Andrea Plaid is the associate editor of the award-winning race-and-pop-culture blog Racialicious. She is also part of The Feminist Wire’s editorial collective and an associate producer of renowned web series Black Folk Don’t. Her work on race, gender, sex, and sexuality has appeared at On The Issues, Bitch, AlterNet, and RH Reality Check. Her work has been reprinted at, among other online sites, Penthouse, and New American Media. Her writing also appears in the anthology Feminism for Real: Deconstructing the Academic Industrial Complex of Feminism, edited by Jessica (Yee) Danforth and Corset Magazine.
She is the proud owner of A. Magdalene’s Touch.
My Married Name And Feminist Sexism
I have a confession to make: the last name many people know me by is my married name, though my ex-husband and I dissolved our marriage about a decade ago.
And even at that, my last name is my ex’s stage name, a moniker he picked up during his fronting-a-punk-rock-band days. He legally changed his name to “Plaid” just before we married; he hated his original surname, partially because it was difficult to pronounce and also because he resented his father. My own resentment towards my neglectful father made happily choosing to take my husband’s chosen last name that much easier.
When I dissolved my marriage and was facing the decision to take back my maiden name, I just couldn’t do it. After all, if I wanted to get really feminist about it, it was my father’s name, an indication of patrilineality – which gets read in my family as my mother marrying the father of her child and, ultimately, upholding respectability politics. I thought about taking on my mom’s maiden name, but didn’t want an ideological fight about matrilineality with my mom. Taking her former name may have been read as delegitimizing her “duty” as a “proper Black woman.”
So, I made a very simple decision: I asked my ex if I could keep his name. He agreed. With that, I settled into and sallied forth with my punk-rock-by-marriage surname.
But see, reasons like mine were invisible in the latest kerfuffle about women in straight relationships not needing to change their names when they marry – or claiming their married names for reasons like, say, music tours. No, in these discussions, those of us who take on our husband’s names or even flaunt our married monikers are simply making unfeminist choices and possibly outright suckers for the patriarchy.
These arguments flatten the complex history of marital name-changing in the U.S. They don’t acknowledge, for example, that while a majority of women do adopt their husband’s last names, some women have passed on their “maiden” names to their children as middle names. This was a not-unheard-of practice, especially with white Baby Boomer names and in previous generations, mostly from the American South (e.g., President Lyndon Baines Johnson) and upper-class families in the Northeast (Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John Fitzgerald Kennedy).
They forget that, at one point, just about the only women who society “allowed” to keep their last names – be they maiden or made-up – were actresses, like many-times-married Elizabeth Taylor and Rita Hayworth.
They fail to acknowledge the cumulative fight that allows non-thespian women today (though not all) the right to choose to change or keep our names as a reflection of our married status, though the social attitudes about women changing our names lags far, far behind the choice. This fight occurred right about the time of women fighting for the marital-status neutral title of “Ms.”
And they forget how utterly heterosexist and transphobic this argument is, as queer people have melded and molded, kept and pitched their last names to reflect their committed relationships in light of – and in resistance to – legal rulings about their relationships; as participants in ball culture adopt the name of the “house” they belong to, names that not only tell other voguers who participants represent on the dance floor, but often also indicate, the name of the “house mother” who is helping provide their material needs; as trans* people are fighting for the legal right – among so many others – to have the name that reflects their true gender.
In these efforts to make decisions about married-last-names a litmus-test of feminism, I see a nasty underbelly turning over once again. These admonitions really say that, for all our struggles and triumphs, we don’t believe in our own feminist victories in working towards a world where we can all make our own life choices. While we’re demanding that women be treated equitably in this society, we’re saying that it’s up to women — still — to make the “proper” choice, like not taking their husbands’ names, to legitimize feminism.
Even more insidiously, these admonitions really say that feminists really don’t trust women to make their own decisions about the mundane aspects of their lives, like their own names and how they wish to convey their (hetero) partnerships to the world. In other words, these admonitions are really exercises in sexism under the guise of feminism.
As fellow feminist thinker and writer Tami Winfrey Harris says, “Taking on your husband’s last name may not be an explicitly feminist act, but are we wasting a discussion on these small personal actions instead of having a larger discussion about the power structure of traditional marriage and gender and ‘ownership?’” In the process, these admonitions keep some people from taking on the name of “feminist.”
Let’s Talk about Names: William is the previous post in the series.
Let’s Talk about Names: Gaayathri is the next post in the series.