“So, should I be calling you something different now?”
The bartender at my local bar walked hurriedly over to my table last week as I sat with my 5 p.m. Hefeweizen, wrapping up the day’s work on my laptop. He looked genuinely worried that, when I’d walked into the bar, he’d somehow offended me by calling me what most of my favorite bartenders over the years have ended up calling me, which is: “Mizz Grimes!”
I don’t know why they’ve all tended to pick up “Mizz Grimes,” but they have, and I love it. It makes me feel fancy and Southern, and there’s something about the way Texas bartenders say “Graiihhhhmmmz” as they’re grabbing a Lone Star or a High Life out of the cooler that just sounds right.
It was the first time someone who didn’t know me well, but who did know that I’d gotten married last month, had asked me about changing my name.
In the moment, I was tongue-tied. I had no idea how to respond. It was as if he’d come over to my table and suddenly asked me if I was going to go salsa dancing later. A lot of people go salsa dancing, but I’m not into salsa dancing, I mean, it sounds fine or whatever, but what made you think I was about to go salsa dancing, friend? I am not even wearing my fancy shoes!
I sputtered out something like, “No sir! What is this, 1950?” and then I realized almost immediately that that is a complete dick move, because here this man is just trying to be polite and I basically called him a retrograde jerk for asking a not-unreasonable question. Because oh man, at least that guy asked.
I haven’t had anyone call me Mrs. Patrick’s Last Name to my face, yet, but we’re already getting mail addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Patrick’s Last Name, even from friends of our generation. Even from friends of our generation who aren’t conservative types interested in passive-aggressively shaming us for not building the right-named family.
This mail makes me laugh. I bring it over to Patrick, and I tell him, “Hey, someone sent another card to you and your other wife.” I assume she lives out in the backyard under the trampoline, wearing a tapering French braid and writing long-hand in her tea-stained diary of the trials and tribulations of conjugal life.
But this mail also makes me frustrated. It’s a reminder that arrives at my house, that lands in my mailbox, unbidden, that demonstrates, without even thinking about it, without even intending to say so, a lot of people believe that the male partner defines marriage. That a man defines a family. And that it’s so obvious that this is the case, why would you even ask a newly married woman whether she’s Mrs. His Last Name when you can just tell her you think she is, no matter what she’s decided for herself?
I decided years ago that I wouldn’t change my name — as I wrote in my first-ever Hitched column, the practice has too long a history of oppression for me to be able to ignore — and now that I’m an old married woman coming up on nearly a whole month of matrimony, I’m more sure than ever that I made the right decision for myself. Explaining that decision without sounding like an asshole is now the main problem.
Same bar. Same night. Different acquaintance. We’re chatting for an hour or two, shooting the shit over a picnic table. Palavering if it please you, exchanging honeymoon stories. And then he asks: “Are you changing your name?”
I happen to know this young man’s wife changed her name to his. Still a little jumpy from my dick move earlier in the evening, I say I’m not changing it, for practical reasons because it’s my brand as a writer, and for political reasons because I’m a feminist. That seems like the more measured approach than some flip joke, and it has the benefit of being true.
“Are you saying my wife isn’t a feminist?”
Ughghghghg. Man, I do not know if your wife is a feminist! I have no fucking clue! All I know is that she changed her name and that tells me zero about whether she is a feminist or not. It doesn’t tell me whether she has a feminist consciousness that led her to any particular decision; it doesn’t tell me whether she considers gender equality to be part of her personal and political goals; it doesn’t tell me if she thinks the patriarchy needs to be smashed. It only tells me she changed her name, which a feminist might do or not do for all kinds of personal, practical or political reasons.
Can we stop trying to decide who is or isn’t a feminist based on one fucking thing decision people make and appreciate the fact that the choice is what matters, here?
It’s like all the bullshit that happened over the last week concerning attachment parenting and that Time cover with the breastfeeding lady and her kid, and yes, I am looking at you, “Freakish Or Feminist?” Jezebel article. If you can get enough people pointing fingers at each other and in-fighting about what is or isn’t feminist, then it’s rather like telling really smart people to go play in the sandbox while dolts who can’t define the word ‘patriarchy’ address the world’s “real” problems.
To be clear, gender inequality is a serious problem and talking about feminism and personal and political choice is a huge and important deal. But it isn’t productive to pit me against a woman who didn’t change her name in a who’s-the-most-feminist-cagematch.
What is productive is to focus the conversation on the implications of a patriarchal system wherein only women are obligated to change their names, or explore why men might feel emasculated if they change their names or examine why almost nobody these days can define coverture or just give very public high-fives to couples who jointly create a new name in marriage. In my experience, the feminist cagematch doesn’t make more people feminist; it makes more people angry and defensive.
So here’s my plan: I’m going to gently correct people if they call me Mrs. Patrick’s Last Name, and I’ll do it as many times as I need to, because it’s important that people call me by my actual name, even if they think I’m rude for correcting them. Personally, I think it’s rude to tell someone else what their name is.
If people ask about my name, I’ll tell them simply that I haven’t changed it. I’m not going to tell them why unless they ask. If they do ask, I will not waffle and give them some line about how it’s just better for me professionally; I could still change my name and write under my given name. I will tell them the actual truth: after I did some research and learned the history of the practice, keeping my name seemed like something I could do to advance gender equality in this world.
And the fun part of that is that calling any woman by her chosen name is something you can do that’ll accomplish the same thing.
Contact the author of this post at Andrea.Grimes@Gmail.com.