By Johanna DeBari
This is a question I have been repeatedly asked over the past few months, as I have been planning to marry my amazing partner. Although I knew it was coming, I never thought it would be so difficult to answer. I have found myself engaging in an existential dilemma about whether or not I should change my name upon entering into a life-partnership with someone. For what purpose am I even doing this for? What’s the point? Why do I feel such a strong social pressure to conform?
The feminist in me has been constantly saying, “No, of course you can’t change your name!” in resisting the patriarchal history connected to the institution of marriage. And yet, there is a little voice in the back of my head constantly telling me that it is something I have to do, because society expects it. But what is society really expecting of me?
It seems like my position in the world has entirely changed now that I’m a ‘bride-to-be.” I went into my hairdresser the other day, wanting to cut a few inches off my hair, and her response was “Oh no, you can’t do that, you’re getting married.” What is so different about my status as a woman, and as a person, since I am to be married, means I can’t even cut my hair? It seems being a bride carries with it all of these social expectations I never even knew existed, on top of the question of taking his last name. Not only am I expected to change my name, but I now also have to have a certain hairstyle? That just doesn’t make sense to me.
This interaction was perfectly timed when reading Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” in one of my graduate classes. de Beauvoir talks a lot about feminine identity in connection to marriage. She describes how women are under a unique pressure to be loyal their husbands, and how their identity is defined inherently in-relation to him. They also stand as representatives of the family, and the social dignity that the family holds within the broader community. With bearing their husband’s surname, comes being an ambassador to his social worth, dignity, and reputation within the community. Women always stand as “the second sex” because their identity is determined by their husbands.
With this, I’ve had many conversations trying to parse out what marriage entails for the female identity and “the-name-change.” Seeking guidance from the other married women in my life, I asked them what they did, and why. Many said they did it for the sake of their kids. All of the women I have personally talked to, didn’t have children at the time that they were married, but were rather planning for a future family they aspired to have. Taking their husband’s last name, and giving it to their children, was seen as a binding force to make them an “official” family unit; it was connected to a kind of unique sense of security for their children.
Now, I have grown up the majority of my life with my mother having a different last name than mine. I personally don’t think this has hampered, in anyway, my sense of identity and personal security. Yes, questions have been raised as to why my mom and mine’s last names are different, but nothing which has made me uncomfortable. If anything, it is empowering to know that my mom has raised me so successfully, and created a beautiful family life for me and my siblings, without that critical binding agent many of my female peers, colleagues, and friends have mentioned.
Further, I wonder why now that I (and my partner) have made the decision to get married, there is so much responsibility on me and not him, to create a strong foundation for a family that doesn’t exist yet? I envision myself having children someday, but whether they have the same last name as me or not, will not affect how I raise them. I hope to raise children who constantly criticize authority, critically question information imparted upon them, and always stand to be true to themselves. I don’t think me changing my last name, has anything to do with that goal.
In the end, I won’t change my last name, because I have my own identity which has its own unique history. I don’t feel comfortable abandoning my identity to forge a new one to abide by the status quo. My commitment to my partner and my family should not be measured by the name I have, but rather through my actions as a mother, as a woman, and as a person living on this Earth.
Young Women Rising encourages Connecticut women ages 18-35 to raise their voices about issues they care about. Each writer speaks for herself as an individual and Young Women Rising as a whole does not intend to endorse the views of any particular writer. If you’re interested in submitting a guest piece please contact us at Michelle.Noehren@cga.ct.gov.