November 17, 2007

The Naming of the Shrew

AT THE WEDDING of a friend recently, I stood among close friends, showering the newly-married couple with marigolds and rose petals, a lump forming in my throat as I prayed for the couple’s happiness. In the midst of this sentimental moment, I heard a familiar voice declare with great satisfaction, “At last, she is Mrs. (husband’s last name).” The happy haze dissipated rather suddenly as I whirled around to catch the look of smug contentment on my friend’s husband’s face. All was well with the world, the woman had been palmed off from father to husband, and this was precisely how it should be, his smile suggested.

With as much civility as my tart tongue could muster, I informed him that it is possible she may not change her last name post matrimony (like two of the three women in our group), to which he replied in an annoyed, challenging tone, “Wanna bet?” The exchange that followed has no place in this post. But the interpretation of my supposedly neo-liberal, out-to-cause-trouble comment was enough to irk him greatly. And have him make every effort to put me ‘in my place’.

Woman Rocking The Boat = Dangerous = Needs To Be Shut Up.

Time and again, I am amazed at the reactions of seemingly educated, liberal and urbane men when the issue of women’s last names is broached. It is assumed that when a man and a woman go through the rituals of marriage, in whatever way, shape or form, the end result will necessarily include the woman removing her last name of birth and adopting that of her husband.

Why? Because that’s the way it’s always been.

Why? Because somebody’s got to do it!

Why? Because we’re a patriarchal society.

Why? Because…. oh shut up and stop being such a nagging pain, Dilnavaz!

It isn’t merely the assumption that is cause for my concern. It’s the rather vitriolic reaction to the challenging of the status quo. The resentment thrown at a woman for daring to retain part of her premarital identity, should she choose to keep the last name she was born with. I’m all for individual choices. If your husband’s last name floats your boat, hey, go right ahead and make it Rumpelstiltskin, for all I care. But to subject a person, nay, a woman— always, always and always a woman — to criticism for exercising her right to her own name is unacceptable and indicative of a still-medieval mindset.

As with other feminist issues, I am given either weary or annoyed looks, and told not to stir trouble where there isn’t any. So your trying to take away something I was born with isn’t a problem? You bet your birth certificate it is! Pretending to be a globally-educated man of the world and then throwing a tantrum and refusing to marry your fiancée unless she adds your name to hers reeks of hypocrisy and this is one stench I refuse to wallow in. As my mother very sensibly puts it, (is it a default setting, this sensible mother thing?) it’s not so much the actual act as the mindset behind it, and I have a nagging feeling that plenty of men I know need to work on changing their outlooks rather than their wife’s name. Right, Mr. Ooh-Look-At-My-Fancy-Surname?

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26 comments to The Naming of the Shrew

  • Yes! My ex-mom-in-law was, supposedly very liberal about these things. But when she introduced me to someone as Mrs. S, and I said ‘that would be my mum. I’m Ms. S’ she was a little upset, saying that now I was going too far. I explained to her that if I kept my own name, I couldn’t be Mrs. anybody unless she wanted the world to start called her son Mr. S. That shut up up quick.

    Also, the next issue is one of double-barreled names for kids, which I don’t hold with. So when I gave my son his own name – complete with surname that nobody else had – that was another hurdle.

  • 34-year old male feminist

    Good post! I would go a step further and be against changing a name even if it’s spun as a “choice” — too often do we see woman making decisions that neatly fit into the patriarchal system, all the while claiming it’s out of choice…

  • Veronica Mitchell

    When I married and made the decision which name to take, everyone was very polite about it. I never felt pressure, except a little from my husband who wanted me NOT to take his name. I asserted my autonomy by doing it anyway.

    I did not think much about it at the time, but over the years I have felt that the name of the family I chose (my husband) was more reflective of my own identity than the family I was born into.

    I have friends who have had the opposite experience, including one whose in-laws were absolutely scandalized that she did not take her husband’s name. It caused a big ugly scandal that lasted years, but the more obnoxiously they behaved, the more determined she was that their name would not be how she identified herself.

  • You know, I’ve never understood why men are so happy about this whole name-taking thing. Personally, I find the idea of being married to someone called Mrs. F. extremely unpleasant. I’m thinking “Wait, not only do I have to make room in my bookshelf for your books, now I have to share my name with you as well? So my poor innocent surname has to get stretched and sullied to cover both our mistakes, while yours gets preserved in pristine, mint condition, to be used by our children when they forget their account passwords? That is so unfair.”

    You can see why I’ve never been married.

