Thursday, January 11, 2007

What a Girl Wants

Something I’ve written about before, in other forums, is the likely misconception that many women adopt their husbands’ surnames not because society demands that they do so, but because they think it’s just a nice gesture. This strikes me as unlikely for two reasons. First, it seems much more reasonable, to me, to suppose that what’s really going on in cases that look that way is that the woman is coming up with a ad hoc justification for not taking the more courageous step of bucking the status quo. Declining your husband’s name probably invites lots of uncomfortable questions from all sorts of people, quite possibly including the groom. That a woman wouldn’t want to deal with all of that is entirely understandable, even in the face of a strong emotional attachment to her own name. In that context, taking the “it’s just a sweet thing to do” argument at face value seems kind of naïve.

The second problem is the plain empirical fact that you don’t see men deciding to give up their last names as a symbol of their love. If the niceness of the gesture is its most salient feature, then you’d expect to see men and women making it at roughly comparable rates. But you don’t. In fact, you almost never hear about a man taking his wife’s name. Almost never:
All Michael Buday wanted to do was marry Diana Bijon and live happily ever after, with one tiny twist: He agreed to take her last name.

Quickly, the couple were plunged into what they describe as a bureaucratic inequity that has sparked both a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and new legislation to alter marriage licenses.

Buday said California discriminates by making it easy for women to take their husband's name upon marriage, but not vice versa.


Their complaint, filed Dec. 15 in a Los Angeles federal court, says:

• Los Angeles County's marriage application provides a space for the bride to enter her married name, but not the groom.
So rare is the practice of the groom adopting the bride's name that the marriage paperwork doesn't even accommodate it.

It's no surprise, of course, that women change their last name far more often than men, but what did strike me was that a number of parties seem to have the conviction that the problem with LA County's application is that it discriminates against men. The Sacramento Bee, for instance, takes the following position:
The path to full gender equality is a long and tortuous one, and it turns out that it's not only women who face discrimination.


When Buday sought to change his name to that of his fiancée, Diana Bijon, he was confronted by a four-step process requiring him to petition the state, pay a $32 application fee (in addition to the $70 marriage license fee), publish the change in a local newspaper for four weeks (which in another case cost a man $475), then go to court to get a judge's blessing.

Buday was not amused. Neither was the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed suit in federal court on behalf of the now-married couple, charging that Buday is a victim of discrimination under the Constitution's 14th Amendment. Six states allow men to change their names as easily as women can. California should do the same.
That seems like a peculiar way of looking at the situation. It seems to me that the underlying problem is discrimination against women, not against men. The reason that Buday can't change his name on his marriage application isn't that the government especially cares about whether he does so. Rather, it's that society and the government have conspired to pressure women into getting rid of their family names for the sake of men.

In other words, there's a real asymmetry here in the way the government treats the sexes. The source of that asymmetry, though, isn't that the government is forcibly preventing men from doing something highly desirable, it's that the government is helping to force women to do something undesirable. It can't be right to say that men are the victims of society's unreasonable demands here, can it? Men are just getting an unfair assist from the state in their own misogynistic project.


Thinker said...

Suffragists not only fought for the right of women to vote, but for recognition of other basic legal and human rights as well.

The Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments (1848), drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton ( was modeled on the US Declaration of Independence. It included the following (in addition to a demand for suffrage):

The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.


He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.

He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.

He has made her, morally, an irresponsible being, as she can commit many crimes with impunity, provided they be done in the presence of her husband. In the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming to all intents and purposes, her master--the law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement.

He has so framed the laws of divorce, as to what shall be the proper causes, and in case of separation, to whom the guardianship of the children shall be given, as to be wholly regardless of the happiness of women--the law, in all cases, going upon a false supposition of the supremacy of man, and giving all power into his hands.

After depriving her of all rights as a married woman, if single, and the owner of property, he has taxed her to support a government which recognizes her only when her property can be made profitable to it.

The name issue, about which you post, shows this heritage is still alive. Those who argue that an Equal Rights Amendment is not necessary are showing their ignorance of history and the present.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

Great post, Paul. It turns out, when you through the usual explanations one by one, there is no non-patriarchal reason for women to take their husbands' last names more often than men take their wives.' We need more people to identify excuses like "I want everyone in the family to have the same name" for what they are: a deference to patrilinear society; otherwise, as you said, men would be equally likely to alter their last names.

Can we add a "feminism" label to our tag bank?

Thinker said...

Where is Paul's comment?

Bret said...

Oh for heaven's sake. Marriage is very simply about what two people want. Why is it automatically "courageous" to buck the "status quo" in this case?

There is absolutely no reason to make this about right or wrong, unless someone is being forced to do something. Please note that 'force' is not the same as 'pressure'.

Women: if you don't want to change your name, don't marry a man who insists that you change it.

Men: if you don't want to take the trash out, don't marry a woman who insists that you do so.

Isn't that simple?

Paul said...

Well, sure, it's simple. The problem isn't that anybody doesn't understand your argument, it's that your argument is wrong.

The crux of the problem with the argument is that your distinction between "force" and "pressure" seems pretty pointless, since what we're talking about is a difference of degree, not of kind. You may as well say, "The government didn't force you to pay your taxes, it just pressured you with the threat of imprisonment." That situation is quantitatively worse, not qualitatively different, than the name-changing situation.

In other words, your argument boils down to: "There isn't enough force on women to adopt a man's name to justify calling it a problem." Which is less than compelling.