Your Birth Name Is Your Identity? Says Who?

Jill Filipovic recently penned an article against name changing for the Guardian. Or I should say, an article against women changing their names upon marriage. With all due respect to Jill Filipovic—and I have a lot for her—I very much disagree with her on this one.

Jill’s main point is this:

When women see our names as temporary or not really ours, and when we understand that part of being a woman is subsuming your own identity into our husband’s, that impacts our perception of ourselves and our role in the world. It lessens the belief that our existence is valuable unto itself, and that as individuals we are already whole. It disassociates us from ourselves, and feeds into a female understanding of self as relational – we are not simply who we are, we are defined by our role as someone’s wife or mother or daughter or sister.

I understand what Jill is getting at here, I really do. But I think she’s missing something here. One more quotation:

Identities matter, and the words we put on things are part of how we make them real. … Your name is your identity. The term for you is what situates you in the world.

Here’s the problem: Who says your birth name is your identity? Who says you can’t make your own identity?

I have a friend who is going through a divorce. Upon marrying, she took her husband’s name, and now she is giving it up. But she’s not going back to her maiden name, either, in part because she has strong differences with her family of origin. So instead she is taking her grandmother’s maiden name, a name that has richness and meaning to her. She’s claiming it and making it hers. A contributing factor is that both her maiden name and her married name were impossible to spell or pronounce, and her grandmother’s maiden name does not have these problems. And here’s the thing: I don’t understand how anyone could look at my friend’s extremely meaningful choice and interpret that as her not having a permanent identity. Instead, what I see is her forging an identity, for herself. And I admire that.

Jill mentions that she hopes the coming of marriage equality will make this issue less gendered. I too think it will be interesting to see what perceptions marriage equality changes, but the thing is, I can’t help but think of the woman I knew briefly when I was an undergrad who has married and taken her wife’s name. Why? Because her parents were homophobic and there was all sorts of pain there while her wife was a wonderfully supportive person who had quite literally changed her entire life. This woman changed her name as part of forging her own identity and finding her own meaning.

And then there’s my decision. For me, changing my name was part of changing my identity. Libby Anne Husbandname is not  at all the same person as Libby Anne Maidenname. I changed my name at a moment when I wanted to shut the door on my past and say “that isn’t me anymore, I’m someone new.” Changing my name was extremely meaningful to me: it was about becoming my own person apart from my messy family of origin. Changing my name was not about giving up my identity. It was about developing my identity.

I also want to touch on what Jill says about the common reasons women give for changing their names:

The defense of the name change is something like, “We want our family to share a name” or “His last name was better” or “My last name was just my dad’s anyway” – all reasons that make no sense.

What in the world is wrong with wanting one’s immediate family to share a name? If Jill doesn’t want that, that’s fine! I know other women who likewise don’t care whether their immediate families share a name. But some women do care, and I don’t understand why that’s so very terrible. And what’s wrong with liking your husband’s last name better, or with not being attached to your maiden name?

Your birth name is not your identity. Your identity is yours to create. Sometimes that means changing your name, and sometimes that means keeping your name. And by the way, guys should have the freedom to change their names too. So by all means, go out there and forge your own identity, whatever name choice that means making. Just don’t let Jill Filipovic make that decision for you.

What are your thoughts on Jill’s article, and on name changing in general? Did you change your name? Why or why not?

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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.

  • ecolt

    While she is perhaps speaking a bit too broadly, I can understand the point.

    I’m very attached to my last name. When I was born my birth father wasn’t in the picture, so I was given my mother’s maiden name. Her parents helped to raise me, and I was always incredibly close with my late grandfather. My mother and I both are only children (her siblings were from another relationship and have their father’s last name) and my grandfather had no brothers, so I am the last person in the family to have our name.

    I do feel a very close connection to my last name and consider it to be a part of who I am. I can’t imagine changing it. Even hyphenating wouldn’t work, mostly because my boyfriend’s name would just sound silly with mine (they almost but not quite rhyme and just don’t blend well). Additionally, my boyfriend’s mother is remarried and his father died before we met, so his name wouldn’t have the broader sense of family connection that mine does to me. So, while I can see what you mean that identity isn’t all about your name, and for some people a name change would be liberating, I can also agree with the original point.