Sunday, March 13, 2005

Feminist Depression

Now I know we're not supposed to use the dread F-word anymore, despite Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner's excellent efforts at revival (in her book The F-Word, which my 6-year old daughter can't believe is a serious book about women and not just a book about how to say curse words without getting your mom's eyebrows raised at you). But I am feeling a great deal of serious feminist depression lately.

First, even though I swore off the marriage announcements in the NYTimes style section, I did read today, since I was in NY, attending the wedding of a younger cousin I rarely see and barely know. She and her new husband were passing around a framed picture this morning with their wedding invitation on one side, and their TImes announcment on the other. I'll leave you guessing who they are, except to say that it wasn't Andrew and Kyle's event.

Close friends know that weddings annoy me, but it's not even the wedding that got me down. When I checked out the announcement later this evening, I saw my cousin referred to as Mrs. Her Husband's Last Name. Yes, at this point, I'm supposed to be all liberal and tolerant and say that of course we all get to choose our names, even if some women choose to give theirs up for their husbands. Whatever. These days, though, I'm tired of being tolerant. Tolerance is usually the word invoked to tell people with progressive opinions to stay quiet. Be tolerant. Don't raise a fuss. The only people who still believe in tolerance are liberal feminists, and believe me, anything goes tolerance is not helping us.

It's just that my cousin is now the anonymous Mrs. Her Husband's Name, 27. It's that her mother doesn't even appear in the announcement. They all live together. They're a happy enough family. My aunt even has a fancy PhD behind her hame, though she's been a homemaker for decades. In the space of those few paragraphs, paraded around so happily this morning, and available forever on the Times archive, two women's identities were shifted, and one disappeared all together. What happened to my aunt's contributions from the home front? Am I allowed to be depressed about that? What is happening to us women, to us mothers. Are we all just going to fade away and disappear from public life?

Bright spot: young teen city girl, flamboyant daughter of an old family friend, comes to babysit. I'll call her Martine to protect her identity. Martine thinks the formal wedding is bullshit. While I'm culturally confused by an event filled with 20-something bankers and young doctors, little Martine is whispering comments in my ear and telling me how she thinks her grandmother was a drag queen in a former life. It's a moment of cultural queerness that I appreciate, since this wedding looks remarkably traditional, and similar to a wedding I attended at the Plaza in 1972, only then I was 6 or so and curled up to sleep on a lounger in the ladies room, the attendant looking out for me, and this time I was able to make it through the event, happily drinking many glasses of my own and everyone's champagne.

In the midst of all this musing, I read the bit piece, "Mr. and Mrs. Bothofus," that runs alongside the wedding page. We're told that fewer than 5 % of married women in America keep their names or hyphenate. Now, readers, friends, know that I'm not doctrinaire on this. There's more to life than a name, and though I bear my full birth name, I use my husband's name sometimes, and my daughter carries his name, unlike our more culture-challenging friends who do give their kids the mother's last name, or switch off. It's not about purity, or correct practice. But 5 percent? That's all? Only five percent of married couples even try to resist the old trend in which married women just fade away?

It makes me sad.

One last comment, before I sign off and take this weary body to bed. On the writing front, I do love Maureen Dowd's column today. "Dish It Out, Ladies" asks Where are all the female newspaper columnists, and not just the sex-family-relationship-gardening columnists, but those whose bylines appear on our nation's prestigious and well-read Op-Ed pages? Yes, where are we, indeed. Thanks, Maureen. I even wrote her a fan letter, thanking her.


Chip said...

We lived in nyc when we were married (almost 20 years ago!!) and all of the married women our age that we knew kept their names. I'm surprised it's so low now.

On the other hand, my wife has gotten all kinds of grief for keeping her name -- lots of it passive-aggressive, from my brothers' wives (all of whom did give up their names and who are younger than us). My parents were a bit surprised at first but are very accepting of it now (as far as I know).

I think it is unfortunately part of the reactionary backlash this country is going through right now, fueled, supported and pushed by the mainstream media...

Moxie said...

Ouchama. Your cousin went to the same women's college I did. It seemed so common when I graduated over 10 years ago for us to keep our names, but reading the alumnae notes these days it seems there's a backlash to changing them. I just don't get it. Is marriage such an accomplishment that we have to take our husband's names as a badge of honor? That sounds suspiciously like what my MIL and mother said when I asked them why they changed their names back in the 60s.

Maybe I should go read Maureen Dowd's column. I usually avoid her, since I think she's not actually all that friendly to women.

Sarah V. said...

Hmmmm. What makes _me_ sad is that judgement of other people's choices is such a popular pastime that it shows up even in forums that, supposedly, have Why We Should Stop Judging Other People's Choices as their main theme.

I changed my name when I got married. Guess what? I haven't disappeared. I haven't faded away. My identity is thriving, thank you. Of course, my identity wasn't fragile enough to depend on my surname.

A badge of honour? Nope. A badge of family. My husband and I were starting a new family by marrying, which would then be expanded, we planned and hoped, by having children. I wanted to indicate that we were all part of the same family by having the same surname for all of us. It didn't matter to me whether it was the surname I started out with or the surname my husband started out with, and if he'd wanted to change his name instead I'd have had no problem with it being that way around. However, he didn't - not because he expected me to be the one to change, but because he didn't care about the whole name thing one way or the other. So I changed mine, which struck me as fair since I was the one, of us two, who cared about it, and since his surname was actually the preferable choice of the two we had available.

By the way - as a child, I once asked my mother why she changed her name (and, yes, her marriage was back in the 60s as well), and she said "Because I love my husband more than I love my father." Taking my parents' name as a baby didn't rob me of my identity - why should taking my husband's name as an adult do so?

I don't mind in the least that other women might not make the same choice as me. In fact, I actually prefer it that way, because I find life is more interesting when different people prefer to do things different way. I like hearing about the different reasons why people make individual choices one way or another. But, as I said, I do think it's sad that for many people it seems to be yet one more excuse to pass judgement on others.

chip said...

from my experience in this country women taking their husband's name is the norm and is rarely judged negatively.

But if a woman makes a different choice, like my wife did, she gets hit with all kinds of nasty, downright mean judgmentalism. This is what my wife experiences a lot.

I've mentioned the immediate family members who refuse to accept that she's kept her name. I would never dream of refusing to acknowledge that my sister-in-law has taken her husband's name. Yet my brother's wives delight in addressing envelopes to "Mr & Mrs" just to get a dig in at my wife; I know because they told my sister. They pull all kinds of stuff like that. They just cannot accept it, maybe feel threatened by it, who knows. But they are the ones who are not accepting of her choice and make no bones about it. The wives of some friends do similar things.

And when we go to places where both of us have to give our names -- airports, stores, whatever -- the vibes are really negative.

So yes, there's judgmentalism. But I'd argue (and I'm not speaking for Miriam obviously), that that kind of judgmentalism is against women who decide to keep their names rather than take their husbands'.

And I think that's a reflection of serious problems in this society.

Anonymous said...

i know of some couples who have chosen a new surname together when they got married.


landismom said...

I kept my last name when I got married.

I also kept my name when my parents got divorced & my mother got remarried, although she changed hers.

My kids have hyphenated last names.

Despite the fact that my mom, my kids and I ALL have different last names, we are still a family. A family that includes many other last names as well (in-laws, cousins, etc.)

Sarah, for you to say that having the same last name as your husband and kids is a "badge of family" sounds to me like you are justifying your choice to change your last name. And it makes it sound like your definition of family is a pretty narrow and exclusive one--that is just limited to your own personal nuclear family.

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