What’s in a surname?
By Kiran Manral
When the fabulous Ms Steinem had made famous Irina Dunn’s feminist slogan about women needing men as much as a fish needed a bicycle, I was a fledgling feminist. The very first time I came across the statement, it quite disoriented me. I was just get about getting my training wheels off the bicycle she mentioned, and here was I being told to question whether I needed men. And then there was the equally fabulous Katherine Hepburn who blithely declared that men and women should not live together but merely visit each other from time to time. The arrangement made perfect sense to me, even though I had back then yet to encounter the dreaded phenomenon of the wet towel on the freshly made bed, and the weekend TV watching coma surrounded by beer can detritus that afflicts the male of the species.
Nonetheless, it eventually happened that I fell in love and got married and, gosh, even changed my surname. Did I even dare to call myself a feminist anymore? The sisterhood eyed me with suspicion. The hapless spouse, on the other hand, had his own battles to fight with his mates. There was sympathy and much back patting, I assume, when they figured that he’d married a woman who had publicly declared herself a feminist. I suppose some of them thought I had a retractable tail and horns, and that I spent my weekends sharpening the tines of my pitchfork. Well, not much has changed in the over two decades since then.
Can you be married and still be an advocate for feminism? Can you change your surname to that of the man you marry, and still be a feminist? Can you pledge to live out your life and love another person for life and still be a feminist? Am I one of the generation of feminists trying to re-claim the institution of marriage? I don’t know. In fact, given that so many waves of feminism have swept and battered at the shores of the patriarchy, I don’t even know what I am trying to re-claim given that I never did give up my claim to it in the first place. Now in the fourth wave of feminism, the surname change opted for by choice seems to be one of the most trivial things to agonise over. We’ve fought bigger battles. And have bigger battles to fight.
I guess I was an unlikely candidate for most things I did. I cut my teeth on The Feminine Mystique and The Second Sex was oft quoted word and passage in lengthy discussions in college. Why then did I choose to change my surname? The simple answer would be that I had absolutely no attachment to my maiden surname for a variety of reasons which I will not go into here, god rest my poor deceased father’s soul, I do love him so, but I have no attachment to that part of the family tree, never mind the very fine fur and long silky tails right on the top branch of it. The birth name too, after all, is one that was handed down to me by the patriarchy. It was not a name I’d chosen for myself, it came to me via my mother marrying my father. My marital surname is one I chose to adopt, eyes wide open. Did I regret sacrificing the by line and professional credibility associated with my maiden surname when I took on this surname? I didn’t. I remained the same. My work remained the same. And people have really short memories. My marital surname quickly became my new identity.
Of course, I recognise and applaud the choice made by the pioneering equal rights activist Lucy Stone, the first American woman to keep her maiden surname when she got married. For years, women who chose to keep their maiden surnames when they got married were called “Lucy Stoners.” I am grateful that Lucy and countless other women like her gave me the luxury of a choice. Some of my peers kept their maiden name and added on their husbands’ surnames, at times hyphenating it for their offspring. That was a valid choice too, and it celebrated that they were still part of the family associated with the maiden surname, while embracing their husband’s name. Today changing one’s surname after one gets married is rather outdated, especially in urban centres. I have no statistics for India, but in the US, a survey conducted by the New York Times found that 20 percent of women stick to their maiden names and 10 per cent opt for hyphenated surnames. A recent survey conducted by the New York Times asked women across the world to write in with the reason as to why they changed their surnames or chose to retain their maiden names. 16,000 women around the world responded, I did too.
In India, in certain communities, women don’t just change their surnames, they also change their first names when they get married. Millennials aren’t just questioning, delaying or forgoing the very concept of marriage, they’re also choosing to keep their maiden surnames while they’re hitching themselves. All decisions that are intensely personal, and equally valid, whatever the reason.
But what is the most beautiful part of all these decisions, to keep or change, or to hyphenate, is the agency of choice. And that is what is a battle won, that we are now free to choose.