‘What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.’
– William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Have I told you lately how much I love podcasts? They really are becoming an obsession – entertaining and educational, what more could I want?
One of my favourites is The Guilty Feminist. I love it for how it approaches interesting, diverse and sometimes difficult subjects with grace and humour, and because it talks openly about how being a ‘perfect’ feminist can be really difficult! Deborah Frances-White, the regular host, introduces the podcast as one that explores ‘our noble goals as 21st century feminists and the hypocrisies and insecurities which undermine them.’ This feeling of having good intentions but perhaps more clumsy actions is very familiar! I am particularly (perhaps overly?) aware of how the ingrained privilege and attitudes of my conservative – big and small C – Christian, middle class upbringing have had a lasting impact on my opinions. I hope that I am learning and improving, thanks in part to these feminist podcasts, but I also know that I still hold opinions that sometimes clash with what some feminists think women ‘should’ do or think.
So here it is. I’m a feminist but…I was really excited to get married and I am excited about taking my new husband’s name.
When I said ‘some feminists’ above, I was thinking about one in particular. One of my bridesmaids is a more radical feminist than I am and she is not a fan of marriage. At all. It’s one of the few areas about which we have really argued. Despite the number of times that she has been a bridesmaid and the number of weddings she has attended (and also my strong suspicion that she will one day get married herself), she doesn’t believe in marriage. She sees it as a grossly unfeminist act and one that perpetuates old-fashioned ideas of women as property for men to obtain.
Our argument first erupted when discussing that heterosexual couple who are protesting for the right to have a civil partnership rather a marriage. Whether correctly or not, I have limited sympathy for their struggle. There already is a widely accepted option for heterosexual couples to get legal recognition of their partnership and I can’t help but feel that while there isn’t universal equality of marriage, it’s a bit premature to be arguing about the nuances of the exact nature of that partnership. I appreciate that there is some questionable history associated with marriage but surely each marriage is what that couple make it. Two feminists who don’t believe in marriage as a property transaction aren’t going to become different people just because they’ve signed a marriage certificate. Just get married!
But, according to my friend, this isn’t right, or proper feminism. Her mother has never got married because she can’t get past that history. For her, marriage is a patriarchal contract that binds women to men and this hierarchy is so essential to how marriage is seen in society that there’s no way to ‘make’ it more feminist just because you want it to be. Being a wife is a subordinate role; having a husband means that society will defer to him and ignore you. My friend has occasionally expressed worries about her mother’s future if her long-term partner dies because they have no legal status as a couple, but still stands by her mother’s position on marriage. They both want a civil partnership instead. They want a contract that is equal in construct rather than just action. They don’t want to be husband and wife, they want to be legal partners, and resent that that option is not available to them.
Despite my friend’s passionate argument, she didn’t sway me. Although I understood her perspective, we have agreed to disagree about the value of marriage, and I still feel that this is a battle for another time. And my friend has eventually accepted that even people who would otherwise consider themselves to be feminists are getting married. But she has not forgiven me for taking my husband’s name.
Despite the fact that she is one of my greatest friends, I almost regretted asking her to be a bridesmaid. She would not stop telling me on my wedding day how disappointed she was in my decision to be Mrs EA, repeatedly telling me that I was making an anti-feminist choice and was letting myself down. I strongly feel that part of feminism is having the option to make my own choices, uninfluenced by society’s norms, and I have chosen to be Dr Other Livvy and Mrs EA. It’ll be the best of both worlds, I thought. I can stick to my feminist ideals and be part of a family unit with EA. But no. That’s wrong too – apparently there are some lines that should not be crossed and some battles that we must all fight. OK then…
It’s probably not that much of a surprise to say that I was not inclined to be sympathetic to her arguments on that particular day. But despite my annoyance at the inappropriate timing of her attempted intervention, I have subsequently looked again at my choice more closely. So much closer that I have written over 1500 words on the subject. My friend’s needling clearly got under my skin! Have I blindly followed society’s norms by taking my husband’s name or have I made an active choice? And is that choice ‘wrong’?
