On World Magazine, Sexism, and Name Changing

Because of The Last Name Project, I’ve been doing some thinking on everything that goes into women’s decisions on whether or not to change their last names. My entry in this project and Sierra’s entry reveal that two women with similar backgrounds and similar current beliefs can answer this question very differently – I changed my last name, but Sierra has chosen not to. I don’t think that one choice is right or that the other is wrong. I think they’re just different.

The important thing is that Sierra and I both made our choices knowing our options and seeing ourselves as the equals of our partners. Not so, it would seem, with World Magazine’s Andree Seu. You see, it seems that Andree, who has for years written a devotional column for World Magazine, a conservative evangelical news magazine, and has even published devotional books, is getting married. Andree is in her middle age and has spent her entire professional life under the name “Andree Seu,” so it seems that the name change question was giving her a bit of trouble. Until, of course, her soon-to-be husband pulled out a line of misogynist bullshit. 

When nothing else was working my true love said to me, “Andrée, ultimately I’m not that important to you.” It was the last resort in a drawn out drama and it did the trick. Stunned like a wailing child by a well-placed swat, I straightened up and surveyed the new terrain.

I am going to ignore her comparison of her fiance’s comment to the giving a child a “well-placed swat” because if I tried to deal with both issues here I think I’d blow a blood vessel.

Basically, Andree’s fiance told her that if he was actually important to her, she’d change her name to his. She, a middle aged professional woman with a respectable career. And you know what? She bought it completely, and decided to change her name. There are so many problems with this I don’t even know where to start.

First of all, of course, is the glaring double standard. If changing her name to his is necessary to show that he is “important” to her, then why is the reverse not true? Why should Andree’s fiance expect her to change her name to his without ever considering changing his name to hers? How is her refusing to change her name a sign that she is uncaring while his not even considering changing his name means nothing of the sort?

We know the answer, of course, and that stems from the heirarchical and unegalitarian nature of conservative evangelical teachings on marriage. The woman becomes the appendage of the man, not vice versa. The woman is subsumed into the man, to support his vision and follow his lead, not vice versa. The woman changes her last name to her husband’s to show that she, in some sense, now belongs to him and fits herself to him. The assumption underlying this all is a notion of marriage that is not at all egalitarian but rather patriarchal – the man leads, the woman follows.

Second, I am struck by the absolute absurdity of Andree’s fiance pulling the “if you really loved me, you would ___” line. Does she not know that that line is highly problematic to say the least? It makes it sound as though the fiance is only thinking of himself, and not putting himself in Andree’s shoes or considering her own needs. Andree knows she won’t be having children with him so that whole it would be confusing to have a different name from my children thing won’t come into play. Similarly, she knows she has years and years of articles and books in her name, and that changing her name mid-career would be complicated and confusing. But does her fiance think of all this? No. Instead, he just pulls the “if you really loved me” line. And I’m sorry, but that’s distinctly unloving.

Third – and I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about this but I’m sorry I really have to – does Andree even realize what all is implied with her comparison of her fiance’s comment to giving a child a “well-placed” smack? I know that comparisons like that have their limits and Andree probably didn’t even see what I’m taking issue with here, but I have to say, the power differential implied by making that particular comparison is huge. She makes herself the child and her fiance the parent delivering her a smack – and one she does not condemn but rather calls “well-placed.” Personally, starting a marriage out with comparisons like that – even if she didn’t mean it like that – seems troubling. And, of course, indicative once again of the sort of patriarchal view of marriage that conservative evangelicals espouse.

Coming on the heels of thinking about my decision to change my name and reading about Sierra’s decision not to, Andree’s account, published in a leading conservative evangelical publication no less, of her own decision came as a jolt to me. It reminded me of everything I used to believe, and everything I am so glad I no longer believe. It reminded me of how glad I am that my decision to change my name was really my decision – and one made without pressure. And it made me feel sorry for women like Andree, who even while having a career continues to view her married life through a patriarchal lens.

***Update (9/12/12)***

Andrée Sue Peterson’s new husband, David Peterson, has left several comments suggesting that I misunderstood what was said. I will post his comments here.

Dear Libby (and commentors),

My name is David Peterson. I am the proud husband of Andree Sue and subject of this, your unfortunate, miguided blog. I’m only sorry that I happened upon it today–3 months after its publication.

As some of your readers/commentors had the discernment to note, you entirely misconstrued Andree’s meaning in the sited article. My statement–to the effect that ultimately I am not that important to her–had nothing whatsoever to do with whether she took my name or not. That decision was left to her.

Since nothing contextually in the essay suggests such an interpretation (that “Basically, Andree’s fiance told her that if he was actually important to her, she’d change her name to to his”), I can only assume this thought was suggested to your mind by the byline (inserted by the editor) which mentions a name change after the title: Altar Calling.

But, as anyone who reads the essay can see, she says nothing about changing her name in connection with my statement to her. (It’s always good to have the facts right before before documenting the fact that you don’t know whatof you speak.)

Sorry to disappoint your attempt to demonstrate heirachical “misogynist bullshit” in the “evangelical” community, but your desire to appear better–or more enlightened–than those whom you unfairly criticize speaks for itself. One need not be a Christian to benefit from the teaching of Jesus who said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

When asked for further clarification by another reader, David added the following:

The subject of the conversation this quote was extracted from pertained to eternal verses temporal priorities. There is a larger, divine reality which must inform one’s decisions in this fleeting, earthly exsistence. I was thus saying, in the grand divine scheme of things, I was really not that important to her. God must be first and foremost since her relationship with me is temporal, her relationship with God, eternal. The careful reader will find that when the entire essay is read–rather than a single paragraph lifted from it–this theme is developed throughout.

