Names represent who we are as individuals. Some say a name holds honor. Some say it ties generations of people and history together. Others prefer to see names as a form of categorization for groups of things or people.
Names are supposed to preserve legacy, so why is it that only men have the privilege of carrying theirs for eternity, while American women are expected to take the last names of their husbands and before that, their fathers? Why have we historically shed pieces of our identities to comply with standards set for us years ago by society?
In the ninth century, lawmakers considered future brides as “one” with their husbands-to-be, essentially diminishing their values as autonomous human beings. Men owned the property, voted, and were represented by laws. Women were considered property, so it was only natural that a woman would adopt her spouse’s last name and become a side piece to his ancestral legacy. Eventually, this spread to the legal identity of female babies, who were given their fathers’ surnames, which would only change when another man took ownership of them through marriage.
These laws may sound antiquated, but they are not-so-subtly present today. 90% of American women still take their husband’s last name (Erdmann, Joni. 2006). How can we say we’ve progressed from clustering women into the othered subcategory of personhood when we are still celebrating our own oppression?
Two years ago, at age seventeen, I decided it was time to reclaim what should have always been mine. I distanced myself from my legal last name and crowned myself with a new one: Rose. It’s beautifully bitter, alluring and resilient. My father, a badass feminist, was inspired by my choice. He encouraged me to make this change for myself, and even insisted my mother do the same. My mom stuck with hyphenating her former last name together with my father’s last name. Beyond being rooted in my feminist beliefs, however, I had a turbulent and disagreeable relationship with my family, so fashioning my own last name was in part to disassociate myself further from that realm of my past.
Still, dear friends and strangers alike are not comfortable with the idea of uprooting names that have been in place for generations. Once I was met with opposition by a close friend: “How will people be able to trace your family history?” I barely had to think about my answer. Having a last name passed on by male generations only traces the ancestry of the male side, completely erasing your mother’s generational ties (given that you have a hetero-nuclear family). Through the traditional American passing on of the male last name, the patriarchy lives on. For me, changing my last name meant carving a place for myself, a woman, as separate from my family history.
Our last names are an intimate part of our personal profile that carry patriarchal ties and a long history of male-led generations. I choose to be autonomous, wholy my own–body, mind, and name included. Reclaiming my name meant reclaiming myself. Now it’s up to me to create my own history.
Staff Writer, What the F Magazine
Art by Kate Johnson,
Staff Artist, What the F Magazine