When I was eight or nine, I remember baking brownies alongside my mother. I picked up an envelope addressed to her, smearing it with chocolate and marking a bittersweet moment in my life: bitter because I became aware of sexism and sweet because I recognized, at least momentarily, injustice for what it was.
It wasn't what was inside the envelope, but what was written on the outside that so innocently announced the expectations for me and my place in the world. It was addressed to Mrs. “my father’s name.” I knew enough to know Mrs. meant it was for my mother. But I wondered aloud why she was referred to by his name and not her own. I wasn’t a precocious feminist trying to call anyone out, but still my sense of justice had been violated. My amazing mother, gourmet chef extraordinaire, raising four small children while completing college, didn’t even get a first name–her beautiful biblical name–or any part of the name she'd identified with her entire life before marriage. My mother told me matter-of-factly, perhaps proudly, that that’s who she was, that this is how it’s done once a woman gets married. And it was. It seemed clear and uncomplicated to her, but I was totally baffled by this invisibility-making.
Now of course times have changed and while 70% of women still adopt their husband’s last name, they’re often afforded their first name on mail. But for the 30% of us who made the choice not to change our names or to do something different like hyphenate, it often gets changed for us, especially in December when holiday cards and packages swarm our mailboxes. In this country, little thought is given to stripping women of names and titles. Take the Op Ed in The Wall Street Journal referring to Jill Biden as “kiddo” and asking her to drop “Dr.” from her name.
As a doctor myself with a PhD, I've never cared much for formality. But to call any type of doctor “Mrs.,” even if she is married, is to negate all her professional achievements, and reduce her worth to her marital status. Women who choose “Ms.” to disassociate their title from their marital status are inevitably referred to as “Mrs.” Building careers that pay them less than their male colleagues, buried under endless laundry and childcare needs, or having to give up jobs for pandemic homeschooling, women struggle enough to hold onto their own identities, name change or not, only to be bombarded by correspondence calling them something other than their actual name. For women who don’t take their husband’s last name, it feels like an erasure when they’re referred to by that name anyway.
More women today are keeping their last names not only symbolically to right the wrongs of the past (when marriage meant transferring the literal ownership of a woman from father to husband and women did not legally exist), but for practical reasons too. Mountains of paperwork aside, our names are often associated with all our achievements and social media accounts, and being found on the internet can be the difference between reuniting with old friends or being offered a job and missing out. And just the sheer fact of being married harms women’s chances of getting a job, especially if children are involved. Being married, however, is helpful for men seeking employment.
My personal reason for keeping my last name was because I didn't want any part in passing down to my future children a practice born out of women’s subordination to men. I was also 35 when I got married and the implied link between falling in love and having an identity metamorphosis no longer seemed romantic or even desirable the way it may have as a lost adolescent. Of course women in both straight and queer relationships deliberately embrace their partners names for a whole host of valid reasons that have nothing to do with romance or subordination to men.
Gender equality has come a long way, and women can now choose whether to relinquish their surnames. Why though is it only women who must grapple with this so-called choice to sacrifice? A woman is still first and foremost a wife, while a man simply remains himself after marriage without anyone raising an eyebrow or treating him like a disruptive teenage rebel for doing so. Perhaps the deepest irony here is that holiday cards are largely the invisible labor of women, so it is women in this case who are mislabeling.
To be clear, choosing to take another’s name, or not, is a deeply personal decision. But a woman’s choice that goes against the patriarchal grain is one we have trouble respecting. This holiday, let’s gift the women in our lives with their correct names.