Ingo and I got married almost two months ago, but a week ago, I finally got my visa which gives me the right to live and work in the EU. As we submitted our papers, the woman glanced at our marriage certificate again and said,
“You have different last names still, right?”
“Right,” Ingo and I both tell her.
“Not a very German last name, is it…” she says to me. I just shrug my shoulders and smile.
This is only the beginning of what I know will be a lifetime of explaining to people that my husband and I do not share the same last name. While I’m certainly not the first woman to do this, I am one of a still relatively small minority of women who have chosen to keep her last name instead of taking the last name of her husband.
I would like to preface this article by saying that I have many women friends, family, and role models who are empowered women and have chosen to take their husbands’ last names. My own mother, who to me is one of the strongest women in the world and has shared an equal partnership with my father in their marriage and their life, took my father’s last name. I have not written this blog to rally women to my cause, or to shame those who did take another last name. The goal of my writing today is simply to share my perspective. I know that this choice will seem radical to many of you, and you might feel as strongly against what I am saying as I feel strongly for it. But that is the beauty of sharing. As a newly married woman, this is what I am going through and it is important for me to write it down and to share it with those who care to read.
One of the most fascinating parts about choosing not to take Ingo’s last name has been the discussions the decision has initiated. It turns out, many people have thought about it, one way or the other, and I have been grateful to get a whole range of experiences and the reasons behind their choices. While I do not have time to share all of these enlightening stories, I will share my own.
Sometime in my early 20s, I became very curious to know which men would actually consider not marrying someone if it came down to her not taking his last name. So, whenever I was dating, I would work the question into casual conversation. While I was certainly not ever planning to marry that person, I found that as far as my value set went, I would not continue dating a man who would actually refuse to marry someone based on her not taking his last name. In fact, I found this conversation to be very telling to me on a whole score of things, the two biggest being 1.) How traditional a man is in his understanding of gender roles, and 2.) His entitlement as an individual in the world.
If a man believes that his partner should relinquish her name in exchange for his simply because it’s always been done, it demonstrates a dangerous entitlement that he believes his identity is more important, more powerful, more historically necessary. If he makes the excuse that it has nothing to do with that, and all to do with a unified family, then I’m sure he would be happy to take her last name, right?
Wrong. I have met exactly three men who have taken their wives last names. This takes ultimate courage, and I cannot blame other men, even the most authentic feminists, for not doing the same. Our current day society emasculates men who choose this option. Even though this is an issue I feel incredibly passionate about, I would never ask Ingo to take my last name. I would fear the repercussions he would face in society, and at the end of the day, I would not do to him what I have specifically vetted him for not doing to me.
You might be saying, Whitney, you’re really getting your undies into a bundle over just a name. And you would be half right. My undies are in a bundle, but it’s not because of the name itself. It’s more about 1.) A name’s representation of an individual’s identity, and 2.) How society asks women to conform to an identity based on a non-equitable patriarchal structure.
So, I’ll address the issue of name identity first. A person’s name represents all the tangible and intangible qualities that make up that person. Names mean a lot. In linguistic terms, it is a classic example of the signifier and the signified.
Parents often agonize over the names they will call their child because they want to endow her with the identity they hope this name will represent to the child herself and to society at large. As the child grows, she creates her own identity in addition to the identities that her parents and environment have given her. The identity created will be associated to her name, the given signifier of who she is. In two or three words (a first, middle, and last name) we give others a way to group specific values, traits, behaviors, impressions, and so on that allow them to identify us. To make a long, linguistic argument short: Names are extremely important!
Which is why, no matter if you are ecstatic, indifferent, or hostile about the idea of changing your name/identity to that of your partner’s, it is a big deal. And when you decide to take on another person’s identity that act should be recognized and respected, not just expected. This leads me to my second point, which is that acquisition of a new identity can be oppressive if it is expected, or worse, mandated, but that is does not necessarily have to be.
At the most extreme, society’s obsession with male identity and heritage has cost a woman her head (think Anne Boleyn) and at the least, it has cost a woman half of her identity (her last name). In fact, in some circumstances she has been forced to give up her full identity (first and last name). Is it that radical, for example, to find it outrageous that now simply because I am married, I become known not as the name I have known myself as for my entire life, but now am sometimes addressed as Mrs. Ingo Albrecht? This is not half erasure. This is near total erasure, my identity confined to the gendered suffix on the front of my husband’s name.
While I totally understand that most people writing this are doing so without ill-intent or malice, I find it to be the epitome of what we are fighting against when we speak of modern day gender equality and that it can, in fact, all be boiled down to a name. Can you even imagine having a letter addressed to Mr. Whitney Jenkins, referring to Ingo? Me neither. Because it would never happen (unless it was one of our friends doing it as a joke).
On the other hand, when I say the new identity does not have to be oppressive, believe me when I say, I would love it if Ingo and I shared a last name! I really would. I think it is the most beautiful thing in the world to merge two identities into one. But because of the fore-mentioned discussion, neither one of us will be doing this, not because we don’t love each other or like each other’s names, but because it is bigger than a name, especially for me. Luckily, I have found a partner who understands this. And in his acceptance of something that many other men would have struggled with, I know I am with the right one.
You might still conclude that it is just a name, or that is just easier, and you might be right, but it is my way of standing against a societal practice I find challenging to our current state and understanding of gender equality. You might also say to me, Whitney, you took your father’s last name which was a male last name. How can you argue about the patriarchy? Obviously, you would be right. I do hold my father’s last name, but I was given that identity at birth and it is who I am now. It is not about tracing back lines and lines of female names. My entire point is that my decision is an attempt to equal out the playing field, so that people never know whether last names are coming from the male or female line. My goal is to break away from the assumption that a woman is obligated to take her husband’s last name.
I have already undergone what it feels like to go by a different identity simply because of tradition and people’s assumptions. People assume and will continue to assume I am now, Whitney Albrecht. Please do not think I am incredibly offended by this, as I know that it will happen for the rest of my life and is the consequence of making a decision outside the boundaries of the societal norm. I will take it (mostly) gracefully knowing that at the end of the day, that is not my name, and that was my decision.
I hope the day comes when my daughter or granddaughter or great-granddaughter does not have to think about the taking or the not taking of a last name. I hope that she can take her husband’s last name or he take hers because it was done in the absence of a society that expects the erasure of female identity in exchange for a male one. I hope that she doesn’t even comprehend why a man would ever expect a woman to take his last name in the first place. I hope that she grows up in a generation where last name lineage has become so blurred and mixed that it finally becomes apparent that the need to carry on a particular last name didn’t really ever matter in the first place. And when she and her partner make that decision together, I hope it will not represent radical feminism or the emasculated male, rather simply, a choice to share or not share a last name.