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16.5.06

What You Chose Is Not The Issue

Hugo Schwyzer has waded into the last name wars again, with a long post on why he's delighted that his current wife (unlike the previous three) is "Mrs. Schwyzer." (Along the way he includes some truly bizarre claims, like saying that it can't be patriarchy because it wasn't invented until the 16th centry and isn't practiced in Latin America.) I think one of the reasons this issue is so contentious is that it's framed as an analysis of individuals' choices. This is symptomatic of a larger set of issues in feminism and elsewhere whenever the issue of choice comes up.

(To lay my own biases on the table, I would be distinctly uncomfortable with my wife taking my last name, and I'm aesthetically opposed to hyphenation.)

The usual arguments go like this: one person asserts that they have freely chosen to personally do something that the patriarchy commands. Someone else responds that their choice is so shaped by subtle social pressures that they aren't really free to choose what the patriarchy commands. But as soon as we start asking about whether the person made the right choice, we've lost track of the real issue.

The problem is not that it's intrinsically bad for a woman to change her last name. Given that there are good reasons why some families would want to share a last name, in an ideal world we'd see an even mix of women changing their names, and men changing theirs, alongside some amount of hyphenation and non-changing. So focusing on individual couples' choices is looking at the wrong scale, and too late in the process. The real problem is the social forces that rig our menus of choices, making it plausible and useful for women to change their names, but difficult for men. We need to focus on the social pressures that stigmatize (albeit often mildy -- and all the more insidious for the mildness) people based on their name choices, and the assumptions people make about each other based on their names.

And we need to change the decision process, not police the outcomes. In the name-change case, doing so is not that complicated (though it can be emotionally straining to fight your conditioning). It simply requires taking whatever arguments seem to weigh in favor of your choice -- including arguments in favor of hyphenation or not changing, since patriarchy can divert couples that would be better off with the husband changing his name into the middle ground of no change -- and swapping the genders. Then you give the arguments honest consideration. Many of the traditional arguments -- such as Schwyzer's claim that it demonstrates his wife's trust -- collapse when you reverse the genders. Nevertheless, you may find that the balance of reasons still weighs in favor of the wife changing her name, and that's fine. But to get to a non-patriarchal taking of the husband's name, you have to refuse to think only about whether the wife should change her name, and you have to be genuinely open to considering the full set of possible options. Interestingly enough, despite all the weird emotional baggage and non-sequitur rationalizations that Hugo attaches to his wife's choice, it appears that he has done a better job than most people of making a balanced consideration.

Incidentally, it's a pet peeve of mine that those who support patriarchy-compliant choices always talk (though usually under the shelter of a joking tone) about having their feminist credentials taken away. Obviously I'm in no position to be decreeing how feminist someone is, but on my home turf of environmentalism a person's membership in the cause is never all-or-nothing. Your sins don't wipe out the other good work you've done, but the other good work you've done doesn't earn you indulgences. Talking about losing your credentials implicitly frames your opponents as narrow-minded and purity-obsessed, and puts them on the defensive so that they feel compelled to stroke your ego by reassuring you that you're a good fellow traveler.

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