Just Because a Woman (or Feminist) Does Something, It Doesn’t Make It Feminist

When we got married eighteen months ago, I kept my last name.  In some ways that’s almost the prototypical feminist action, right?

I didn’t change my name and I certainly took advantage of the battles of my feminist fore-bearers.  I get pissed off when friends and family write to me as Kathryn HisLastName and livid when it’s Mrs. HisFirstName HisLastName.

I didn’t change my last name but keeping it wasn’t a feminist act.  I never thought about changing it  because of my father who was passionate about our family history, who took me to see our family’s ancestral home months before he died.  I kept it because it I already owned the family merchandise and pay my clan dues, and because I’d already gotten used to both saying “no, that’s three Ls” and “no, it’s pretty much phonetic and thus not McLenin, McLennan, McLeod, or McLachlan,” and because HisLastName is Jewish and I’d rather have a conversation about why I kept my last name than why I kept my religion.

All of those are great reasons, but they’re not feminist reasons.  I wear my choice with pride and don’t mind that it makes some people think I’m a feminist, because I am, but just because I’m a feminist doing something doesn’t make it a feminist choice.

This is a long way of saying that the second thing I did this morning was to read The Feminist Housewife and the accompaning Jezebel commentary.  It introduces a lot of feminist concerns, that housework and childrearing fall on women even in egalitarian households, that the modern workplace isn’t overly friendly to having families, that woman tend to get screwed by a lot of the workplace anyhow, that childcare can cost one person’s wages.  In these conditions, becoming a SAHM (stay-at-home-mom) is a perfectly fine pragmatic choice, even a preferred one although one that can be fraught with fiscal problems as women unfortunately lose their earning potential.

Although some do, I don’t think that decision makes one a bad feminist or not one at all.  Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do or even what you want to do.  At the same time, it’s not automatically a feminist choice either, even if a feminist is making it, such as our NYMag protagonist.  Just because a woman does something, it isn’t automatically feminist.  It just is, and I don’t hold it against her one way or the other.

This bullshit on the other hand…:  “I feel like in today’s society, women who don’t work are bucking the convention we were raised with … Why can’t we just be girls? Why do we have to be boys and girls at the same time?”

Yes, a woman who calls herself a feminist, who is being called a feminist, just equated having a job with being a boy and staying home, minding the kids as being a girl.  That’s some grade-A bullshit there.  That’s 100% anti-feminist bullshit and I think we should call her on it.  Not on staying home, not on leaving her job, not even on her making a point of massaging her husband’s “work-stiffened muscles,” or that she thinks that maternal instinct is a biological fact, but that she is says such bullshit, on the record no less, and calls herself a feminist.  I know that there are people who hear that and think oh, she hates SAHMs (and men, and leg shaving, and…).

I don’t. I just hate bullshit, especially when it’s be sold as feminism.  Gender essentialism isn’t cute, even if you use boys and girls instead of men and women.   We can’t just be girls, Kelly Makino, because you’ve decided that boys are the ones who work and the rest of us girls over here?  We have fucking jobs.  We’re doctors, teachers, police officers, social workers, bloggers, and yeah, SAHMs.  Stop selling us (and yourself) fucking short.

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13 responses to “Just Because a Woman (or Feminist) Does Something, It Doesn’t Make It Feminist

  1. Right on! I wouldn’t mind getting called Mrs. HisLastName by a stranger who knew him first and just didn’t know, but the fact that I currently have unopened birthday presents/cards from my mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law (who both know I kept my name) address to Mrs. Wendy HisLastName is a little infuriating.

    • Oh I would hate that; also unopened because of that? Luckily, of his family, only his grandfather seems to have a hard time with me keeping my name, and I barely talk to him. We did get a couple of checks from the wedding made to Jeremy and Kathryn HisLastName and the bank’s answer was for me to sign as Kathryn HisLastName, which just didn’t seem legal.

    • Well, unopened because it’s not my birthday yet. 🙂 But it still annoys me! I think we may have had some checks like that, too… don’t remember how we solved that problem!

  2. I struggled a lot with the name change decision. For me it was a lack of caring about my previous last name and a desire for simplicity with the children. It still grates on my feminist sensibilities though… 🙂 It does make me crazy when something is addressed to Mrs. Michael Manor. I usually reply with Dr. Julia Manor (got to pull out that Dr. card every once in awhile). I think childcare and work decisions are extremely difficult (1/2 my salary goes to daycare). I think we need to change our culture to create more female and family friendly work environments. I’ve been listening to the MPR debates on this topic. It is so frustrating that over 30 years after first publishing salary discrepancies that they are still present.

    • I was really lucky in that I never even had to think about changing my name. I really wish I had any idea how to help the family friendly environment, but I have no idea what to do. I do find the rise of the mommy blogger as an interesting response to it, but obviously that’s not a solution for anything.

  3. Yo, Miranda here (my phone ain’t registering at present). I just wanted to say I read this with a weird sort of glee, Kat. This entry is all sorts of awesome.

  4. Excellent points.

    So…if the law said I could get married, and I took her name, since she’s a girl, would they let me keep the feminist, sign-up toaster?
    Feminism is too much work for me. I’m a chick. So what? I’m a heck of a lot more than my sex. I’d rather people notice that.

