Friday, August 3, 2012

Why I Don't Miss My Maiden Name

As summer concludes, love is in the air. My husband is away right now at a family wedding, my brother ties the knot in a little more than a month, and mu husband and I just celebrated our five-year anniversary last week. Matrimony is on my mind.

I never would have imagined ten years ago that I would be where I am now - happily married with two lovely children. My ambition was to travel the world (by myself), get a decent education (by myself), and start a successful career (probably by myself...although at that point I would be a bit flexible, seeing as I would be about 30 or so). Now, four years shy of 30 and five years into my marriage, I can only thank my Creator. Because what really fueled my desire to be "by myself" was a despair that I would ever find someone.

During this period of despair, I also pledged that I would never change my maiden name. To do so would be to turn my back on my identity and passively lean on my husband's. We modern women must protect ourselves from the onslaught of chauvinism, after all. And, as stated by the Lucy Stone League:

"This tradition of name-abandonement by women is so much a part of U.S. culture that few recognize it for what it is: a powerful instance of sex discrimination which has a major effect on women."

Major effect, indeed. I find myself signing my letters not only with my husband's last name, but also his first (preceded by the archaic "Mrs."). The Lucy Stone League continues:

 "When girls are growing up, they see what they have to look forward to: the abandonment of their identity into the identity of another... The message to mothers is: 'Your name is not important. Your family history is not important." Of course, their children see the same message, 'I have my father's name because my mother's pre-marriage name is not important.'"

I, too, once felt this sentiment. It's hard for me to put my finger on the exact moment it changed. But it wasn't hard for me to choose to change my maiden name. Part of that was because I had finally found a man whose name I wanted to take - for me, this was a sign of utmost respect. But mostly, I realized that taking my husband's name was not to denounce my previous identity, but rather to enrich it.

Lucy Stone had one thing right: names are not indifferent. To take another man's family name is momentous. However, as Catholics our names are fluid and dynamic. The transition from one surname to another is not simply a loss of identity; it is a deepening of that identity. In the case of marriage, this deepening is directly tied to the other - to my husband. The decision to take his name was simultaneously a commitment to discovering the truth about myself, my place in the world, and most importantly, my vocation as wife and mother.

So why do women have to change their names and not men? Isn't this an obvious example of gender discrimination? I suppose it could be seen that way, assuming that your husband, society, or some other outside entity forced you to change your name, simply because you were a woman. I felt no such pressure. I wanted to change my name, to make my unity with my husband concrete and undeniable. I think there is something in women that longs for that metamorphosis. As much as I loved my maiden name, I don't miss it.

That being said, it certainly isn't arbitrary that the woman takes the man's name. This is an immense topic that really requires an entire Socratic dialogue (and we know those Greeks were long-winded). Unfortunately,  it's bedtime for me. In the meantime, I  leave you with this snippet (seemingly unrelated, but truly pertinent) from one of G.K Chesteron's essays on the nature of domesticity, or what we moderns call "gender roles":

Modern women defend their office with all the fierceness of domesticity. They fight for desk and typewriter as for hearth and home, and develop a sort of wolfish wifehood on behalf of the invisible head of the firm. That is why they do office work so well; and that is why they ought not to do it. 

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