Hello, my name is Leah Wise and I have a confession to make:
I’m a feminist who took my husband’s last name.
“How could you?!” my feminist sisters cry. Well, because I wanted to.
Let me acknowledge that I’m right there with you when you say that taking on a husband’s name implies an unequal balance of power between the sexes, that it’s part of an archaic patriarchal system, that it arose within a tradition that passes women as property between father and spouse. I agree; that’s why Daniel didn’t ask my father’s permission to marry me. Independent adults can make their own decisions.
I’ll admit that I really didn’t think about not taking Daniel’s last name until after we were married. It took me 6 months to make all the changes to my legal documents, in part due to laziness and in part due to the fear that everything would be different with a new last name (it wasn’t, but more on that later).
I considered (and consider) myself the academic sort and I didn’t want to confuse my professors with a new last name. But, for the most part, my hesitation wasn’t due to the fact that I felt I had built a name for myself as a supreme scholar using my maiden name; I was afraid more that they’d question me for my age. I was 21 when I got married. That’s young by a lot of people’s standards and I didn’t want their condescending judgment. I hadn’t really considered that the name change itself would produce that response.
Back to the point. I acknowledge that patriarchy is bad for women and that the name change developed within that system. But I changed my name because I wanted to have the same last name as my husband. I don’t want to sound like a cliche, young-and-in-love moron, but I was wooed by the idea of creating a family unit with my husband (not the child-bearing family unit necessarily, just being identifiable as a married pair). I like that people call us The Wises. I discussed the subject with a friend and mentor earlier this week and I liked the way she phrased this point: getting married is choosing your next of kin. You tell the world, by marriage, that you have chosen a life partner who is closer to you than your parents or siblings; you have taken them on as your family. Having a uniform last name symbolically represents this bond.
I changed my name because I had the open space – the freedom – to make that choice for myself. I’m sure I was influenced by custom, but I married a man who believes strongly in fairness, equality, and egalitarianism. We both received departmental awards as undergraduates in the same field and graduated summa cum laude. We’re equals and we know it and we’re proud of it. If he had suggested that I had no say in the name change, I more than likely would have broken it off altogether; that’s straight up male chauvinism.
Additionally (this may come as a surprise to some of you), changing my last name had its perks. For one, I felt like I could become something better than I was as a Wells (I should have mentioned that my new last name is very similar to my old last name). Because changing my last name was my choice, I gained a fresh outlook on my identity (it feels similar to moving to a different town or graduating high school). I also symbolically shed the burdens and ideologies of the family I grew up in. College changed me profoundly from an ideological and religious standpoint and I think the superficial move away from my past helped me admit my new identity to myself and my family. It helped me gain the footing to stand behind my beliefs. The family name I took on doesn’t represent a family that is less broken than my own. It represents the pact I made with my husband to stand beside him for the rest of my life.
There are numerous other arguments that neutralize the name change: when you keep your maiden name, you keep your father’s name, thereby re-affirming patriarchy; future children are easily added to the family without name confusion when you take on a uniform last name; a uniform names provides social legitimacy; etc. I agree with those sentiments, but ultimately it comes down to personal choice.
It strikes me that feminism has always been about choice. To paraphrase my friend again, feminism is about equal pay, respect, civil rights, and self governance – all, at their root, about freedom. While I believe that American women are still beaten down by an unjust patriarchal system, while I know women oftentimes don’t reach high enough or stand up for themselves or gives themselves credit, we cannot lose sight of the original heart of feminism. Don’t shame your sisters in this struggle who think differently or choose differently. The beauty of creating an expansive landscape of choice is that we can journey out in an increasing number of directions and still be within our rights. The last thing we need is to restrain those beaten-down women who came to feminism to find room to grow.
I became a Wise because I wanted to. If I felt strongly that I was encouraging patriarchy by doing so, Daniel and I would have made up a new name or co-hyphenated.
We would have resolved it together because we’re in this together. That’s why they call us Wise.