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Occam’s Razor sez that it’s because men come first

By Amanda Marcotte
Saturday, May 22, 2010 14:04 EDT
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M. LeBlanc at Bitch Ph.D. wrote an excellent polemic against women changing their name when they marry. I realize that “the personal is political” is phrase that meant that we should see how the political influences personal power dynamics—that things that shape women’s lives are patriarchal and social, not just individual—and so neither M. nor I am saying someone’s a bad person or a bad feminist if they caved on this issue. But it is kind of a peculiar one, because the path of least resistance to me has always been not to change your name, especially if your husband isn’t insisting, which women often swear up and down isn’t the case. Why do women choose the headache over the non-headache, especially when they know it’s a sexist tradition?

Well, if you’ve seen blog posts on this topic before, you know the answers that will pop up in comments. I don’t want to call them rationalizations, because that’s all meanie bear, but it is fascinating how there is an epidemic of two very awful situations that happen to women and apparently only to women:

1) Having a hard to spell/hard to pronounce last name.
2) Having a shithead of a father you want to distance yourself from.

These are the reasons women change their names, apparently, and so your suggestion that perhaps they do it because they’re afraid to buck a patriarchal tradition is so off-base. They are rebels, dammit! They just suffer from one of these two chronic female-only conditions. As I noted in comments, I think that only women are bestowed hard to pronounce names and that only women have shithead fathers seems to be a major problem that feminists should look into. And yet we tend to act like unruly names and shithead fathers are something that happens to both men and women, despite all this evidence to the contrary!

And in case you think that this is just anecdotal, let me point out that estimates of how many women change their names upon marriage range from 85% to 95%. The number of men who do is so statistically insignificant. So we have 85-95% of married American women who suffer from shithead fathers and/or hard to pronounce names, while men are not similarly afflicted? This is the sort of epidemic problem that perhaps the government should look into. There should at least be research as to why so many women suffer from these female-only problems.

All kidding aside, I have to suggest that the reason most women change their names when they marry but almost no men do (oh, you hear anecdotal evidence—this is the internet—but they’re statistically insignificant) is probably the same reason that a Canadian “star-search” of top notch scientists turned up no female winners of the 19 prestigious grants. As Jezebel reports, part of the reason was that the women who were eligible for the grants declined for personal reasons.

An investigation into the disparity turned up a few the usual suspects — like and “old boys network” in science — but also one that’s discussed less often: relocation.

Church writes that “senior women [...] may be more reluctant than their male colleagues to move for personal reasons,” and adds that “at the University of Manitoba, vice-president of research Digvir Jayas says that’s exactly what they experienced. They did approach a highly qualified female candidate for their chair, but she withdrew her name for personal reasons.” At least anecdotally, it makes depressing sense — while it’s still often expected that a woman will follow her partner if he need to relocate for work, the same isn’t necessarily true of men. For many women, a big move often means saying goodbye to a relationship, or at least going long-distance, a choice men don’t always have to make. Partly this disparity may have to do with the wage gap — especially if there are kids involved, it may make less sense to relocate an entire family for the benefit of the lesser-earning partner. But part of it has to do with continued perceptions that men’s careers are more important than women’s, that women should sacrifice career goals for the health of their relationships, and that “following” someone is feminine behavior.

If it’s just the usual “common sense” reasons that men come first—that they make more money or have a more important job or whatever—then they wouldn’t apply in this circumstance, when the women were being presented with such an extraordinary opportunity. Personally, I found this whole thing surprising and wonder if the eligible parties weren’t just a lot older than my generation, because I know a lot of couples where the wife has the job that the household is built around. Of course, a group labeled Amanda’s Friends is going to be a lot different than people as a whole, but still. But I will say that this routine belief that men lead and women follow strikes me as a much more likely explanation for the commonness of the name change than the usually offered reasons involve undesirable last names that women and only women seem to have.

The whole situation is frustrating, because it seems like the only way that it would work is for women as a group to be clingier and more invested in maintaining relationships than men. A lot of power struggles between couples come down to that, don’t they? Who budges first? In the game of “my job vs. your job”, it seems that women may just be budging first. Is it because men are quicker to let go of relationships? (This seems unlikely to me.) Is it because men are so confident they’ll win that it doesn’t occur to them that they may lose the relationship? Does this confidence translate to women, “I’d rather lose you than this fight,” therefore causing women to buckle first? Or do women just pre-buckle and not bring it up in the first place? How much influence does a constant media drumbeat about how hard it is to find a good man and how good men don’t want successful women influence this? Do women buckle first because they have less leverage than men, because they’re more likely to believe that it’s this relationship or nothing?

I’m guessing these are all in play, to different degrees.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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