Does changing your last name automatically make you a bad feminist? I don’t think so.
I recently read an article in the Hairpin about a hetero couple who gave their child the wife’s last name, and it’s making me feel like a bad feminist, similar to my feelings about not being a scientist (Will I ever learn to stop feeling guilty for being myself?! My guess is no.) I’m taking my future husband’s last name, going from Shepard to Shields. And of course I shouldn’t feel guilty. And of course I still do. So let’s talk about it.
It’s well-established that feminism is about choice, not about bra-burning. You can wear makeup and dresses and work in the home and be Mrs. Lastname and the great thing about feminism is that those are your choices now, not your duty. In the US, at least. And you can do all those things and still be a feminist, because a feminist is not defined by his or her choices, but by their belief that men and women deserve equality.
And yet. It still feels like taking my soon-to-be husband’s last name is not the feminist choice. If I were The Right Kind Of Feminist, I’d be kicking down doors as Ms. Emily Shepard ‘til the day I die, and I would dub my children Meryl Shepard and Susan B. Anthony Shepard and the three of us would ride our horses into the sunset, shooting our pistols into the air and cackling with power.
Hang on, sorry, have to write something down…totally unrelated. One second.
Okay. So, sure. I’m taking Joe’s name. But it isn’t for lack of thought. In fact, I’m taking his last name for lots of reasons. Let me break it down.
1. Since I can remember, I’ve been told I would take my husband’s name one day. So I’ve always considered my name to be impermanent. Is this a good reason to then take your husband’s name? No, I don’t think so. If anything, it’s an argument for telling girls early on that they will have choices in their future. But it still establishes, for me, that I have never had the attachment to my last name that others do.
2. My last name isn’t tied to a culture or history that I am involved with or know much about. My ancestors came to America a long time ago; I have ancestral ties to the Salem witch trials to prove it. Joe, on the other hand, is very close to his last name’s history. He is third generation Irish and has visited family in Ireland. The Shields family cares very much about the Irish heritage their last name represents.
3. My last name is often spelled wrong, sometimes by people very close to me. More often, it’s done by people who are transferring my name from one place to another and at some point in the transfer just start adding Ps and Hs wherever they please. I’m never offended by this—exasperated, yes, but not offended. But eventually it just gets old. I would love a name that people can spell on the first try.
4. I don’t feel strongly about the alternatives. While there are lots of other options for people who want the same name as their partner (turning last names into middle names, making up a name, hyphenating), none of these solutions calls out to me. And our last names combined are Shelds or Shiepard. Or maybe Shelpards. Or Shipyard? Not great, although autocorrect could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
5. Joe’s last name is very similar to mine. Making the change doesn’t feel like an identity crisis. My initials don’t even change. But if Joe’s last name were something really different, with a really different heritage than mine? Emily Kowalszowskistein might be a harder transition—nothing against the Kowalszowskisteins, of course.
6. Emily Shields is a pretty badass name. Emily Shields can fight crime. She can TCB, if you know what I’m saying.
7. Changing my name is my choice. I don’t feel pressured into it. This is something I am doing on my own volition. Nothing makes me more obstinate than doing something that isn’t my idea. Just ask my mom about trying to buy me my first bra.
8. I’m keeping the Ms. and you can’t stop me. Because if no one has to know Joe’s marital status by his name, I believe you shouldn’t have to know mine. So my name will still have a bit of feminism mixed into it, even with his last name.
9. Our names may not be equal, but our marriage will be. And that’s the important thing. I proposed to him. He and I are equal partners in planning our wedding (in fact he might be doing more work than me but shhh, because I don’t think he’s figured it out yet.) And if one of us ever decides to stay home with the kids, it would be him. Our big life choices aren’t made without thought. And that’s the point of feminism, after all: the freedom to do what’s best for you.
In the end, this is our choice and no one else’s. I’m not suggesting that anyone needs to take anyone’s names. If anything, I’m saying we should only take someone’s name after consideration and only if it feels right. I want people to make their own choices, and I would love if less people took their husband’s names—I just want to be part of the minority of people who do. I want people to make their own life with their own names of their own choosing. For me, that last name of my choosing will be Shields. Emily Shields. Crime fighter. Avenger. Eyepatch wearer. Sword-wielder. Shields.
For more thinking about changing your name, head over to A Practical Wedding. They talk about changing your last name as a feminist choice, about the general decision to change or not, changing your name in the age of Google, men changing their last names, and mostly related but also just good to read: “Being Black, Feminist, Thoroughly Girly, and Conflicted”.