Monday, December 30, 2013

Distate for the Distaff

I'm still using the last name I was born with. To me, it has always seemed odd that married women change their names, generally, and men don't. There's a power dynamic there, rooted in the idea that women were the property of their fathers until they became property of their husbands. I recognized that dynamic even as a young teen, before I knew about its history.

A recent New York Times story (which ran today in the Star Tribune) about what newly married same-sex couples are doing with their last names touched on that power dynamic:

Among gay men, anecdotal evidence suggests fewer newlywed couples are merging or changing names. This might explain why friends were confused when Kurt Serrano (formerly Kurt Roggin) told friends he was changing his name.

“No one said, ‘You’re crazy,’ but almost all of them said ‘Go for it, but I would never do that,’ ” Serrano, 40, said. Still, despite the fact that he is older (his husband, Jimmy, is 27) and though people now draw conclusions (“They assume you’re submissive,” he said), he was resolute.
The fact that so few men change their last names to their spouse's -- whether male or female -- is the best evidence of the power dynamic. It's notable that guys don't often express the excuse that seems common among women who take their husbands' names -- that they want their children to have the same last name as them. I guess most men are willing to let that go, or don't mind hyphenating the kids' names, or maybe they don't plan to have children.

I do know one man who changed his last name to his wife's, and several others who hyphenated or changed to a name that was completely new to both spouses. The man who changed to his wife's last name was born with the name Erik Hansen, which is the Minnesota equivalent of John Smith. So when the time came to get married, he took his wife's somewhat more memorable name.

But that's her father's name, of course, as is my last name. I've always kind of liked the now-passé feminist idea of changing your last name to your mother's first name. I knew a woman in college named Karen Ruth, for instance. And creating a unique name to be shared by the new family is probably the bravest of all. Try getting divorced after you've done that.

Over time, it seems to me people remember only the descendants in the male line of a family, as if the only real members come from the male line. The rest are "on the distaff" side, right? Absorbed into their husbands' families, lost in the generations.

No matter how much some may think it doesn't matter -- and even I think it doesn't matter nearly as much as most other aspects of patriarchy -- it's a nagging remnant of a wrong-headed attitude about half the human race.

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