husband’s family, all of whom are awesome. “In-law” has a connotation of people who aren’t real family, but you’re legally stuck with because of who you or they married.


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