We are on the verge of electing our first female president. As women, there is no longer a career path that is out of reach to us. More of us go to medical school than men. And we have long been done with the phrase, “Girls can’t do that.”
Yet when we get married, we still just dispose of our last names like a used plastic water bottle that we can’t be bothered recycling. THEN, when we start a family. We don't give a second thought to giving our husband’s family name to the child that we’ve shared our body with for nine months and will worry over and love beyond reason for the rest of our lives.
What’s wrong with this picture and why aren’t more married women keeping their last names or—for those of us who have—actually having a conversation with our husbands about what their children's last name should be? Why by default is it almost always the father’s? And why aren’t there more hyphenated names out there? Or newly created last names that mark two people coming together in marriage?
When I was pregnant with my first child, my husband, Mark, and I took more time discussing our baby’s last name than first. We went back and forth for weeks, weighing what it would mean to turn away from a tradition that is based upon wives becoming their husband’s property and having absolutely no rights of their own in marriage. Truthfully, it felt good, and important. So my husband and I filled out those six pages of paperwork at the hospital and welcomed our son into the world as a Miller.
Even the most evolved men are not ready to give up their names for reasons that have to do with pride and, yes, sexism.
I was extremely apprehensive about it for many reasons. I only knew two other married American couples that had given their children the woman’s last name. I was breaking a societal norm and that felt uncomfortable. And, a biggie: Would people who saw our family names written out assume that the children were mine from another relationship? And would my husband feel bad about that? Yes and yes. But that’s only because the ridiculous system of patriarchy in our so-called equal society still has such a stronghold.
A family name is integral to our identity; it says a lot about who we are and connects us to our family’s history. But, according the New York Times “The Upshot Analysis,” 80 percent of women in recent relationships take their husband’s name when they marry. And how many children in the U.S. get their mother’s name? I don’t have the stats, but my guess is too few. How many of us can name three married women whose kids have their family name?
So why are women who have been fighting hard for equal rights for over a century so completely disinterested in maintaining their own family name?
The argument that it’s their father’s family name and, therefore, comes from the male lineage holds no power, because change has to start somewhere. Or maybe we’re actually afraid of hurting our husband's feelings and depriving them of some paternal "right."
Many women are understandably attached to the idea of having one family name. Well, fine. But was can’t it be the woman’s?
When my mother and mother-in-law came to meet my son in the hospital, they were horrified to discover that our baby was going to have my last name. Instead of fawning over their grandson or recognizing that I’d just gone through 20 hours of excruciating back labor before a drug free delivery, they both told me “they didn’t like this last name plan.”
After they left, I turned to my husband in tears. “They were so mean,” I said.
“It’s OK,” he told me. “If we have another child, we can give him my name.”
“What?” I said. “Why would we do that? You want our kids to have two different names?”
That’s when I understood. Even the most evolved men are not ready to give up their names for reasons that have to do with pride and, yes, sexism. Even in what I thought was our liberated family, we were struggling to erase the indelible imprint patriarchal institution.
In my emotional postpartum state, I tore up six pages of forms and changed my son’s last name to my husband’s. I think he was relieved. But I still regret it.
In my 18 years as a mother, no one has ever once asked me, “How do you feel about your children not having your last name?” If we had stayed with our original name plan, imagine how often Mark would have been asked that question, as if he'd sacrificed something important in not passing down his name?
I hope we do elect a female president in November because I want to finally be able to say to my daughter, “See. Women really can do anything.” And I also hope that the next female president has her own last name.