    • Unfortunately there are a lot of societal/cultural things that do or could affect you simply because you’re female, and that’s kinda the point of the basis of feminism. Yeah there are a lot of weird strains of feminists and really out there ideas that you can find, but it all really comes down to trying to make it so men and women treated equally and with equal opportunities and input, along with some reproductive health and anti-violence stuff.

      And it’s not like (generally*) feminists care about you, one person in particular, changing your name. It’s about ending the pressure on women to change their names/men to not change their names/etc so that it’s a pretty neutral choice one way or the other. For example, my husband and I briefly thought about adding each other’s last names as middles when we got married. Me? I could do whatever the hell I wanted to my name as long as it happened within 6 months of getting married. However, he would have to get a legal name change ($$$$$) and then we would have to go to court to get our wedding liscence amended with his new name, mind you just for a middle name. So that’s a feminist issue, but my friend Julia (above) changing her name? That’s her own business (although I do keep confusing them because they’re so damn similar sounding).

      *somewhere there is, I’m sure. There are feminists for pretty much every single concept possible and they’re all arguing with each other constantly. It’s a thing. I was a WGS major and once had to read a paper that was a freudian explination of how lesbians having children fit into penis envy (not well) and included the phrase “anal babies” way, way too many times.

  5. but the legal pressure for women to change names is not there anymore…is it? i thought we’d crossed that line many moons ago.
    and once the laws go down, isn’t the rest just waiting for nay-sayers to stop whining that they have to abide by them?

    as far as men changing their names, how is that feminist? it might be a tedious and shitty law, but that’s bureaucracy, not gender-bias. if i want to change my name to coke-bottle starfish i fall under the same rules-my sex is irrelevant. someone has to pay for the little old ladies in the office who type the forms.

    i sincerely appreciate your replies. and yes, don’t even get me started on lesbians. half of us can’t decide which gender we’d like to be, and as a whole we’re the antithesis of organization and cohesiveness.

    but that’s another discussion for another day.

    • Well that’s the thing. I could just change my name when we got married with our IL marriage license. If he wanted to change his name as part of us getting married, then we would have to file for a legal name change, get the license amended, etc. That’s a pretty big incentive to not have men change their names as part of getting married that doesn’t exist for women (in IL). We decided to not do anything, but I can imagine that would have been a big issue if we had been thinking about hyphenating or if he was going to take my last name, which he considered briefly.

      As for naming pressure, there can be a lot of familial/societal pressure to change your name, depending on where you live. I know people whose families insisted they change their name, who got crap from friends or at work for not changing their names, whose ministers insisted on introducing them as “Mr and Mrs HisFirstName HisLastName.” Wendy mentions above that her in laws insist on sending her birthday gifts with her husband’s last name even though she didn’t change her name; I had to have a very awkward conversation with my grandfather-in-law about why I didn’t change my name, which ended with my sister-in-law pretty much selling it as my father’s dying wish. I think that’s part of why I don’t think my decision was a feminist one – I argue for it based on my family history and dead father generally gives me an “out” that other women don’t have.

      Notably, my husband and I have decided that if we have kids, they’re going to have my last name and I expect that to be a royal, awkward shit-storm all over the place based on societal/cultural expectations.

      As for lesbians, I was just making fun of feminist literature. A lot of the theory is really really silly.

  6. Agreed. I think feminist literature is very silly, and gay feminist literature is redundantly silly (and really quite awful).

    The pressures for you to change names seems more like a familial belief in legacy more than girl vs. boy. I’m IA, same bullshit. But I will agree also that the passing on the name thing is a boy thing, which I guess falls under the girl power umbrella of change. Maybe. It seems like Guys are just getting over the whole idea.

    Men are way better than they used to be. And so are women for that matter. As our roles, and expectations of gender blur, I think all of this becomes less a feminist issue, than a human one.

    I get where you’re coming from about your husband changing his name, but women have been getting the free name change not out of generosity, but out of force. So, being able to to it for free is kind of a nice compensation. I couldn’t give up my own name for anyone, so I guess I shouldn’t really talk.

    • I can see where you’re coming from where the name change is a gift, if an awfully patriarchical one. Personally, I think it just makes it easier to let both change their names, the state still profits on the driver’s license, passport, etc fees.

      Also yes on the gay feminist literature (or really gay theory entirely). Between the constant refuting of Freud and the love of Foucault…. Then again, I constantly got in trouble in college for always wanting to talk about practice (ironic since I am currently wearing my husband’s “that’s all well and good in practice, but what about theory?” hoodie. Fucking UofC)

  7. see that’s what i mean-we get patriarchal rules, so if we get a positive from it, take it and be happy. the patriarchy will dissolve eventually. we don’t need to bulldoze everything to make a point. that’s my beef with feminism. it’s always a life or death battle. no, it’s really not.

    i appreciate your rationality. it’s refreshing.

    it would be ideal if we could all change our names with marriage (or without) to whatever we wanted, but even if they passed that-it would take them less than a week to say “hey-why don’t we charge everyone instead?” charging everyone works for me. grab a chair and make some popcorn to watch the hoards of feminists who get pissed at having to pay a lot of money to do what was gratis at one time. somehow they’ll blame men for it.

    gay lit? i was lumping it all together. oh my word it’s depressing. the theory books, the fiction, the tales of woe, it’s all such a sad bunch.

    there are some brilliant gems in the muck though, and i will give proper credit where it’s due, but overall, it’s…like reality tv. sensational and empty.

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