Let’s Talk About Names

by Grace and Jessica

[Cross posted at Are Women Human?]

“If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” – Toni Morrison

Yesterday, we read this piece by Jill Filipovic on women changing their names when they marry men. We kind of hated it. It’s simplistic, patronizing, Eurocentric, and very narrow in its perspective – typical of mainstream U.S. feminist commentary on this issue.

And yes, this made us angry. We took to Twitter to say as much, as we do, and got some pushback for it.

Those of us in the feminist blogosphere are familiar with this cycle. Privileged, misguided commentary sparks a flurry of furious rebuttals. The folks being criticized, and their supporters, rebut right back. Little, if any, of the critique is really absorbed. A day or a week or a month later, it happens again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Naming problems (pun intended) we see in media we consume is valuable and necessary. But this time, we want to do more than just get angry. We don’t want to leave the discussion at a response to this article. We agree with feminists like Filipovic that this is an important conversation – too important to leave it up to Big Media to frame it for us, and to do so around faulty and incomplete assumptions.

We can start our own conversation. We can shift, reshape, and recenter it. And that’s exactly what we’d like to do, hopefully with your help. We want to intentionally and from the outset center people left out of mainstream discussions of naming and identity.

With that in mind, we’re inviting people to share their stories and reflections on what names mean, and what it means to change one’s name. We want to bring together a range of voices – POC, queer, trans, immigrant (not just to the U.S.!), global, nonmonogamous, and the various intersections of these.

We could have done a forum on issues of naming within a specific group or identity – and this is also a much needed discussion. But our specific hope here is to create a forum that shows how rich and complex the relationship between names and identity is, and provide a variety of jumping points for multiple conversations about what names mean.

Filipovic argues that “Your name is your identity,” and that changing it is giving up a part of yourself. We would argue something much broader this. Names are powerful, and often intimately related to our self-identity. But the relationship is not an easy, uncomplicated one. It’s not as simple as saying that the name you’re given is your identity, or that you have one name and one identity, or that changing your name means erasing your identity or part of who you are.

Names can be given, they can be claimed, and reclaimed. They can be denied by the people they are “given” to, or denied by people who refuse to recognize the names we claim for ourselves. Names can be imposed as way of erasing authentic identity. Many of us have multiple names and straddle identities. There are a range of stories – historical and personal – to be told about naming, a variety of meanings signified by names.

We’re really excited about creating a forum to share some of these stories. We already have several contributors lined up, and we (Jessica and Grace) will also be sharing stories from our own families as well. Starting on March 17th, we’ll be posting them alternately at Are Women Human and here at Flyover Feminism.

We hope you’ll join us in reading and discussing these stories, and maybe contributing one of your own. The format – video, essay, poetry, etc. – is up to you. And if there’s a piece of media you really love that speaks to names and identity, feel free to share that, too. You can reach us at arewomenhuman2@gmail.com or flyover@flyoverfeminism.com.

We’d like to thank Spectra Speaks and Ann Daramola/Afrolicious for shaping the ideas in this post and continually reminding us of the need to tell our own stories. We too can create the media we want to see. Let’s get to it. Let’s talk about names.

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8 Responses to “Let’s Talk About Names”

  1. Danielle | from two to one

    I left this comment over at Grace’s blog, but want to copy here, as well. I’m really excited for this and look forward to contributing and reading through others’ stories about naming and identity. I did want to flag for you that Shannon Hill (The Feminist Mystique) and I co-founded the Last Name Project last year and will be re-launching it in the next couple of months. The Last Name Project is a collection of stories from people from all walks of life — but mostly Westerners at this point — talking about what they did with their last names and why.

  2. MKM

    Hi, I have been seeing this all over twitter and the issues of naming and marriage are very complicated and overall, I think name-changing isn’t inherently an “anti-feminist” choice or inherently a “feminist” choice. It depends and I think that “it depends” sentiment needs to be emphasized more, especially when so many mainstream feminists do not care about that.

    But I also have a lot of feelings about all this. I want there to be more room for conversation about, for example, how married couples can create a new identity with a newly-created name for themselves and their children. I want there to be more room for challenging [within heterosexual marriages] why the husband’s name is too often the default, why even if the the wife does not change her name, the children often receive the father’s name or a hyphenated name with the father’s name last. I want there to be more room to discuss how women are overall encouraged to have their identity subsumed by men and male desires (i.e. change their interests, their behaviors, their personalities for men) and how it is often a sign of white, cisgender, heterosexual male privilege to never be expected to have your identity altered, demeaned, and subsumed by another and to never face the consequences of such a change. I want there to be more room to discuss that even within queer marriages, the one who often changes their name is considered the more “feminine” one. I want there to be more room for a discussion about how our choices as women are affected by kyriarchy every day and how not every choice we make is “feminist” and how that is OK and that kyriarchy is the problem. I want there to be more room to discuss how too much discussion of individual choices within the system of kyriarchy is not productive (i.e. why shouldn’t shame women who have changed their names in marriage).

    And overall, my biggest concern, is that during this whole conversation I have seen very few people challenge and critique the institution of marriage itself and how it is used by the neoliberal, white supremacist, cissupremacist, ableist, misogynist, and heteronormative state as a form of oppression and exclusion against those, like me, who never want or care to be married and who do not want their love and families to be sanctioned by state power and who do not see the state as a protecting or benevolent force.

    But anyway, I am excited to see how this series unfolds, especially talking about naming and identity beyond marriage.

  3. naath

    I kinda hate the name my parents gave me, and I don’t usually use it in person (this name, naath, is the name I have chosen for myself). I have a more complicated relationship with my surname because I don’t have a “replacement” to hand; I don’t want to go for “get married and take his name” but I don’t really have any other idea how to get a new surname (all the things I’ve come up with are transparent allusions to works of fiction).

    I find the assumption that “wife takes husband’s name” is universal rather baffling – I know married people who have opted for a huge range of options all of which have resulted in “people having names they are happy to use” and none of which have resulted in “world ends”… I think it’s important to question the assumption that this is Just How It Works and make other options more socially available, but that shouldn’t have to mean looking down at people who make the “default” choice (for whatever reason they make it).

  4. Babs

    This has always been an interesting issue for me. In my first marriage, I was not going to change my name until my then-husband-to-be explained that it was important to him and why it was important to him. I loved him and respected his reasoning so I changed my name. I liked my name when it was that name, it was a happy sounding name. It was good. I was still me, but I missed my really cool birth last name. Still though, I wasn’t upset enough to worry about it.

    When we divorced, I changed back. And Oh. My. GODS, the paperwork. So much paperwork. I was SO irritated by it. Not mad at anyone or regretting my decision, just hating the labyrinthine channels I had to go through to get EVERYTHING in the correct name again. I vowed I would not do the paperwork again. Ever.

    Now, with my new marriage, I told my fiance that I wouldn’t change my name and he said “I don’t want you to! I love your name!” So, that’s that. Some people are put off and a bit shocked but I’m not really caring about them.

    As to whether someone changes their name for marriage or not, I kind of see it the same as any other choice they make about their marriage – NONE OF MY BUSINESS.

    Now, as to what name a person chooses to go by…THAT I respect greatly. If you tell me your name is…Robert (for example) I will not call you Bob automatically. Depending on the circles I’m in I ask for clarification on pronouns too. (In my office I do not ) To do elsewise is not only rude but very…demeaning. For a friend who is part time male part time female, I take a moment to switch when I have just seen him and the next time I am seeing her. I know it is important though.


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