  • Surname? My own sister and a cousin sister argued with me (years back, though i’m not sure what’s their current stand on the issue) how name changing is no big deal. The point that it wasn’t for them, but could be for someone was lost on them. I’ve had an elderly insurance agent (female) ask me why my wife keeps her maiden name. No I’m not making it up. So given this level of resentment to the concept, even from most females, I’m not surprised to see the smugness in the card-holders of the underground but active patriarchy. Urbanity or education has got nothing to do with it. Education never taught us to think for ourselves, forget thinking through other people’s mind.

    And then there are men who keep harping “what’s in a name anyways”. The only way to silence them is, why don’t you take your wife’s surname then?

    Nice blog post. I’m linking it up.


  • I’m one of those who changed my surname after marriage, quite deliberately. The reasons were entirely selfish. I didn’t like my maiden surname which had been subject to much mispronunciation and ribbing over the years and frankly, I was glad to get a new one! I also thought it sounded better so the reasons were driven by aesthetic considerations rather than anything else.

    Having said that, I believe that one’s name is a personal thing and should be completely up to the person to decide. I’m a little angry with all those parents (especially bengali ones) who subject hapless infants to double-barreled first names as well. I would have loved to have been able to choose my own first name as well. Just too lazy to actually go through any legal procedures. Plus it would break my mum’s heart. 😉

    It’s surprising though that so many people still take it for granted that a woman should change her name. Also, I just hate the title “Mrs”. It should be banned. 🙂

  • Interesting how I saw this at the end of a day during which I thought alot about naming and names. 🙂

    Dilnavaz, you have a kick-ass surname! If it’s the one you were born into, it’s clear why you feel strongly about the right to retain.

    Something I find interesting is how, conversely, I used to assume that feminists keep their natal surnames after marriage. Anindita was actually the eye-opener (and I can see why you changed your name, since your first name is so much like your husband’s and there’s a ring to the matching monikers). Makes me ponder about the stereotypes we create in attempting to break down other ones.

  • @Space Bar: It’s the pseudo-liberals that irk me the most. If you’re actually regressive, at least have the conviction to admit it!

    @34-year-old male feminist: It is true that we may be subconsciously making choices in keeping with the socialization of our early years, but pottering about deep into every woman’s psyche may not be entirely practical. 🙂

    @Veronica Mitchell: More power to you. And your friend!

    @Falstaff: I see, I see 😉 Loved your observation about account passwords. ‘Tis true, that’s all my mother’s poor maiden name is reduced to.

    @Asuph: Socialization acculturates men and women alike. 🙂 Feel free to link up.

    @Anindita: I don’t see anything wrong with your maiden name, but then again, with a last name like mine…. 😉
    Totally agree about banning the title “Mrs.” It’s despicable.

    @Sharanya: Let me put it this way, hon: When you have to spell out your entire first name and your entire last name 7 times in a conversation to a customer service representative from mid-west America, the only ass you want to kick is theirs. 😉
    And yes, my perception of feminism isn’t about swinging to the rabid end of the spectrum just because. It’s about equal choices, among other equalities, so if a woman chooses to change her name, so be it. 🙂

  • B D

    Yes you are right. why should the females use a surname even when they are not married and change their first name and surname after they get married as well as they should not even use mrs for showing that they are married.This is balatant inequality towards women in our society. Not only that women should not wear sandoor, mangalsutra, bindi and other titbits to show that they are married whereas men do not do anything like that. also why shoul women do make up specially to look beautiful and dress up such that they look attractive and pleasant to the men folk.They should do so to look beautiful and smart for the enhancement of thei own personality only.

  • @BD: I repeat: It’s about individual choices. Although I am well aware that it isn’t that simplistic. Many women’s choices are guided by insidious but strong societal pressures and expectations and sometimes they may not be aware of their influence on their thought processes and decisions. This doesn’t indicate that we as women are clueless. Just very strongly conditioned.

  • […] got me interested in this blog, and since then the feed is in my google reader. And how can I miss this […]

  • Interesting read, especially as I have been thinking of putting up a post on my feelings about changing (rather, not!) my name. Frankly, I haven’t faced much opposition, except for sundry bank clerks, etc., who couldnt understand why my husband and I had different names. (My husband would respond that he’s not my brother, but he hasnt exactly said it aloud yet.) But with relatives et al, it’s been fine. I think my mom would have been disappointed if I HAD changed my name, and the mom-in-law still uses her maiden name sometimes (though she’s officially Mrs Whatever), so it wasn’t a big surprise there either.

    Again, I’m not very shocked when someone expresses surprise at my choice: after all, it’s the status quo to change your name to match your husband’s. And that is the point I want to make, that it is us women who have to change that, and every time I see a woman (an independent, career-minded woman, usually) change her name after getting married, it makes me feel slightly betrayed.

  • @Unmana: That’s it. The ever-so-slight feeling of betrayal. Which makes me question my sense of justice but exists anyway.

