Is Keeping Your Maiden Name Still a Feminist Act?
When my aunts and older cousins got married in the 1970s and 1980s, the question “are you going to keep your name?” was always asked of the bride-to-be. Some relatives went traditional, some went for hyphenization of their name plus their spouse’s, some took the plunge and kept their names. Maybe being taught by former hippies and civil rights and women’s rights activists in Oakland Public Schools had something to do with it: At some early moment, I decided I wasn’t going to change my last name.
When I got married in 1995, my husband did not (and still doesn’t) have strong feelings about the issue. My late mother-in-law did keep asking me for a couple years if I would change my name, when I might and why had I decided not to?
It can be a bit annoying to have to keep explaining that “my son is Charlie Fisher and I’m his mom, Kristina Chew — yes, we have different last names.” The fact that Charlie looks exactly like me (except that he’s about ten inches taller) has meant a brief explanation suffices at the most. At work I’m “Dr. Chew” — I’m a professor, but at Catholic colleges, it’s common to be addressed as “Dr.” rather than “Professor” (which I’d prefer but you can only buck so many conventions). My students are still often surprised if they meet my (very blond, Irish-American) husband and have said, “Oh, your husband’s not Chinese” — they’ve assumed he is and that his last name is Chew. Once they get that figured out the next question comes: “You kept your own name?” (with a whiff of, “you’re actually MARRIED, right, even if you have a different last name than your husband?”).
Old habits do die hard.
The decision of Zara Phillips, the British royal who was married last Saturday to rugby player Mark Tinsdall, to keep her maiden name is sparking quite a bit of uproar and brought an old issue back to the fore. As the Guardian notes about an ongoing discussion:
Read some of the comments about the decision and it all seems of a piece with her “rebel” nature (she once had her tongue pierced!) and the egalitarian nature of her parents (her mother refused to add HRH to her children’s titles at birth!). Traditionalists need not fear, however. In a largely positive article, the Mirror felt the need to declare: “When Zara Anne Elizabeth Phillips MBE walks down the aisle after tying the knot in Edinburgh today she will be plain Mrs Mike Tindall – housewife, horsewoman and homebody.”
The Guardian cites a 2004 Harvard study which found that “approximately 87% of married, college-educated women took their husband’s name — down from a peak before 1975 of over 90% but up from about 80% in 1990.”
Glad to know that, even as I’ve passed the 4-0 mark and am the mother of a teenager, I’m still not only a “rebel” for remaining a Chew. I’m also being — I am proud to say — a good old-fashioned feminist. But is the response to Zara Phillips’ decision to remain Zara Phillips a sad commentary on where women are now?
Photo of Zara Phillips at the Chatsworth International Horse Trials 2008 by smudge9000