Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Wife Keeps her Name at Marriage--and Other Ways to Get Respect

An article last week in in the New York Times argued every-which-way about changing or retaining names at marriage. It provoked a huge response, because the central issue isn't really about keeping a name, but retaining respect as an individual.

The piece mainly described women's dilemmas and choices, noting that men haven't rushed to claim their wives' names. A Lesbian couple made their own mashup: Ms. Rothman and Ms. Gerkin became the Gerkmans. (Seems odd; classmates of any future children could taunt "Jerk-Man!" and their choice includes "man" when neither partner is one.)

"Third wave" feminists, the now-marrying generation, often take their husbands' names, even though their own mothers kept their original names out of conviction. The older moms seem disappointed when daughters don't follow their examples, but one youth suggested, “Your generation did all the work, now we can go back to having our husbands’ names.”

One hundred twenty comments, almost all by women, reveal the passion this issue still evokes. The majority of writers insisted that keeping their names preserved their identities, and posed no difficulties. But awkward stories threaded through the rest, bemoaning confused contexts, hyphenated horrors and attacks for choosing the traditional path.

One couple avoided the entire his/hers issue by making up a euphonious Tolkein-esque name and both changing to it in court.

Now that marriage is optional, divorce ubiquitous and unmarried parenthood acceptable, what's the big deal? The crux of the passion is a need for respect as an individual. For many nowadays, taking another person's name feels like a surrender of one's persona, a loss of the unique individuality established and nurtured throughout life.

I think people should be called by whatever they prefer. More crucial for engendering respect than a name, however, is title. "Dr.," "Ms.," "Mr.," and even "Miss" or "Mrs.," if desired, should precede whatever name someone uses, because titles confer respect.

Graffiti, foul language in public (and in media), and pushy drivers all reflect the same decrease in respect for others that dropping titles demonstrates. It's a societal malaise--haven't you noticed it?

Lack of respect begins when a youngster's allowed to address adults casually, by their first names, teaching him there's no difference between children and elders. When a well-meaning teacher tries to "get close" to his charges by going by his first name, students learn that they and the teacher share similar status; children become elevated and the teacher loses ground. The snot-nosed kid gets snotty because nobody's ever superior to him; no one else's position or needs trump his own. Self-esteem's great until it destroys deference to anyone else.

When a store salesperson calls me by my first name, I'm unpleasantly surprised, because the context dictates that he cater to me. A doctor should address her patient as Mr. or Ms., and a child should use those titles for neighbors, because of something becoming startlingly rare: common courtesy. Courtesy is at root respect for others.

Respect is the entire point, the nexus of name-passion.

Feminists want acclaim for their own accomplishments, not as extensions of someone else. They'll get it no matter the last name if we insist upon courtesy and respect for every individual in every circumstance. Titles are one small and perhaps superficial means to remind all present to recognize and honor others. The secondary results might be less inclination to vandalize others' property, cut in when in traffic, and dull sensitivity to politeness with public swearing.

As one of those earlier-wave feminists, I thought it dumb that tradition saw wives as
husband-extensions--and then I fell in love with someone I was proud to extend. More precisely, I was honored that this particular man wanted me to share his future, and delighted we could create our own family united under a single moniker. Suddenly it didn't bother me anymore that I would "lose" my name, because in marrying, I was entering a new phase, as a partner in a new enterprise, the adventure combining my husband and me.

This is the key to what I believe is the value of marriage, and a couple sharing a single last name simply symbolizes it: the whole of the two individuals creates something that is different from, and better than, what each person can be alone.

Each individual deserves respect. But so does the entity of a family, the commitment of two people to each other. If that universal respect was restored, perhaps more people would guard and protect their marriages. And if problems arose, they might work to overcome them, rather than divorce, hurting so many others, and destroying the history and combination they've built.

1 comment:

  1. rather than divorce, hurting so many others, and destroying the history and combination they've built.