Our family was playing a game called “Truth Be Told.” The point of the game is for one person to ask a question (pulled out of the card box) and write down his or her answer. Everyone else writes down what they think the reader would say. The reader gives all the answers, and everyone else has to guess the real one.
Dear Husband drew a card that said, “Truth be told, the worst thing about being a girl is…” (Yeah, I know. Just by itself that question is horrible. Don’t get me started.) DH, our son, and I all wrote down things related to feminine beauty. DH wrote “uncomfortable clothes,” I wrote “high heels,” and our son wrote “long hair.” It did strike me as funny that all three of us suggested things that I personally find bothersome. Anyway, our daughter had a different take.
She wrote, “Having to change your name.”
We asked her what she meant. She explained that it was exactly what I suspected, women are expected to give up their maiden names when they marry. Apparently, this is not something our daughter is keen on. I suppose that this doesn’t really surprise me, although I didn’t know that my first grader was considering things so deeply.
Apparently, my daughter is more of a feminist at age six than I am at 36.
It’s taken me a long time to stop viewing feminism as the enemy of Christian faith, at least in some sense. Obviously, I’ve always believed that women should have equal pay for equal work, and I have never had any problem with women serving as elders, leaders, and pastors in the church. I certainly think (and teach my daughter to think) that girls are every bit as good as boys and should have no limits on what they are allowed to do. But my one hold-out has always been the issue of maiden name vs. married name.
A long time ago, I accepted the idea that a woman might keep her maiden name for professional reasons or because she was divorced. But I otherwise couldn’t fathom wanting to keep one’s maiden name just because one wanted to. When my daughter made her statements, I had to examine why I was so averse to the idea. I uncovered two basic reasons.
First, some (not all) of the women I’ve known who kept their maiden names were rather self-righteous about it. They made arguments about how taking her husband’s last name is a sign that he “owns” her, and it’s a barbaric tradition. Which, when you think about it, doesn’t make a lot of sense. After all, whose last name is a woman’s maiden name? Probably her father’s. Does that signal, then, that her father still “owns” her? Not only that, but I fail to see how it’s any indication of the kind of relationship I have with my husband. Considering that, I came to my second realization.
I finally understood why I had wanted to take my husband’s last name—and, consequently, understood why my daughter (and perhaps other women, too) might want to keep their maiden names.
When I got married, I couldn’t wait to shed my last name. It had been, to me, and endless source of grief since childhood. I had spent years having peers taunt me by altering my name into rather rude nicknames. It was embarrassing to have an unusual-ish last name. I might have gotten over it, but once I reached college, our family came apart at the seams. My mother took back her own family name. I, too, wanted all traces of that name wiped clean. The name didn’t bring honor, it brought shame.
So I became part of my husband’s family. I considered it a privilege to share his name, to be part of a family so full of love and faith. I am still honored to be called by that name. I suspect that this is what my daughter feels, too. She sees her last name as part of her, a part that signals to the world that she is a part of us and we are a part of her. I hope that the legacy we leave strengthens her resolve to bear that last name with dignity.
Because in the end, that is what a family name should be. Something which reveals to the rest of the world a little piece of who we are and who we love. I always thought that perhaps I would go back to my maiden name if I ever publish anything. I think now that I won’t, for a host of reasons. Should I choose to write under another name, I will use my mother’s family name. It’s a name that holds deep meaning for me, a name that symbolizes something I aspire to be.
As I came to understand why I did choose to take my husband’s name, I also understood why someone else would not. And, like all things, a woman should not have to defend her choice of last names, no matter what she decides to do. I suspect the reason I felt defensive, and perhaps the reason some women sound self-righteous, is that we’re all so used to defending ourselves—even among each other. We should not have to do that.
My daughter may change her mind when she gets married. Or she may not. It doesn’t really matter. Knowing her, she won’t settle for any man other than one who will respect her choice, no matter what she decides.