For me, it comes down to the fact that by getting married, EA and I have officially become a team. This is really exciting and, for me at least, is the main reason to get married! We’re a partnership now, a united family, and I want my new family to share a name.
And the choice of which name to share seemed straightforward to both of us. My real first and middle name have so many syllables already that creating a hyphenated surname was impractical; if EA took my name he would end up with an alliterated first/surname combination that was too Marvel comic book hero for words; and making up a whole new surname felt like it was disregarding both of our family histories. So I’m taking his name. Is this decision incompatible with feminism? Of course, these choices are personal to us, but they are logical and reasonable and it is a definite and well-thought out choice. It’s not a default, it’s not because of the patriarchy.
And anyway, I haven’t really given up my old surname; I’ve cheated the decision. I haven’t been Miss Other Livvy for nearly a decade – I worked very hard to become Dr Other Livvy and I’m not giving her up! I am still Dr Other Livvy professionally so I genuinely feel like I’ve got the best of both worlds. I am Mrs EA and Dr Other Livvy – a family unit but still my own person.
But I appreciate that I have taken the easy way out by taking my husband’s name. Regardless of whether this is a decision that I can justify, we could have made a different choice. We could have chosen a new name or he could have taken mine, and obviously that would have been equally valid. Except that society at large may have had a harder time accepting it…
My partner is already having to defend his decision to take my surname when we got married. Apparently other men can't cope with it 🙄
— Cia 🌸 (@ciamarsh) October 3, 2017
Like me, Cia’s husband also wanted his family to share a name and, as she didn’t want to change hers, immediately decided to change his instead. Logical and reasonable but, unfortunately, as her tweet above suggests, a choice that causes the Patriarchy with a capital P to rear its ugly head to protest. But but but, he can’t take a woman’s name!
And this is where the guilty feminist part really starts. Because I think that Cia and her husband are kind of brilliant for taking this stand. It so important to step up to these challenges and it can only help if more couples choose to take different names so that there is no more normal and we can do whatever we want without judgement. Unfortunately, I just don’t want to do it myself. Hence guilty.
And I know why I’ve felt the need to justify this in such a long and convoluted post – as with so many things, I’ve been brought up with an old-fashioned ideal. My mother told me once that the few months between her engagement and marriage were unexpectedly scary as she became terrified that my father would die before the wedding and then no one would know that she’d loved him because she wouldn’t have had the chance to take his name. Although there is a kind of murkily morbid romanticism in this notion, I do find it more problematic. In this scenario, the inequality shines through. The husband doesn’t have to make the same show of devotion, the same sign of attachment. In her own way, my mother does want to be seen as my father’s property, to be publicly owned by him. That does feel like a backwards step!
But I do want to be Mrs EA. Being his wife is already the most fun and most exciting and most joyful thing that I have ever done. And I’m happy with my choice – we both know that I don’t want EA’s name as a flag that he’s mine or as a claim to him, or as a sign that he owns me; I don’t want his name because I am no longer my own individual person and have become part of him; I don’t want his name because I’m bowing to the Patriarchy. And I actually don’t care if you disagree with me.
Our future is going to be awesome and we’re going to face it together, as a team. My husband is amazing and we know what our relationship is without needing to nitpick on its labels. And that might make me a bad feminist in some eyes but I’m disillusioned enough with feminist infighting that I have given up caring. When we have so else much to fight for and to protest against, this feels to me like a somewhat insignificant issue and I only have so many fucks to give. I want to save them for the bigger fights!
Not content with writing one blog post on this subject, I actually wrote another a few months later for the Scarlet Ladies blog! Here I changed my opinion slightly, acknowledging that my choices weren’t feminist as we can’t simply aim for equality when the inequality is so vast, but remaining as happy with my choice to take my husband’s name.