Friday, October 30, 2009

What's in a name?

I was catching up on my blog reading (which I've let lapse in the midst of all the craziness that is called my professional life) and was astounded by a tidibit of info on What Tami Said regarding Americans' opinions on the subject of women taking their husbands' last names when they marry. Apparently 70% of those polled believe that women should give up their last name in favor of their husband's, while 50% of those polled believes it should be legally MANDATED--which means if these 50% had their say, then any woman choosing to marry a man would be forced to take his last name.

The study was done through the University of Indiana at their Center for Survey Research. Which means, I have no idea who they polled and where these people live in the nation and what their political or religious affiliation is. The article only states that 815 people were polled. And according to one Indiana researcher, only 5-10% of women keep the name they were born with.

Now, there are several thoughts I have about this. My first is that I know several women who have kept their last name--many but not all of them are academics. So I wonder if, in certain populations or professions, the tendency of women keeping their names is stronger than in others. Second, although the article gestures towards talking about lesbian couples in the last paragraph, it does beg the question about how we are to treat same-sex couples, be they male or female. I suppose if this is all a gender question, then we would not care about men changing their names upon marrying another man--yet same-sex couples really throw a wrench into all of this, it would seem. Because part of the internal logic of name-changing has to do with subordinating oneself, linguistically at least, for your partner. In same-sex couples, how would that subordination be determined?

Clearly, the gendered implications in these statistics are clear. What is far less clear and unspoken within the article is the implication for inter-racial couples. I know two couples in which the wives, both white American women, took the surnames of their husbands, both Asian American men with discernible Asian surnames. Both women said that their choice was born out of a desire to support their husband's racial and ethnic heritage, and in one case in particular, to shake-up people's preconceived notions of what a "Mrs. Wong" [not the real name] looks like.

Similarly, I have Asian American female friends who have insisted on keeping their last names as a point of ethnic and cultural pride. Especially when these women have married white men, they feel it is important for their heritage not to be whitewashed out by being called "Mrs. Smith." And for friends of mine in inter-racial relationships in which their respective ethnic ancestries and racial identities is very strong, the challenge has become how to preserve the sense of ethnic ancestry within each name and yet find a compromise when choosing a name for thier children, particularly when hyphenation proves unwieldly/cumbersome/a tongue twister. I know one couple in particular who both have hyphenated names (a commonality with people with Latin American backgrounds) who want to maintain gender equity in their marriage and with their children, but find it difficult to come up with a compromise that maintains ethnic integrity while combining concision and precision in their names.

I'm not vociferously advocating for women changing their names to their husband's if he happens to be "ethnic" (whatever that means) or that women must always keep their names as a sign of feminist solidarity and identity. I think one's name is quite personal, especially in the rare instance where you get to make a choice--since none of us chooses the names we are born with. Even if we choose different names for ourselves once we are out of the infant stage, whether legally or as a nickname, the chance to actually re-name yourself through a union with another is a powerful act. And I think that there are complicated reasons to either change or not change.


I also think that there should be real equity and that a very progressive movement may be to consider either gender (or in the case of same-sex couples, either partner) electing to change his/her name or to create a new name for the sake of this union. This strikes me as being a small and simple yet radical idea--that we no longer take it for granted that women will change their names to reflect their husbands' families but rather that each couple will decide whether they want to make name changes and in which direction to have that change flow. Perhaps, in the case above with the two white women who married Asian American men, such a choice could reflect the status of being racial allies in the fight against white supremacy and hegemony, even if it appears,on the face of it, to be a blow against women's autonomy.

After all, what's in a name is actually quite important and would certainly go a long way to shift notions of family and community, perhaps in a progressive and positive way.

1 comment:

Jennifer Imazeki said...

This post has sparked several thoughts. First, I've heard about this study but didn't know the source - I would definitely be curious to know more about the sample (my first thought when you said it was the University of Indiana is that there is no way Indiana is representative of the country!). As a feminist, I have always been skeptical of the name-change-upon-marriage thing but as an academic, any possibility that I would change my name ended as soon as I published my first journal article. That was actually before I got my PhD but getting the degree solidified that even more - no way am I ever giving up the name that is on that diploma!

But whenever this issue comes up, the main thing I think about is that my great-grandfather took my great-grandmother's last name. She was an only child, no brothers, and the family name would have died out with her; he was a youngest son and did not 'need' to carry the family name. Apparently, this was not unusual or considered strange in Japan, at least at that time. This bit of family history is even more salient for me because now, my father is the only son of an only son and my sister and I are the only ones left to carry on the family name. I don't plan to have kids but if my sister does, I really hope that she gives them our last name.