identity / Judgey judgey / politics

I’m a feminist with my man’s surname.

Wedding shoes

I remember 10 or so years ago at my college-town bar eaves-dropping as a belligerent student verbally abused her future sister-in-law behind her back.

“She refuses to take our name! Like she’s too good for us or something.”

I’m still appalled that anyone could feel such entitlement over another individual’s intimate choices — over a matter so central to another’s very identity. And I still regret not standing up for that absent stranger and her right to do whatever she Hell she wants with her own name.

Instead I just sipped my drink with renewed resolve to never participate in the outworn institution of marriage, let alone allow a man to change my surname.

Years later, I did marry. And entirely of my own accord, I even chose to take his name.

Here’s where this is supposed to turn into a feminist apologia. And I guess that’s what it’s going to do. I’m not sure whether to lift my chin, dig in my heels, and unequivocally affirm the legitimacy of a woman’s right to choose to change her surname (and of “choice feminism” overall), like Jo Piazza (her maiden and now only pen name) does, or whether I have some real explaining to do.

Like Piazza (or Aster, now her legal name), I don’t think choice feminism is some insidious outgrowth of the commodification of empowerment. (To be honest, though, I’m not sure “choice feminism” even exists as anything aside from a straw-man term coined by Linda Hirshman in her 2007 book to help her rail against a perceived betrayal: that women liberated by feminist pioneers don’t all follow her prescriptions of liberated womanhood. And that’s an idea plenty insidious, if you ask me.)

My reasons are many. Let’s begin with the superficial: I like the paradoxical aesthetic of “Manderfield.” It has a vaguely aristocratic air, yet it’s derived from the Dutch surname Van der Velden, literally “man of the fields.” Of course, that alone would not have impressed me enough.

Next, the professional: according to this website, I competed with 650 Anita Martin‘s in the U.S. alone, and according to Google search results, some of those other Anita Martin’s also write, and bylines did get buried or confused. Meanwhile, I remain the only “Anita Manderfield,” apparently in the world.

Lastly, the  personal: I like the unity of a family name. And look, I’m not trying to say that my decision was uninformed by my peculiar courtship with and betrothal to my husband. But I am saying that no impulse to prove my love to my man could have persuaded me to change my name to his. That’s just not how I think about love, or names.

There are other reasons, both idiosyncratic and mundane. But I’ll stop now. It feels degrading to go on excusing myself this way. In fact, the impulse to denounce or even dismiss my critics has only grown since I’ve come to Belgium. The Flemish are not widely known for their candor. In fact, they’re notorious non-engagers. Generally speaking, it’s not easy to get a Flemming talking, let alone detect her true thoughts or feelings about things.

And yet, complete strangers have offered me supercilious pity for the fact that I was “forced” by American convention to take my husband’s surname, followed by unmediated disdain upon discovering that I chose to do so. From the administrator signing me up for Dutch lessons to our dear neighbor-friend, Flemish women have not hesitated to educate me about my oppression and denounce my error. (Meanwhile, they are literally not permitted to err in this way. Belgian law forbids name changes after marriage.)

Not once has one of them bothered to ask me why.

And it’s not just them. I haven’t received much acrimony from my American compatriots, but some reactions have left me confounded and hurt. It’s one thing to get an acculturated response from one’s host citizens in a foreign land, but incurious denouncement from trusted friends, well, that’s something else.

I don’t think I owe anyone (except my astonished husband) an explanation for my decision to change my name. Just as I don’t think my Swedish friend’s husband owes anyone an explanation for taking her name after they married. (In 1983, around the time many European countries outlawed the changing of women’s surnames after marriage, Sweden instead made it legal for a man to change his for the same reason.)

I’m not trying to equivocate, here. I think his decision required way more strength and courage than mine (even in Sweden), and that it sends a more noble message. But it’s not my primary responsibility to make socio-political commentary through personal life choices.

It may just be that I owe this explanation to myself. Because I’ll probably always regret that in that bar ten years ago I didn’t defend a woman who defied the expectations of others. And I don’t want to miss yet another opportunity to stand up for a woman’s right to do whatever the Hell she wants with her own name.

Did you change your name? (Or did your husband?) 

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