Back in April I wrote about my experience with software systems and institutions that automatically treat my husband’s last name as the default for our family. While most readers expressed understanding, there were a few critical responses:
It’s telling that Miss Nielsen put “own” in quotation marks, apparently unconvinced that I have a right to decide what people should call me. It’s also telling that Miss Nielsen assumed I owed her an explanation. How many men has she asked to justify their reasons for not taking their wife’s name?
Another commenter chimed in with a gem of mansplaining (and I don’t throw that word around lightly):
Thanks, Chris – you’re a peach! It never occurred to me, in the three decades I’ve been a feminist, that I was given the name “Belanger” thanks to a patriarchal tradition! What would I do without dudes to point these things out?
Behind the scenes, a friend raised the same point, though more kindly (and without any mansplaining), by asking why I would want to keep what he referred to as my “father’s name,” when I have such a negative relationship with my father (as in, I cut off ties 15 years ago when I reported my father to the police and have never looked back).
That friend isn’t the first to ask. Back when I first got married, another well-meaning friend expressed her confusion by saying: “But you don’t even like your father!”
First, to be blunt, I owe nobody an explanation for my decision to keep my name. If you’re reading this post, you probably already recognize that. If you didn’t, well, now you know! So if you decide to ask a woman about that choice, tread carefully – that topic is almost as sensitive as asking a married couple why they don’t have any kids yet.
Second, the assumption that I have kept my father’s name is a problem. This assumption permeates Western culture, from men who despair that they only have daughters and thus no one to carry on their name, to women who mock feminists for refusing one man’s name only to keep another’s anyway.
In fact, a good friend of mine once told me that his perspective on a man taking his wife’s name had changed after he spoke to a couple who had done that very thing. Why? Because the husband came from a family of boys, while the wife came from a family of girls. With no brothers to carry on her family name, she had asked her husband to take her name, and he had agreed. “If I had married a woman whose father was in that situation,” my friend told me, “I would have considered it.”
That story is lovely – a couple made an unconventional choice that meant a great deal to their family. What’s less lovely is the assumption that the only time a man should take his wife’s name is for the sake of another man. To his credit, my friend acknowledged that point after I explained that he was framing it in a sexist way.
But don’t get me wrong – I’m not naive about the fact that my last name is the result of centuries of patriarchal naming practices. And when I was growing up, I often fantasized about the day that I would be able to cast aside a name I hated because I associated it with an abusive father.
Plus, for all that Belanger sounds gorgeous when pronounced the French way, its Anglicized version is clunky. Nobody outside of New England knows how to say it, something I’m always reminded of when my students write it as “Bellanger” or “Bellinger” – those two spellings tell me exactly how the student thinks my name is pronounced. For the record, the emphasis is on “lan,” pronounced like a LAN network. And the “g” takes a “j” sound. If you get those details right, it’ll all fall into place.
Still, it trips up most people the first time around. No wonder folks have an easier time remembering the French version (pronounced like Bay-lawn-jay, but with a French “j” sound)
But here’s what I realized: there was no way for me to return to a matriarchal name – if I chose my mother’s maiden name, I was choosing a name she no longer went by, which she had inherited from her father. If I went by her mother’s maiden name, the same applied. No matter how far back I went, even if I tried to take my mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s name – I’d still know that ancestor had been given that name by her father.
So don’t mock feminists for our inability to overcome centuries of sexism. I can’t will a matriarchal heritage into existence.
So I changed my perspective. I stopped thinking of my name as something that belonged only to male Belangers. I put aside the cultural view that a woman’s name is like a leather coat, while a man’s is his very skin. I decided that my name belonged to me just as much as it belonged to my brother.
Here’s why I ultimately chose to keep my birth name:
- It made sense professionally. I was 28 years old, held two higher degrees in this name, and had established a presence as an online teacher: students and colleagues knew me by my name, not my face or voice. I could have made myself invisible and closed off important career opportunities by changing my name.
- I’m honoring my French-Canadian heritage. The most recent immigrants in my family were my great-grandparents, Pepe and Nana, who crossed the Canada/US border in the early 1900’s (Nana’s family did so illegally). My family has struggled to make much progress on geneology for the Belanger line, due to two facts: Belanger is an extremely common name in Quebec, and there’s a good chance those ancestors’ records were destroyed when a Quebecois cathedral burned down. I might not pronounce my name the way Pepe’s parents did, but it still connects me to them. And it connects me to my paternal grandfather, someone I miss.
- My first name is common, while Belanger is rare in most of the US, especially in Mormon circles. Last I checked, every Belanger listed as an alum at BYU was related to me. Dropping the most unique of my three names (first, middle, and last) would feel like erasing a core part of my identity. Hyphenating or turning it into a middle name would feel pretty close to erasure as well.
- Belanger is the name my brother and little sister go by – my little sister also kept her birth name when she was married. It’s the name of the four cousins who grew up next door to me, who were a lot like brothers thanks to that proximity.
- Women often outlive their first marriage. One of my grandmothers married and divorced four – yes, four! – men. She changed her name with each marriage before going back to her maiden name for the last few years of her life. My other grandmother changed her name when she got married. After her husband left her for another woman, she faced a painful choice: either go back to her maiden name and have a different name than her children or keep the name of a man who had cheated on her and then abandoned her. In the end, she kept her married name. Those are examples of divorce, but many widows face similar dilemmas, especially if they choose to remarry.
- I ultimately see it as my name. I don’t see it as belonging to one of my parents any more than it belongs to me. It’s the name I was given at birth, the name I’ve lived and come to terms with over the past 32 years.
- Coming to terms with a name I didn’t like left me even more devoted to it. As a kid, I hated my first name, much to the regret of my mother, who named me after her favorite poet, Emily Dickinson. But I’ve grappled with these two names over time and have accepted them as part of myself. Changing my name along with my marital status would have felt like changing myself.
This is the one of those scenarios where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. My core reason for wanting to keep my name is that I see it as my identity – it’s who I am. This list of reasons only grazes the surface, and I want to be 100% clear that this is not an invitation for anyone to debate and explain why I (or any other woman) should take her husband’s name anyway.