On Naming, Identity, and Choice

Yesterday, Jill Filipovic wrote a piece for the Guardian about male-partnered women changing their names upon marriage. The subtitle of the piece is: "Your name is your identity. The reasons women give for changing their names after marrying don't make much sense." and she says in the piece that she "fundamentally...oppose[s] changing your name."

A familiar debate about name-changing and individual choice ensued on Twitter (and elsewhere), which highlighted many of the issues that are casually elided with this position, including cultural differences in naming traditions, disparities in the authenticity of externally perceived choice (i.e. different pressures on individual women in separate spaces), and, if Filipovic is right that "Your name is your identity," are we not keen to support women in decisions about self-defined identity.

I have made my position on name-changing abundantly clear, and, while I absolutely believe it is important to do awareness-raising around the option to keep one's name, I also believe it is possible to have those conversations without judging women for whatever choices they ultimate make.

Central to feminism is the idea that women are not a monolith, and recognizing that individual women have individual reasons for their individual choices is a crucial act in demonolithizing women.

(As an aside, I have also found that many of the reasons deemed insufficiently reasonable, e.g. "I wanted my whole family to have the same last name," frequently are simplistic expressions of a more complex motivation. Sometimes they are not, but sometimes they are an easy and less vulnerable way to communicate something about insecurity or belonging or symbolically establishing new family patterns after a lifetime of dysfunction.)

Anyway. I noticed a couple of things about the public discussion of the piece and its assertions that I want to mention.

1. This conversation tends to treat changing one's name as a zero-sum game.

You either change your name, or you don't. But as I have previously mentioned, I effectively have two names: My professional, public name is my first name + Iain's last name. I also maintain private accounts and a personal online presence to keep in touch with friends and distant family under my first name + my father's last name, i.e. my "birth name." I am known by both my birth name and my married name. I am not just Melissa Lastname or Melissa McEwan. Even Iain will casually refer to me as Lastname. As in, "Give me a break, Lastname," when I asked him to get the mail at midnight the other night, heh.

Some friends call me Melissa. Some call me Liss. Some call me various other nicknames. I am introduced as Melissa Lastname or as Melissa McEwan, depending on who's doing the introduction, and however I'm introduced is fine with me.

It's really helpful for me to have two names. I can't have a private online anything anymore under the name Melissa McEwan, but I can under my birth name—which is useful for both practical reasons and psychological reasons, as "Melissa McEwan" gets to feel like a brand sometimes, or the person strangers define to to be, rather than who I actually am.

(There's that whole identity thing again.)

It's eminently possible to straddle multiple identities, and I don't think I'm the only one who does.

2. Women who have changed their names, and defend themselves against sweeping judgment for their choice, are accused of being defensive and emotional.

First I want to say this: My position would be the same whether I changed my name or whether I didn't. I can't make anyone believe that, if they're not inclined to do so, but there it is. And I take no shame in defending and being emotional about (these are bad things now?) challenging the policing of women's choices. I am defensive and emotional on behalf of women who do not change their names. I am defensive and emotional on behalf of women who do change their names. Because I don't care what choice you make: I care that you do, or don't, have a choice.

Secondly, I want to state plainly that I am indeed defensive and emotional about my own name change, too—because I was forced to be by my government, who made me "prove" that my relationship was real in order to keep it. The default position of immigration services is essentially: "We don't believe your relationship is real and we do believe you are trying to scam us; prove us wrong." (And "proof" of commitment is subjectively assessed by individual agents with individual biases that may dispose them toward suspicion or outright hostility for name-changing.) Being challenged to defend and be demonstrably emotional about your relationship is the sort of thing that makes a lady defensive and emotional, and I don't have any shame about that, either.

3. Everyone is an exception.

I am one of hundreds of thousands of USians who have gone through this immigration process, each of which involves a different-sex couple (because the same right is not yet extended to same-sex couples) and thus a woman faced with the decision of a name-change that is not just about her preference, but is about convincing a deeply patriarchal institution that her relationship is legitimate.

And yet, I am still regarded, even by those who would begrudgingly concede the pressing parameters of my individual circumstance, as an exception. Okay, your choice, sure, I get it, but about all those other women... But I am one of a multitude of women in the same circumstance, some of whom will roll the dice without a name change, and some of whom won't.

And then someone will pipe up about this circumstance, or that one, or this other one, things like, say, how their professional life in a conservative place could be compromised by openly identifying as feminist by doing something like not changing one's name, and each woman with Her Reason is treated like an exception to some larger group of monolithized women who definitely don't have any good reasons for changing their names, rather than collectively being regarded as evidence that maybe this shit is more complex than Doing It Right or Doing It Wrong.

If only there were an existent framework which competently and confidently makes the argument that women should be trusted to make the best decisions for themselves!


* * *

I don't have any brilliant fucking conclusion to tie it all into a bow, so I'll just say this again: I love women. I respect women. I trust women. Not as part of some abstract, theoretical feminism but as part of an applied, practical feminism that urges me to love by nonjudgment, respect by listening, trust by supporting individual choices.

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