Chattel or Progress (?)

16 May

"Turns Out Our Gals are Useful After All"

Thank you to my friend “voice of the trailer” for inspiring this story.  Apparently, the trend continues for women to take their husband’s name, according to a 35-year study published in 2009 in the journal Social Behavior and Personality.  The study also shows that well-educated women with careers that have high earning power tend to retain their names. (I intentionally refuse to use maiden name for obvious reasons.)  Age seems to also play a part.  Women who marry after age 35 are 6.4 times more likely to keep their name.

I do worry that we do not have a sense of history as to what the name change meant, or the other rituals that all indicated that a woman was going to become the property of her husband.  Lest we forget, women were not allowed to own land. Nor should we forget that women could not own a credit card until the mid-1970’s.  I do still worry that as a culture we do not recognize the often times more subtle misogyny that exist in advertising and pop culture.  An immediate example that comes to mind is the television show called Cougar Town, which I find incredibly misogynistic and offensive. I have not seen this show, but the title is very off-putting.  I have had conversations with friends about this and they offer in reply: “We have the same thing with men, we just call them either lucky or dirty old men.”  The offensive difference is that we don’t call them predators, such as cougars.

The other example I will offer is the list of comments at the end of the article I am referring to which contains a number of misogynistic remarks.  Granted the article is from the Wall Street Journal, so my expectations of enlightenment are slim. Here is an example of the sexist comments I read:

Women are very self-serving with respect to gender roles. When it comes to pay raises and promotions they’re all for it, but if the they have to initiate a relationship or pay for a date then they defer to traditional gender roles.–Benny

I feel sorry for Benny’s wife, should he have one.  I suppose I don’t understand the need to assume one’s spouse’s name.  Of course, I say this even as my partner and I changed our names, albeit some of that was to make a political statement, as we are a gay couple that is denied the right to marry.  I also suspect that I take issue with the name change because I don’t see a level playing field as of yet.  Women still do not earn as much money on the dollar as men do, nor are they proportionately represented in our government–look at the House of Representatives as a reflection of this fact.  In short, I’m not convinced we have made the progress regarding gender or race that we think we have.

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6 Responses to “Chattel or Progress (?)”

  1. jenny May 16, 2011 at 8:16 am #

    darling! i love how you love women 🙂 this post speaks to me directly. you know, i kept my own name when i married for several reasons–mainly because i liked my own last name better than i like my husband’s. (his last name is bowman, enough said 🙂 ) but also because it cost money and was a real hassle to change it on all of my legal cards and documents. a more prideful reason, though, is that by the time i married, i had two and a half college degrees with the name “shaw” on them and i wasn’t going to change my name and give my husband credit/ownership for all the hard work i’d done. that doesn’t make much sense, but it does to me. would you believe professional people have asked me if my husband and i are married? and anyone who knows my kids immediately assumes i share their last name and calls me “mrs. bowman,” which i answer to for my girls’ sake, but the girls usually say, “her last name is shaw”. people also assume that i hyphenate my name, which i do not. my return address labels say “shaw/bowman” not “shaw-bowman”. in addition, my girls both carry my last name as their middle name, so no hyphens for them, either. anyway, i appreciate how you notice and call attention to things society would consider a little thing. to me, this is a big thing.

    • rhulshofschmidt May 16, 2011 at 11:29 am #

      Hey Jenny – I know so many people who have similar approaches (and challenges). Social assumptions can be maddening, can’t they. As Michael said, we opted for a name-change for a variety of reasons, but at least we both made the same change. Not having children simplifies things too. 🙂

  2. R. May 18, 2011 at 2:29 am #

    This depresses me, but doesn’t surprise me. There does seem to be a tendency among women of my generation to want to revert to traditional gender roles. I think that it’s largely due to an anti-feminist media backlash that’s been brewing throughout our generation. There’s a strong message young women today get from the media that while they can have it all in terms of careers, they still better put husbands and children first otherwise men will never want them*/they are “bad mothers” who harm their children. The trend over the past few decades of treating every little thing a child encounters as a possible danger to their development has not helped women at all, who still increasingly bear the responsibility of raising children – and therefore are encouraged to feel that just a few minutes spent focusing on career over children is neglectful.

    Part of the problem is people also think these battles have been won – a problem that plagues people working for racial equality as well. Women CAN keep their names, so obviously any woman who changes it really wants that, right? The focus on legal rights, though, ignores the fact that cultural attitudes don’t evolve at the same rate. Any woman who doesn’t change her name is going to deal with anything from mild confusion to outright accusations that she is not a good enough wife for doing so. There are plenty of comments on these stories that reflect this; men saying things like how it’s important for them to be seen as “one couple” and how they were glad that their wife wasn’t “too selfish” to “get this.” (I want to ask those men that if this is so important to them, why don’t they consider changing THEIR last name to that of their wives? Is it because they are “too selfish”?) I’ve even heard stories of women who didn’t change their names dealing with people who adamantly insist on calling them “Mrs. His-Name” despite knowing her name wasn’t changed, in hopes of forcing their values on her.

    I’m not ever changing mine. For purely practical purposes, I’m an artist and by the time years down the road when I get married, I’ll be established enough in my career that changing my name will cause confusion. (The fact that women are expected to make these career sacrifices purely for the sake of “tradition” boggles my mind.) But more importantly, it’s because I’m a person first and someone’s wife and mother second. It’s because from the time I was little, getting married and having kids was just something extra that wasn’t nearly as important as following my own dream. Asking me to demand anything less for myself is to tell me I am less than human. And I can’t ignore the sexist tradition that name-changing has and how it is very much asking me to do exactly that.

    *At least with that half of the message, I benefit from being bisexual – when people tell me that men won’t date independent feminists like me, I just say “Well, okay, I’ll date women then!” Not that I believe that no men out there would be interested in me, but it’s still fun to have the very premise of their insult backfire like that, eh?

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt May 18, 2011 at 6:30 am #

      Brilliant response, R. You have done a beautiful job of articulating the disconnect between legal rights and cultural norms. Yes, I fear the backlash we are experiencing in women’s rights speaks to a more odious flavor of misogyny.

  3. webwordwarrior May 18, 2011 at 8:50 am #

    Great post, Michael, and wonderful comments from Jenny and R. Every person’s name is their own, and they should do with it as they see fit, for reasons that make sense to them. The instinct to change one’s surname just because of tradition or ease is dangerous and foolish.

    My mom kept her surname when my parents wed. This was a bit unusual (especially for small-town Vermont), and she has lived with the erroneous “Mrs. Kahn” for most of her life. Now that my dad’s family have all passed, I find myself in the interesting position of living with the people closest to me (Mom and Granddad) who do not share my name. That matters not one bit; we are still a family.

    As I’ve mentioned in a Word of the Week, my best friends simply invented a name by combining elements of both of their family-of-origin names. This made sense because of their sense of disconnect from these family members and their strong desire to create their own family identity. The point is that they made a mutual decision that honored and respected their individual and collective needs. Such a decision (which it sounds like Michael and Robert also made with their glorious vowel-light hyphenation) is sound. Bowing to tradition while subsuming one’s own identity is not.

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt May 18, 2011 at 8:55 am #

      Lex, you are such a lovely human being. Were that all people were as enlightened as you. Yes, Robert and I did not want to lose our respective identities but did want to make it known that we joined forevermore and thus chose to hyphenate our names. I’m glad, at least, you appreciate our consonant heavy name:)

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