“It’s McCombs. Like mine.”
“Huh. Well, you just defy all stereotypes, don’t you?”
People are often surprised to find out that I chose to change my last name after I got married. It’s not as if this is an unusual decision on a population level, but I’d say it’s less common among self-identified feminist sex educators who have post-grad education.
Since I’m often (good naturedly) asked to explain why I chose to change my surname, I thought I’d share my rationale with MSP readers for “change” week.
When we were in the process of planning our wedding, I’d told my husband I wanted to take his name. Similarly to my colleague’s reaction, he’d assumed that based on my politics, I’d be keeping my maiden name.
Earlier in our relationship, I’d made it clear that I didn’t want to be proposed to, nor did I want to be “given away” at our wedding. So, logically, the name change choice surprised him. While I think he enjoyed the idea of us having the same last name, he assured me that taking his name wasn’t something he needed from me and that he’d support my decision either way.
It’s not as though there was any pressure from my in-laws either. While his parents had the same last name, his paternal grandfather adopted a hyphenated last name after he married his second wife.
My parents were pretty neutral on the subject as well. My mother had changed her last name to my father’s legally, but used her maiden name for professional purposes since she’d finished her doctorate before meeting my dad.
My mom and I had lots of talks about my decision. Conversations about the relative feminist merits of things were always part of our dynamic and my last name change (or not) was no exception.
She and I agreed that, on a cultural level, there’s some inherent inequality in the woman taking the man’s last name. Yes, it’s possible for a couple to change both their names, but that’s legally and socially more complicated to carry out. Given that I didn’t want to get a lawyer to do a legal name change, nor did I want a hyphenated last name, it came down to two choices: keep mine or take his.
I remember her saying, “What’s more feminist? Using a man’s name that you’ve chosen, or a man’s name that was given to you at birth?” The decision seemed a bit of a wash to her. The societal construction of husband-name-taking is easily viewed as un-feminist, but the personal decision to do so is a bit more nuanced.
Another point I considered was whether taking my husband’s last name would seem un-feminist outside a sexist culture. If equality existed in other areas of our culture, would that decision seem inherently unjust? I feel a tremendous amount of shared power and responsibility within my relationship, even if I live in a world where that equality isn’t always reflected.
Admittedly, a significant proportion of my decision came from a desire for ease. I enjoy the simplicity of having one last name in my immediate family and I’ll enjoy the ease that having the same last name as my kids will bring.
But what I think is key in the “is it feminist or not” question is how the decision is examined. I have zero judgment for women who choose to keep the last name they were born with, or a combined hyphenated name, or some new name altogether. Like all things related to feminism, I’m a proponent of personal choice, not proscribed action. I made the choice that felt right for me, and I’ve never regretted the decision.
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