In this new series co-hosted by from two to one and The Feminist Mystique, we will be profiling an array of individuals and couples about their last name decisions upon marriage or what they expect to choose if they marry. The goal is to explore how individuals make decisions about their last name, and to highlight the many possibilities. We will be posting profiles periodically and encourage you to stay connected via Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. If you would like to participate in this series, email Danielle at danielle [at] fromtwotoone [dot] com or Shannon at hill [dot] shannonp [at] gmail [dot] com.
The following post is from Molly Westerman, a parent, scholar, radical, feminist, educator, and birth nerd. She writes at firsttheegg.com, a feminist resource on pregnancy, birth, and parenting.
When I was twenty-one, I met this guy and was pretty smitten. On a road trip two months later, he and I discussed everything under the sun, including the question of Last Names When One Marries Someone. Although we were already madly in love, we kept the conversation hypothetical. But it wasn’t much of a discussion: there was no way in hell, we agreed, that we or anyone who happened to be marrying either of us would be changing any surnames, thank you very much.
Eric and I shared this assumption. But Eric was, and is, more emphatic about the whole thing. He’s a historian, after all, and the historical resonance of the femme covert, of marriage as the transfer of not just a woman’s property but of a woman as property, of her loss of her legal standing and identity along with her original name … well, all that sits heavily with him. With me, too, but more absolutely with him.
Intellectually and politically, we are both suspicious of the rhetoric of free choice and interested in the structural and institutional forces that constrain people’s choices. It’s hard not to notice that the vast majority of hetero couples who want ‘a family name’ choose the male partner’s surname. Sometimes specific factors of personal history or values make that the best option; sometimes the couple outright acknowledges not wanting to swim upstream; but often, friends making this choice insisted that they just coincidentally preferred the man’s name. This obliviousness to the historical and cultural pressures at play in one’s decision, to the larger statistical realities in which this individual drama plays out, worries me.
On top of all that, I’m just knee-jerk sketched out by group identity. I know many people really want to get married and have kids and be “The Whomevers,” but I am not one of those people. To me, it feels like a slippery slope from “introducing, for the first time, Mr. and Mrs. Whomever” to those scary posed photos where every family member is wearing matching turtlenecks and jeans. I wasn’t in a sorority, I don’t belong to a church, I will never root for a sports team, and I just cannot co-create The Whomevers.
So when we got married a couple years later, we kept our names. At the time, most of our friends were graduate students in the humanities; they saw our decision as normal. Now we live in Minnesota, where people are too polite to say anything even if they think it’s weird.
Two years after the wedding, my enormously pregnant body put the whole surname situation back in the spotlight. We had to figure out not only first and middle names but also last ones. Hyphenating our particular names would be unwieldy and ugly (trust me). I was unwilling to have a family in which everyone but one parent shares a name: and which name would that be, anyway? We decided to go with an entirely different surname for our children: one that echoes both our names’ German origins and reminds us of a beloved family member.
Beyond feeling comfortable for our family, our unusual name situation has benefited me in an unexpected way. A few years ago, in the midst of a major career-change-slash-
existential-crisis, I dropped my anonymity and started blogging under my full name. This openness has meant a great deal to me and would have been impossible if we all shared a family name. Because my name is just mine, I can play with the lines of my own privacy without clearly identifying the other main characters in my life.