  • @Unmana: Yep, I went over. I see your point about your maiden name being your father’s anyway, but at the end of the day, I think it all boils down to the identity you are comfortable with, be it your husband’s or your father’s/one you were born with. What I have an issue with is people telling me what my identity should be, which not-so-subtly means “You should do this because I think so.”

  • Exactly. By the time you get married, you’ve already had that name for so many years, that it’s yours now. Why change it for another? Why should it matter, anyway? (Also, why should children have to have their father’s last names, but that is a consequence of patriarchial and patrilinear societies, which is what we don’t agree with :))

  • @Unmana: So we’re in agreement. Now what do we do about the gazillion others–women, parents and close friends included–who think we’re being anal and rigid by insisting on maiden names?

  • Aditya

    The Icelanders seem to have it better. They don’t have surnames as we tend to know them, rather they reflect the immediate father (or mother) of the child and not the historic family lineage. These ‘surnames’ can be either patronymic or matronymic. And Icelandic women don’t take the name of the husband. (problem solved!) –

    In Finland, a married couple is free to choose the surname of either spouse, or even a double-barreled surname. (ie It need not be only the woman who changes her name!) –

  • Dilnavaz Bamboat

    @Aditya: So I could try one of two things: have folks in India stumble through Dilnavazdottir or get myself a really warm coat and boots. 😉 Thanks for sharing!

  • Sunitha Job

    I did not change my name after marriage and it annoys me a lot when people call me or assume I am Mrs. Job ( to me thats my mom). I actually named my daugher so that she has my name and my husband’s name. I did not want her to just carry his name because she is so much a part of me as much as of him. But guess what the issue was then..what should be the order his name first and my name second or the other way round?

  • Sorab Dalal

    I don’t understand how anyone can give up the name they grew up with (unless they don’t like the way it sounds, I actually know someone like this). I have seen a number of women who have changed their first name as well as their last name. This almost seems to be a giving up of identity so you can only be identified as a devoted wife and mother etc etc (what the name change has to do with any of these things is totally beyond me). I could not give up my name and therefore cannot comprehend asking someone else to do so. Sigh we have come so far but have so much further to go

  • One should notice that world’s most powerful women like Indra Nooyi, Carly fiorina , Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, have all changed their second names.

    Even Amy Lee, founder and Lead Singer of immensely popular rock band evanescence, goes and marries an ordinary doctor and changes her second name.

    Most accomplished women have changed their second names after marriage. Infact most of them were very famous by the time they married.

    This is a point for you to ruminate upon.

    Even the mother of second wave feminism , Betty Frieden, changed her second name.

    As such I would not insist on my future wife to change her name. If she wants do change it out of her own conscience I would not object.

  • Dilnavaz Bamboat

    Bhanu Prasad: Speaking of points to ruminate on, I’m not sure you have one. Let me copy and paste a part of my post for you:

    *I’m all for individual choices. If your husband’s last name floats your boat, hey, go right ahead and make it Rumpelstiltskin, for all I care. But to subject a person, nay, a woman— always, always and always a woman — to criticism for exercising her right to her own name is unacceptable and indicative of a still-medieval mindset.*

    There. Have I made myself clear now? 🙂

  • Dilnavaz Bamboat

    @Sunitha: 🙂 Oh I’m sure there’s lots of grey territory. Which is why I applaud women who have the patience to resist stereotypes.

    @Sorab: Yes, I’ve heard the “new life, therefore new name” argument. Interesting how men continue with the same old life while life changes happen only to half the world.

  • Kofi BH

    Great read Dilnavaz. Give us men sometime to evolve. Roles are changing so fast that it’s hard to keep up.

    I am one of the few that initially thought nothing of my wife keeping her own name. After we got married though – I admit that it started to irk me. I don’t even know why it irked me – especially since her independence and freedom is one of the reasons why I was attracted AND as a kid I hoped to one day change my “white” last name to something more Africany (something I have eventually decided against – too much history in my name).

    Anyways – over the years I have learned to accept it – (it helps that the kids have my name) and I have asked my family members to back-off and stop asking me all those “why doesn’t she have your name..” questions. Every once awhile though a friend or family will make a mistake and send a letter (a letter – what is that?) addressed to her first name and my last name – then the emotions flow all over again.

    Kofi C

  • Dilnavaz Bamboat

    @Kofi: “I don’t even know why it irked me.” Give social conditioning some credit. 🙂 It runs deeper than we’d like to admit. Since I wrote this post, I got married and didn’t change my last name, and it couldn’t matter less to my spouse. We’ve had some amusing reactions–ranging from genuine effort to outright rejection of this choice to my partner being told that he actually minds but won’t show it–and we’ve learned to smile and move on.

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