And:

After reading numerous unfouded cruel criticisms about my wife and/or me–in both this and the Happy Atheist blog of the same date–I was perturbed.

… my comment to Andree contrasted temporal realities (relationship) to eternal ones. You have misunderstood to suppose I was saying, “We really aren’t that important to each other.” My wife is deeply important to me, and, I believe, me to her. “Ultimately”, I said. It was a statement about ultimate priorities in our life, i. e., God has to come first. But I’ve said this already.

… You (and some others) seem to think my statement was some type of emotional manipulation, whether to take my last or, perhaps, even to marry me. It was not, no manipulation, and had nothing to do with either of these. We’d been engaged for five years at that point, and long ago, Andree, of her own accord, had expressed her desire to take my name. Indeed it was I who first raised issue of the possible conflict that may cause for her known professional name, and I who suggested the retention of Seu in it.

All I will say further about the context of my statement is that it was said to snap her out of a state of unhealthy self pity, hence her “it did the trick” statement. It was a private conversation so I don’t feel at liberty to reveal more than she chose to in her essay. I trust you can respect that.

I replied to David as follows:

David,

Thank you for taking the time to explain. Let me quote two things you said and then double check that I understand you and explain why I wrote what I did.

The subject of the conversation this quote was extracted from pertained to eternal verses temporal priorities. There is a larger, divine reality which must inform one’s decisions in this fleeting, earthly exsistence. I was thus saying, in the grand divine scheme of things, I was really not that important to her. God must be first and foremost since her relationship with me is temporal, her relationship with God, eternal.

You (and some others) seem to think my statement was some type of emotional manipulation, whether to take my last or, perhaps, even to marry me. It was not, no manipulation, and had nothing to do with either of these. We’d been engaged for five years at that point, and long ago, Andree, of her own accord, had expressed her desire to take my name. Indeed it was I who first raised issue of the possible conflict that may cause for her known professional name, and I who suggested the retention of Seu in it.

It sounds to me like you are saying that when you said “Andrée, ultimately I’m not that important to you,” what you meant was “remember, Andrée, in the grand scheme of things ultimately I’m not that important to you, and that’s how it should be” rather than “Andrée, if you’re not willing to take my last name, ultimately I’m not that important to you,” which is how I interpreted the statement.

Now obviously, only a short part of your conversation was quoted in her essay and I can’t speak for what you or she meant or how either of you interpreted what the other was saying or doing. But I can say that I don’t think it’s strange that I understood the comment the way I did. Let me explain.

Growing up, I was constantly told things like “if you’re not willing to spend twenty minutes reading the Bible each morning before breakfast, God must not be that important to you.” I heard siblings told “if you’re not willing to sit with us through a family dinner, your family must not be that important to you. This sort of language is also extremely common in relationships characterized by manipulation: “If you won’t do XYZ, I must not be that important to you.” And that paragraph of the essay appears to fit this sort of pattern perfectly – Andrée was trying to decide if she should or should not take your name, and you pulled the “I’m not that important to you” line, and that comment “did the trick.” I don’t think it’s surprising, then, that that’s how I understood the comment.

And yes, I did read the rest of the article, but it was a while back and it’s now behind a pay wall. My impression from the rest of the article was that Andrée realized that even though she might be with you for only a time, she should take your name to signify this new stage in her life and new part of her journey, because you did matter to her and she wanted to symbolize that you and she were together at least for the time. None of this was inconsistent with my understanding of that first paragraph.

Anyway, I’m sorry my article upset you. Perhaps I should have asked Andrée for clarification of that first paragraph before posting it. I apologize. The point of this comment is not to tell you what you or your wife really meant (that would be silly, only the two of you can know that!) but rather to explain why I, and many others, understood it the way we did. I’m leaving the article as is but am adding all of your comments here as a correction to the bottom of the article. I will also email the Friendly Atheist and let him know in case he wants to make a correction there.

With the best of intentions,

Libby Anne

And David replied as follows:

Libby,

Thanks for the response. Yes! Your understanding of my intended meaning: “And that’s the way it should be” is precisely correct. My comment was a corrective measure intended to encourage her out of a self-pity funk of long standing concerning the reative brevity of time we have together at this stage of our lives by reminding her of a larger perspective.

I do understand that without that bit of “inside information” her meaning is less than clear, even though certain thoughts in the rest of the essay allude to it. Perhaps it would have been more lucid had Andree quoted my statement near the end of the essay. But my wife is a gifted essayist and wordsmith so I tend to trust her instincts in these things.

Thank you for sharing from your personal familial experience. It helps to understand how you thus interpreted my statement to Andree. We all, each one of us–to greater or less extents–process the external world around us through the filter of our subject experiences. So I totally get that.

I wouldn’t be too hard on your parents (not to suggest that you are). While psychological or emotional manipulation is never a valid means to an end (at least one wherein a person attempts to exert his/her will over that of another), it is an unfortunate reality that we are seemingly hardwired with this tendancy. I thus appreciate an insight my wife occasionally repeats: We are either manipulating or ministering (in the broad, not clerical, sense of the word).

Finally, on that note–as it pertains to things spiritual–I don’t believe one can ever legitimately be compelled to “religious” behavior or genuine faith through emotional manipulation. It is a sad reality that this method is oft employed not only in family systems but in all too many churches. As I understand God, He has great regard for the faculty of volition He put within us whereby we may freely choose relationship with Him, or not. He graciously invites us to know Him, but no man or woman can manipulate another to that end.

Thank you, Libby, for your gesture with regard to the Happy Atheist. Since you are leaving your column as is, I wonder if you might consider at least inserting a note below it referencing this conversation. That seems fair enough since many/most readers wouldn’t otherwise read this far into the comments.

Thanks again for your thoughtful response.

Peace to you


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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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