Saturday, June 4, 2011

What's in a Name?

I have been thinking about marriage a lot recently. Specifically, in the academic context. More specifically, the politics of last name decisions upon marriage. Marriage for the purpose of this post is between a man and a woman, not only is this the most common form of marriage in this country, but if I am going to be considering the effect of gender on the different people in a marriage, it would be useful to have people of different genders in the marriage.

One of the little things that I absolutely hate, I guess they are called pet peeves but that seems too mild, is when a married woman is addressed as Mrs. John Smith, assuming her husband's first name is John, not hers. The total erasure of the woman's identity is a barbaric throwback to a time when this was a legal reality, the woman was legally an appendage to her husband. This is John Smith's arm, this is John Smith's leg, and this is John Smith's Missus.

Fortunately we have made a little progress since then, and women are usually allowed to own property, be independent adults, and often keep their first name in a marriage. I have less of an issue with last name swaps, because while a full name denotes a specific person, a last name denotes a family. Mrs. John Smith, to me, speaks of a women becoming an appendage to a man, but Mrs. Jane Smith sounds more like she is becoming an appendage to the Smith family, which seems much less desultory to women.

On the other hand, our full name is of some importance to us. It is something we grow up with, a link to our own family, and how our oldest friends know to find us. That the cultural assumption is, predominantly, that women will give up this piece of themselves when they marry that a man does not have to relinquish still seems like and unconscionable disparity.

One solution implemented is the hyphenated last name. This allows both woman and man to retain their link to their childhood identity and family, and for old friends to have a reasonable chance to recognize their names. However, one quickly runs into the pragmatic problem of name growth. If two hyphenated named people marry, they end up with effectively four last names. Any computer science minded people reading this know that within relatively few generations the number of names in the hyphen will reach hundreds and even thousands.

Another common reaction is for the woman to simply retain her name. This is much simpler than changing it, you just don't change it, leave it alone, one fewer thing to worry about after the wedding. This is quite common in academia, where one wishes to retain the name recognition built up under one's "maiden" name, so one simply retains that name upon marriage, keeping all ones old friends and academic credentials without any confusion. However, I do think there is something to be said for the symbolism inherent in a shared name for a family. It is a common identifier, an immediate, important, proclamation of the relatedness of all the members within the familial unit. Maybe it is just the romantic in me, but for me the shared name evokes the ideal of a shared life, and I am loathe to give that up.

Thus, the solution that I tend to favor is for newlyweds to determine their own name. If there are good reasons, both partners could end up taking the husband's, or wife's, family name, but I fear that decision would be unduly swayed by the current, sexist, practices regarding loss of family identity. More in line with what I'd like to see are hyphenated names, names formed by combining family names (a Smith marries a Jones and the result is Smiones, altered to Simones perhaps), or even creating new names out of whole clothe.

This captures the notion of newlyweds separating from their childhood families to create a family of their own, which is both Biblical, helpful to convince social conservatives to accept this changed convention, and romantic. It provides a shared familial identity to the new wife and husband, one which they can share with their children, should they have children, until they two marry and create their own family names, literally and metaphorically. Finally, while it does not obviate the problems inherent in women changing their name upon marriage, it does share the burden more equally between men and women, which seems a worthy goal.

Of course, whether I put my title where my theory is depends on a) if someone ends up wanting to marry me, and b) on their thoughts on the issue. Like most aspects of a relationship, I recognize that decisions regarding married names need to be made by the people actually in the relationship. However, if we can alter the culture in which these decisions are made, in order to inform more equitable decisions that more fully recognize the great contributions women make to these relationships, I think we ought endeavor to do so.

I have not been doing the best at putting things up on my blog lately. Motivation has been hard to wrest from the clutch of ennui, but I shall try to do better.