“So, your mom is clearly the sole survivor of a terrible traumatic event or was otherwise forced to enter the Witness Protection Program, upon which she changed her last name in the interest of identity protection, and that’s the real reason why your parents have different surnames, right?”
That last part was fabricated. But these types of exchanges do occur fairly often, and they always leave me torn between whether I should pat the questioner on the hand sympathetically or deliver a roundhouse kick to their head. For a while, I thought that the source of this confusion was cultural ignorance, since Chinese women do not traditionally take their husband’s last name. However, my friend Anne isn’t Chinese, and she also has to explain her situation patiently to strangers at times — she took her mother’s last name while her sister took her father’s last name.
Ironically, these annoying conversations have only reinforced my stance that if I do choose to get married in the future, I will not be taking my husband’s last name. After all, the only reason confusion persists is because the number of married couples with different last names is still fairly low — nearly eight in 10 women still submit to this practice, according to a 2005 survey conducted by the University of Florida.
But believe it or not, the main catalyst for my presumptive choice is not wholly feminist in nature. While I do criticize the practice for reflecting an inherently sexist system that still recognizes “man and wife” instead of “husband and wife” to this day, the fundamental reason I will not change my last name is much simpler: I have wanted to be Dr. Catherine Cai for much longer than I’ve ever wanted to be Mrs. Joe Schmoe.
That being said, some other reasons contribute to my adamancy. Catherine Cai is the name that I have grown up with and come to identify with — be that through the creative mispronunciations of my monosyllabic last name that I have been forced to endure or the battery of terrible spin-off nicknames assigned to me by friends throughout the years (consider Chipmunkerine and Faterine as excellent examples). It’s really not just a name — a last name carries so many implications of history, culture, religion and personal experience that cannot easily be transferred through paperwork.
While I have made my personal decision to eventually keep my last name — I avoid the term “maiden name” because it carries an infantilizing connotation to me — I do not condemn women (or men!) who do choose to change their names upon marriage. I could understand someone wanting change because they hate their last name and conversely, if I fell for someone whose last name is something awesome, I might recant this entire column and change my last name, after all.
What I can’t get behind is this pervading notion that it’s what’s “right” or that it “should” be done. A 2009 national survey by the American Sociological Association, highlighted by the New York Daily News, revealed that over 70 percent of respondents believed it was better for a woman to change her last name, and nearly half were in support of government-mandated name changes.
Trying to gain some insight into this condition, I initiated a bit of discourse on the subject on the most esteemed of intellectual forums: my Facebook status.
One acquaintance commented, “Who cares? It’s only an issue for insecure feminists and extreme chauvinists. I don’t care if my wife chooses to change her last name or not — however, I will say that changing your last name shows dedication, and that’s sexy.”
His comment baffled me in that he failed to identify the chauvinism in his own thoughts about what dedication in a relationship should be. But his sentiments are unfortunately common: In a 1997 study of 10,000 Midwesterners, men expressed their beliefs that women who wish to keep their birth surnames are more likely to take jobs outside the home, less prone to enjoy cooking, less likely to attend church and would be worse wives. But it would be much too easy to simply point fingers at men as the sole culprits. As I read more forums on the subject, I came across one comment posted by a female blogger just last month: “Girls need to just get the f--- over it and do it. [The] whole point is to become a family.”
Maybe I’m the one that’s old-fashioned, but I’m pretty sure dedication and family is about love, commitment and acts of caring, self-sacrifice and kindness, which are not shown through superficial practices like changing one’s last name. That the husband’s last name is the default family name shows that men are still what Johns Hopkins sociology professor Andrew Cherlin describes as the “greater of two equals.” Just because sexism isn’t institutionalized or legal does not mean that inequalities don’t linger de facto.
But ultimately, I really don’t even care whether or not women choose to take their husbands’ last names. I just care about ending the inherently sexist thought process that still underlies the current practice — that somehow, changing your last name translates into you being a better woman or a better wife. I believe in freedom of choice, but my choice is to help the paradigm shift.
And I will still consider delivering a swift roundhouse kick to the head to anyone who challenges that.
Editorials Editor Catherine Cai is a College junior from Atlanta.