What’s in a name anyway?

Editor’s Note: This post was written by a student in the Spring 2009 Feminist Theory class in The University of Akron’s Women’s Studies Program. To read more student posts, click here.

marriage20certificateI got married when I was 21. Though I was rather young, it was something that I felt compelled to do, and I was completely accepting of all the commitments and responsibilities that lay ahead of me, save for one: the changing of my last name.

For most brides it’s not usually a big issue. Many women take pride in taking on their husband’s name, but I didn’t.

I thought maybe there was something wrong with me for feeling that way, like I was a bad fiancé for wanting to keep my name, but I couldn’t help feeling like I was losing a part of my identity that I had held onto so strongly for 21 years. I took pride in my name and really didn’t understand the tradition of changing it. The whole tradition just seemed silly and chauvinistic to me. It didn’t seem fair that I had to change a part of my identity and my husband didn’t.

There were countless arguments about this topic, and I was told that if I didn’t comply with the name change I could forget about getting married. Red flag number one.

Being young, stupid and in love, I reluctantly gave in, and as I signed my marriage license with my new identity printed on it, I couldn’t help feeling contempt and as if I had just sold out on my beliefs. Not exactly the common reaction a bride is supposed to feel, right? Red flag number two.

A lot of people made me feel like I was making a mountain out of a molehill, but I didn’t understand why so many brides adhere to a tradition that is reminiscent of a time when women were treated like a man’s property. As a feminist, I felt as though I was taking a step backward in my life instead of a step forward.

Why was I letting my new husband choose what I was going to be called, instead of standing up and choosing it for myself? Why couldn’t he understand that it was just as insulting for him to ask me to change my name as it was for me to ask him to do the same?

To me, regardless of what our last names were, we still loved each other and we wouldn’t be less of a married couple if we chose to keep our names just the way they were. It wasn’t a big deal for me or something that I felt I had to do to feel truly connected to him.

I even went as far as asking my fiancé to change his name to mine, hoping that by reciprocating his actions toward me, he could understand where I was coming from. But no. He told me that I was ridiculous for asking a man to take my name because “that’s just not the way things are done.” Red flag number three.

I just don’t understand why people conform to traditions and practices just for the sake of tradition. To me, doing something like changing a piece of your identity just because “that’s the way it’s always been” is just plain ignorant.

I know I probably sound like a hypocrite because I complied to this tradition as well, but love makes us idiots and causes us to act without logic a lot of the time.

It’s now three years later, and I am divorced and have gone back to my old name. Though the name issue was not the reason for my getting divorced, it definitely generated hostility and contempt that contributed greatly to other existing conflicts.

I feel as though I’m a lot smarter now, and I don’t regret anything because with experience comes wisdom. I’m still open to marriage, but I’ve realized that if a man isn’t willing to respect you who you are and what you believe in, then it’s not worth it, nor is it okay to change yourself just to appease your significant other. That will just make you miserable and angry with yourself.

Looking back I think I would have been open to accepting my ex-husband’s name if he wouldn’t have given me an ultimatum. I don’t condemn women who change their names either, as long as they made the decision on their own and weren’t forced to by their spouse.

And I might be open to changing my name one day if I ever remarry, but only if the man I’m with realizes that it is my option to do so, and not my obligation. I think it means more that way anyway.

On reading women and counting beans

feminist-theory-readerIn “Beyond Bean Counting,” author JeeYeun Lee says that every time she is in a room, she “automatically count[s] those whom [she] can identify as women, men, people of color, Asian Americans, mixed-race people, whites, gays and lesbians, bisexuals, heterosexuals, people with disabilities.”

When Lee received the call for submissions for the Feminist Theory Reader, she “imagined opening up the finished book to the table of contents and counting beans.” (See more at Google Books).

I know that I am guilty of bean counting, just like Lee. And I would also like to say that I don’t see the problem with it. As humans, we tend to categorize everything. We aren’t comfortable without being able to label things, know where they belong in this world, and where they stand relative to us.

As a grad student in English Literature, I have also opened up anthologies — such as the Norton Anthology of American Literature –Since 1945 — to the table of contents and counted beans. And while I have found that more women authors are being included in contemporary literature anthologies, I wonder if they are being included because they are women.

I did a little investigating on the Norton site, and in the review of the anthology found these statments: the concern with post-war literature has included women, but because they fit the theme of “cross-cultural mixtures and hybrid perspectives that result from a globalized contemporary life.”

The site lists works by Jhumpa Lahiri, Rita Dove, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Li-Young Lee, and claims that they have been included because they all have to do with translations of customs or language from another culture into American English.” Li-Young Lee is the only man included for this purpose, but there are three women.

The next section of the review dicusses the “inclusion of new immigrant voices in the spectrum of national perspectives.” The examples used of “works that maintain ties to previous culture while establishing links to America” include Sandra Cisneros, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Am I reading all this wrong or are these women being included not because they are women, but because they fulfill a quota for diversity?

I have read many women authors in my undergraduate career, and I asked one of my professors why he chose the women authors that he did. He told me that the fact that they were women authors played a part in his selection, but it wasn’t the major factor. Some works were chosen because they “teach well” and others because they included the themes he need to discuss, such as realism and naturalism.

I am glad that more women authors are being included in classrooms around the country, but I have to wonder why they are. I’ve read Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko, Ana Castillo, and Banana Yoshimoto – to name just a few – and the connection I feel to their texts has nothing to do with the fact that they are women.

Mostly, what I find appealing is the story of an outsider, and that “otherness” is usually based on culture or race, not sex.

Sharon Henry is a graduate student in the Spring 2009 Feminist Theory class. To read more student posts, click here.