Several months before we got engaged, my fiancé and I left everything we knew behind and moved from Southern California to Oregon together. I’m not the first in my family to come to this state. When my great grandparents first immigrated to America from Norway, settling in the Midwest, a few went further on to Oregon. Some of them were on my paternal grandmother’s side, the Jensen family.
When I was a child, my father would admonish me by calling me a Jensen, as if I were more closely related to his mother’s family than him. His mother’s maiden name evoked memories of stories about hearty Scandinavian women. In my young mind, they were spirited women who rode horses and represented everything my father disapproved. Though my dad used it to tease, being a Jensen was not insulting. It was a reminder that my ancestors were strong-willed women.
“Naming is the first step in the process of liberation,” feminist author Rebecca Solnit writes. Naming yourself or your oppressor can be an act of freedom, an expression of self or a measure of protection. Like finally receiving a diagnosis, there is power in naming something.
When I grew older, I learned that my grandmother was not a strong-willed warrior, but a quiet Lutheran woman who got pregnant at sixteen and married the father. She took his last name to replace her own and passed that new name on to her three sons. Now, one by one, her female grandchildren are changing their own names as they marry.
As a child, I always believed I was more Jensen than Olson. This led to a fascination with the maternal names that had been all but erased from my family tree. We had a physical map of our family tree, a strange wheel-shaped thing filled with Scandinavian names. I traced the names of female relatives back to their father and his before him. With each generation, maiden names seemed to get lost with time —given up like virginity, eradicated by marriage and motherhood.
“There are other ways women have been made to disappear,” writes Solnit. “There is the business of naming — Names erased a woman’s genealogy and even her existence.”
Marriage is a union that has historically involved the exclusion of women in identity and name. Less than a hundred years ago, laws in our country prevented women from having an independent legal identity from their husband or father. Suffragettes (such as the ones who rallied in Portland and Salem in 1871) understood this. Some did not take their husband’s surname, refusing to tolerate the erasure of women. Women were excluded from participating in civil matters under their birth surname in the United States until the past fifty years.
Today, maiden names are often thought of as little more than a password security question. But for feminists, the concept of maiden names has been an ongoing battle against exclusion and erasure. Throughout history, taking your husband’s name signified you belonged to him. It meant you were his property. Considering that slave owners would sometimes give slaves their own surname, erasing their identity as well as their autonomy, this has even deeper connotations with ownership and liberty that a white woman like myself cannot relate to.
But the complexity of all this is too often left between the pages of our history books. The business of naming, as Solnit phrased it, was not a worry in my mind when I got engaged on a park bench in Salem that spring day nearly two years ago. We exchanged cheap rings we had bought each other. We went into our decision together, partners with equal standing.
Our relationship has been an enduring conversation around redefining family. At first, I felt strongly that I would take his last name to replace my father’s. But shortly after getting engaged, an experience made me question that decision. I was working at my job and overheard a few men discussing whether to contact a previous colleague about a project they thought she could contribute to — but the colleague had gotten married and changed her name. The men could not recall her new name or find her under her old one, and I watched them decide not to include her in the project.
Just like that, she was expelled from their thoughts. Erased by her husband’s name.
This seemingly small incident horrified me. I’ve always been taught that a writer’s name is their brand, their legacy. Could someone shrug me off or forget me just for getting married and changing my name — which women are expected to do? What professional opportunities might I miss if I changed my name, possibly erasing myself from my colleague’s or reader’s minds? I had been engaged for only two weeks at that point, and I already felt the anxiety of renaming myself creep into my mind.
A woman taking her husband’s last name is the ultimate public expression of a marital union — the two become one. We often think of it as an expression of commitment. Keeping your name is considered progressive. But is a woman keeping her surname really an act of liberty? After all, it’s still her father’s name — historically, she was under his authority until marriage. Because of that, I don’t think retaining your birth-given surname is necessarily always an act of independence for women; though being legally allowed to keep your maiden name by choice is a positive step for feminists.
Marriage is supposed to be an act of unity when two people coming together to create their own family. But that romantic, rose-colored image exists simultaneously with the erasure of more than a woman’s maiden name. For a long time, marriage was also exclusionary: people of the same gender or different races were not allowed the privilege of that union.
As a bisexual woman, I am sometimes reminded that marrying a man affords me a level of privilege, thanks to heteronormativity. It’s a privilege I likely wouldn’t experience if I happened to be marrying a woman instead. I am also conscious of the fact that because my relationship looks hetero, my bisexuality itself is often erased.
Marriage is a strange beast, this thing of love and erasure, privilege and power, happiness and exclusivity. Although marriage as a concept has been practiced since Mesopotamia, traditional marriage originated when the Roman Catholic Church required a priest’s blessing to officiate a legal marriage. Divorce was forbidden. Patriarchal family structures were more rigidly enforced. Whether a marriage was for love or politics, the wife deferred to her husband. This deferral is exactly why judgment and criticism fall mostly on the shoulders of the woman if she decides not to change her name, as if it’s a sign she “wears the pants”.
The media may not often talk about it, but husbands whose wives don’t change their names actually encounter negative reactions, too. Surveys show that men who marry women who don’t change their last name are perceived as less masculine. Personally, my partner isn’t worried, and he’s already expressed that he’s fine with whatever I decide. Apparently, agonizing over the decision to change my last name is a female problem to be categorized with period cramps, catcalls, and sexual harassment. My partner can listen sympathetically, but it’s not as if it’s a problem for him.
Being asked whether I’m going to change my name leaves me flummoxed. Since my engagement nearly two years ago, I sometimes feel that I’ve given more thought to changing my last name than planning the wedding. Sometimes I find myself scrawling my first name in front of his last name, like girls used to do with their high school crush, trying it out to see if it fits.
One of my college friends got married last year, but I heard nothing about it. Her abusive partner had manipulated her into a secret marriage and made her to lie about it to me. Convinced I was a threat to their relationship, he prevented her from having any contact. Marriage had erased her from my life. Marriage was used as a weapon by her abuser to control her. When she told me what had happened, how there’s a warrant out for his arrest, I wept for her. For what we’d lost.
Women are taught to plan and prepare for our wedding because it will be “the best day of our lives”. Young women share moments from their engagement and wedding on social media as if it’s a rite of passage. My friend could not get her marriage annulled. The judge considered her erasure (an subsequent exclusion from society) consensual because she had lived with the man after their marriage.
Marriage today is supposed to be an equal union, but there is still a level of erasure involved. It can be extreme, like what my friend experienced, or it can be small and insidious, like the men who shrugged off the female colleague who had changed her name.
As for my marriage, I’ve decided to take his name, though I don’t think the answer that works for me is necessarily the right answer for someone else. At its core, feminism is about ensuring women have the same rights and opportunities as men. Today, being married does not strip women of their legal rights, but it does afford women the right to choose whether to take a new name or keep the one they were born with.
Marriage can exist without the exclusion of a woman’s rights, but our country is still trying to figure out what that looks like when it comes to keeping or changing one’s name. In that case, does whichever option I choose really matter? Perhaps the fact I’m not expected to by my future husband or family, and that the law does not require me to, is a reminder that marriage itself doesn’t have to be a sexist institution.
What did you choose when you got married? What are your thoughts on keeping or changing one’s name? Share your perspective in the comments below.