Is Choosing to Take Your Husband’s Surname Really Feminist?

I winced when I heard Ms. Amal Alamuddin was changing her name to Mrs. George Clooney. She became yet another example of a women choosing for her identity to be represented by a man’s after marrying. Here’s how her decision, one shared by the majority of women, is vastly more complicated than it seems.

Many came to her defense saying that this is a personal choice. And I agree; she absolutely executed choice, just not exactly/completely personal choice. It’s called “choice feminism,” (I’ll get into that later). When others defended her decision as an educated one because she holds various degrees and is a successful working professional, that’s just rationalizing her decision. The truth is, she most likely never took a college class addressing this cultural tradition because, simply put, it doesn’t exist.

Ms. Alamuddin adopted the practice of patronymics when she became Mrs. George Clooney. Patronymics is the adoption of the man’s name by a woman upon marriage or birth. When I gave a lecture at Tufts University and surveyed the crowd of about over 100 students and faculty if they knew what patronymics was, only two raised their hands. And to boot, more than 95% of those in the room had either their husband’s or father’s name. And that’s at a smart school with a good gender studies program. So I’m confident that Mrs. Clooney has barely heard of patronymics or knows of its sordid history. I’m so confident that I’m willing to rap in Time Square wearing a dinosaur suit to the song R-E-S-P-E-C-T if I’m wrong.

On the other side of the spectrum, matronymics is when the man take the woman’s name. And for those who hyphenate, combine or find some option where both names are equally represented – well, that practice has no name. As a result, I’ve coined the term neutronymics. The 10% or so of women who don’t participate in patronymics, however, aren’t wholly practicing neutronymics either since, within their relationships, they are the only ones changing their name (see chart).Name Change Spectrum by TheFeministBride.com

The numbers on how many women participate in patronymics varies based on the study, but on average, it currently hovers around 90%. And it is at its highest popularity since before the 70s.  It’s important to know that despite being a common practice today, it has no contemporary relevance.

There are three reasons why it is the dominant practice. The first is religion going all the way back to Abraham and his wife, who upon marriage simply became “the wife of Abraham.” The second reason was to protect legitimate children and vilify ones born out of wedlock that had no legal right to the father’s name. “Laws of bastardy” lasted until the 1970s, when Henry Krause stepped up and convinced the U.S. government that these laws discriminated against children and mothers and violated the 14th amendment. The third reason was so that widows could legally inherit estates. (And come to think of it, it’s a crying shame as a civil rights lawyer, if Ms. Alamuddin is unaware of these connections to name change.)

When Lucy Stone informed the Massachusetts courts in 1879 that there was no such law requiring women to take a man’s name, they defiantly responded by drafting one. Such requirements also lasted into the 1970s, even barring women from voting or getting a driver’s license if they didn’t take their husband’s name. Patronymics is part of a long history that has been used to deny women and children their inalienable civil rights. Despite that a 2009 survey by researchers at Indiana University showed that 70% of respondents believe a woman should change her name, and half of those respondents went so far as to say the practice should be legally required. Patronymics may not bar civil rights today as it once did, but its negative social implications are far from resolved.

So few men practice matronymics that no study or records of its use even exists. What’s more is that most states make it much more difficult for men to change their name than women (for the record, that’s discrimination towards men) and that’s not even getting into the social repercussions of bucking the system. Men are taught to carry the family name into perpetuity, to create lineages of Juniors and Thurston Howell IIIs; women are not. If men wanted to change their name, the system is completely stacked against them. Men are just as conditioned to not change their name, as women are to change theirs. That should be the first red flag that choosing patronymics is more of a biased gender tradition—toward both genders—than it is a personal choice.george-clooney-amal-alamuddin-civil-ceremony

If the majority of women are making decisions that favor the patriarchy, how is that free, and more important, individual choice? If the figures were reversed, you can bet that men would accuse this as an unfair matriarchal practice. How choice feminism gets complicated is that it’s [women] using second-wave feminism’s freedom of choice to justify any personal choice. It follows the rationalization that women are entitled to choose whatever they want as a way to assert their own autonomy. It’s understandable to see choice as a vehicle for women’s self-governance, especially since we’ve had so little of it throughout human history. So the thought process becomes any “personal choice” is better than no choice whatsoever, even if that means the favoring the patriarchy.

This is why choice feminism or “personal choice” is deceptive, and that’s why the people defending Mrs. Clooney’s choice got it so terribly wrong. (Even the name itself is deceiving because it counters what everyday feminism works towards, #It’sComplicated.) For the record, the concept of the freedom of choice was meant specifically for reproductive liberties, not ubiquitous choice. What’s problematic about executing choice feminism is that those who use it seldom realize that choice is limited or influenced by various parameters – environmental, education, religion, income, media, race, sexuality, consumerism, gender, upbringing, etc. Of course, most women are choosing patronymics because…it’s still a patriarchal society. If we truly lived in a post-feminist world, men and women would be participating in neutronymics equally.

No matter the level of education, professional standing or any other demographic factor, when women and couples experience a new personal milestone, like marriage or children, they tend to revert to traditional gender roles. In my Feminist Bride research, few women even thought of asking the men to consider changing their name or finding common ground. What’s more, what does it say when only one person is willing to change?

Call me a modern romantic, but I’d like to think that couples today carry egalitarian ideals. Ideals that are based on the assumption that marriage and family are not created on biased gender roles but on a mutual understanding to split responsibilities equally as best as possible. If Ms. Alamuddin was truly George Clooney’s equal, why then did he not change his name? He could of at least practiced neutronymics, like Beyoncé Carter-Knowles and Sean Knowles-Carter. She may not be Hollywood-famous, but her accomplishments under her surname deserve as much respect and honoring as his. It’s true, no one knows for sure the conversation the two lovebirds had behind closed doors, but her change and his lack of change is part of a pervasive and complicated trend.

I love that so many women are coming forward demanding equality in the workforce and paycheck, safety on college campuses and better reproductive services, but how can women achieve a more egalitarian culture in the public sphere if the one they practice in the private still reflects inequality? Choice is powerful, and it comes with a lot of responsibility. Women can execute choice feminism, but it should not be done at the expense of overall equality. That is why Ms. Amal Alamuddin changing her name to Mrs. George Clooney matters entirely.

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