Last night I almost had a heated debate with my younger brother over the issue of women who don't take their husbands last names. He said that if his girlfriend didn't take his last name after marriage it would be no point in getting married in the first place.
I had to interject. I asked him if he'd be willing to take her last name. Of course, my brother said "no" and looked at me as if I were insane, as many men would. I went on to say that it's unfair for him to ask his girlfriend to do something that he wouldn't be willing to do and that not having his name wouldn't make her any less of his wife. My brother wasn't hearing any of this and I knew it. So I quickly ended the conversation because I didn't want it to turn into an argument. But I wish I'd kept the talk going so that we could have understood where each other were coming from.
I took my husband's last name but it's a decision I often regret. Please don't think that statement is a reflection of my feelings for my husband. He is the love of my life and an amazing man. He's an amazing man who says things like "I would be honored if you took my last name, but I completely understand if you decide not to." That statement was one of the reasons I did decide, after nearly a year of marriage, to change my last name.
But I also decided to take his name because having different last names was such a hassle. Things like banking and signing leases were difficult and I grew tired of all the questions and rude remarks from others that I endured during the several months before I did change my name.
I've always been disappointed in myself for caving under the pressure to conform.
I completely understand why the notion of women keeping their maiden names seems so strange and perhaps even wrong to my brother. Here in the South it’s not as common. Nor do you see couples adopting a completely new name or both partners hyphenating their last names – which are practices I observed when living on the West Coast.
My brother expects his wife to take his name – "to represent him" as he said during our talk – because that’s the way things have always been done. It’s tradition. Furthermore, many men – my husband included – even see it as a way for a woman to give honor to her man.
But doing things primarily for the sake of tradition can be dangerous. The people who didn’t want women to vote were trying to maintain the status quo. People who didn’t want children of different races to be educated in the same classroom were trying to uphold tradition.
Now I’m in no way saying this name issue is as serious as women’s suffrage or racial segregation. The act of keeping one’s maiden name is mostly a statement, but an important one; it is a statement against the sexism that is still alive and well in our country.
Some people say it’s silly for a woman to try to fight patriarchy by keeping her maiden name because most likely her last name is from her father. Those people are missing the point. Regardless of the origin of your name it’s still your name! It’s the name you’ve been called all your life. It’s the name printed on symbols of accomplishment such as your high school diploma and your college degrees. And for me it was also the byline on a decade’s worth of newspaper and magazine articles I had written.
After being married for nearly 7 years I have adjusted to my new name. As a freelance journalist I’m building a body of work under the name Javacia Harris Bowser. And since I teach high school full time and thus hear “Ms. Bowser! Ms. Bowser!” about 100 times a day, my husband’s last name finally feels like my own.
The writer/English teacher in me has also decided to attach symbolism to this new name of mind. I see it as the mark of a new era of my life, just as characters in the Bible often had their names changed after a spiritual transformation.
Still, if I could do it all over again I probably would not change my name. But this would not make me any less committed to or respectful of my husband.
I recognize that some men feel emasculated when their wives don’t take their name. And some men may think it makes them appear weak. This is, to me, another example of how sexism hurts men too. A man’s worth should not be measured by how much power he can wield over his wife; it should be about how much he loves her.
Understand that this is not a call for all women to stop taking their husbands’ last names. My point is that it should always be a woman’s choice. She shouldn’t feel pressured by her new husband, her in-laws or anyone else. Some women love the notion of taking their husband’s name and see it as a sacred, symbolic gesture. And that’s great. But some women feel as if they’re losing their identity by changing their names and the wishes of those women should not be attacked or pushed aside simply for the sake of tradition.