When some friends of mine started getting married, and replacing their maiden name with their husband’s surname, I admit there was a part of me that rolled my eyes and thought- oh well, another one bites the dust.
I felt like I had lost them somehow, that the person I had known was now someone else, and one blindly buying into a patriarchal tradition of always taking on a man’s name.
At that point I hadn’t really thought it through. When I did start researching the topic for myself, I quickly realized how much more complex and personal a name change is, and learned not to judge my friends, and to not only accept, but embrace their new identities. Yes, some blindly continue the tradition without thinking it through, but for many women, this is a carefully considered, and even feminist decision.
Because surnames are patrilineal – your maiden name is usually your father’s name, not your mother’s. Even if you take your mother’s name, it’s your mother’s fathers name, not your mother’s mother’s, and even if it was, it would be your grandmother’s father’s! If you take your father’s name, it’s your father’s fathers name. In other words, most people are walking around with their paternal grandfather’s name.
It’s not any more feminist to take one father’s name or another. If you want to truly break the patriarchal patrilineal cycle, choose a brand new name- make one up. But we get attached to our identities and names! Everyone knows me by this name! A shift in identity rather than a brand new one seems more realistic.
My name is Maria Olson Goins. I was born Maria Anna Olson. I was for a while Maria A. Olson. Close friends and family call me Masha (the Russian nickname for Maria). On Instagram I am mashagoins, on Twitter mashaluna. Sometimes I’m called Ms Olson, sometimes Ms Goins, sometimes Mrs Goins, and sometimes Ms Olson Goins. Thank God I am never referred to as Mrs Olson- that is my mother’s name, AND my stepmother’s name. Cringe.
I have spent most of my life navigating identities and cultures, and researching from a gender lens how we construct our identities, and how these constructs become political, how they can cause conflict, in this case social conflict.
I experienced this phenomenon first hand recently, when a married friend of mine judged me super aggressively for having added my husband’s last name to my maiden name. She tried to present her attack in feminist terms, but her attack was the opposite of feminist- it was arrogant, judgmental, and narrow-minded, and a depressing example of how women can tear each other down.
It was also a fascinating account of how it really bothers some friends when you change, whether you change your name, or your bad habits. Some feel threatened, or jealous, or unable to create change for themselves.
In the middle of a cocktail gathering, said friend, let’s call her Theodora, first took the liberty of pointedly introducing me by my old name. Silly, but I didn’t correct her. Then she got all in my face demanding to know why I took my husband’s name, and why he didn’t take mine. I responded by pointing out that I kept my maiden name and added my husband’s surname, and calmly explained some of my very personal reasons, because the fact that I wanted to clearly did not satisfy her.
I kept my childhood name, but I wanted to add to it. My identity shifted when I got married, it was a magical beautiful shift that I wanted to symbolize. I am not the same person anymore, I am so much more, and for me, that more meant sculpting a slightly more modern identity, made of three names. Three names with five letters, three and five being my favorite numbers.
I also adore my supportive and caring family in law, love my husband and his name, and wanted to honor him, and my new family. I cannot say the same for my husband’s relationship with parts of my family, and I certainly would not WANT him to take my father’s name- double cringe! He is not Mr. Olson- that’s my father!
But my PERSONAL decision to change my name is nobody’s business. I am a feminist and I make choices that are the best for me, and MY family- the new me being a married woman with her own family.
By the way, Theodora did not create a new name, oh no, she took her stepfather’s name, not her mother’s maiden name, or her father’s name- she identifies herself by her mother’s second husband’s name! How is that supposed to be more feminist? But I don’t judge her for that, it’s clearly a critically important construct of her identity that she fiercely needs to justify. She is choosing to honor her mother’s second husband over honoring her husband. That doesn’t make her a bad wife, and I respect her choice, though I don’t understand it. But we should support other women, and embrace their carefully thought-out choices, even if we don’t agree with them.
Interestingly enough, three of my girlfriends have changed their first names, maybe that is unusual, and a reflection of the fact that to the most part I attract people flexible and embracing of change. All three of them experienced similar defensive reactions from others. Every time one of them told me about it, I was supportive and happy for them. For various reasons, they felt their identity shift, and they wanted a name that reflected it. Maybe they had outgrown the name given to them by their parents, maybe they always wanted a different name, or maybe it’s none of my business why!
Our identities are fluid, and constantly evolving. I found it very empowering to create my new evolved identity. I think it’s very empowering to claim and own your name – if you’re not happy with something, change it! Being stuck in an old identity and name that is not serving the woman you’ve become is not feminist, it shows how sometimes we cannot let go of our carefully constructed self-mythologies. Sometimes we’ll even pick a fight with a friend, because their ability to change is brushing up against our own shit.
Analyze where your judgements are coming from. Identities are highly personal, and constantly evolving and shifting. Feminism is about freedom, and choices, it’s not an either/or binary dichotomy, it’s not boys vs. girls as Taylor Swift thinks!
And if you want to now call yourself Theodora, I’m cool with that.