Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Sometimes It’s Hard to Be a Woman
Volume One: The Name Game.

For one reason or another, as I’ve mentioned before, there seems to be a dearth of female participants in the Cal political blogsphere, among both blog authors and commentators. (I cannot prove that women aren’t reading, thanks to the genderl anonymity of IP addresses.) I won’t speculate as to the source of this disproportionality (though I may do so later). But I can say that as a female I might represent, however inaccurately, a woman’s voice to my male blogging peers.

One topic of debate, often though erroneously labeled as a “women’s issue” (as if any issue existed in a sexual vacuum), is that of a woman’s last name when she gets married. As I foresee my life, I will get married, and I will not change my last name. Is this some subvert (or overt?) anti-male behavior? Is it rooted in the hatred of men inherent to my feminism? Am I simply being defiant in an empty, symbolic way for the sake of defiance itself? Am I trying to piss off my husband? Or am I trying to eliminate the possibility of even snagging a future husband?

Well, no. First, I don’t hate men. Neither does my mother. Or my sister. Nor do my aunts. Or almost any other feminist. Here lies a great myth. Feminists don’t hate men. A critically thinking woman (or man) will, however, despise hierarchy in which women are as a group disadvantaged due to the social structure created by men and reproduced by men (and women). Second, the symbolic battles are often the most difficult ones to win. I will gladly combat symbolic repression with full zeal. Further, no symbolic triumph is empty. Lastly, no, I’m rarely defiant for the sake of pissing people off. (Maybe my parents, but never an entire gender.)

My visceral argument against changing my name is that my identity as Rebecca C. Brown, not as Rebecca B. Smith or Rebecca B. Jones or Rebecca C. Brown-Jones, has been in the works for over two decades (longer by the time I will be asked by convention to alter it by adopting another name). Though a name is little more than a word, I will entreaty my readers to think about the power of words and how language infuses social action. In this case, a woman taking her husband’s last name represents very clearly that her individuality and self-ownership (both physically and psychically) belong not to her but instead to her husband. Just as a father gives his offspring his last name (then adopts a role of authority over them), he so gives his wife his name. Quite simply, it’s nominal slavery. To make a less dramatic argument, it is entirely counterintuitive to equality for one person in a relationship to take the name of the other. I challenge you to assert otherwise.

Your mother or aunt or grandmother may have taken her husband’s name, maybe had children, maybe worked, or maybe stayed home. And despite relinquishing her symbolic identity, was perfectly happy and content. I will not disagree with you. I don’t think something as small as a last name can dictate a person’s happiness; however, it can contribute to her perception of self as a female. Further, the collective inability of women to maintain their last names defines in part what a woman’s role is in the family and in society in general. And though there are no laws dictating that we must change our names, if we don’t, we will, well, get a lot of shit for it.


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