2018 already feels like a big year for women. Not only is it the 100 year anniversary of some women first gaining the right to vote but the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns are also pulling the spotlight onto so many struggles faced by women every day. I may be a helpless optimist but I am hopeful that this is a time for serious and lasting change.
But much of what I’ve heard and read about the anniversary of women’s suffrage has often ended with the same somewhat depressing thought – that the suffragettes would be disappointed by the progress we have made in their footsteps. That they would be horrified that we haven’t yet overthrown the patriarchy and still haven’t achieved the equality that they fought for.
I was thinking about this when chatting to friends recently about my decision to take my husband’s name. It’s a decision that I thought over for a long time and I am happy with my choice, but I know that taking my husband’s name wasn’t the most feminist choice and understand why I may be criticised for it. The more feminist option would have been to keep my name or ask my husband to take mine. Anything but the status quo.
‘More equal?’ my friend asked.
No, more feminist.
Because I’ve realised that while there isn’t equality and while all the battles have not yet been won, we shouldn’t be satisfied with the most equal option. We have to push beyond equality and choose the most feminist option. Rather than striving for equality and falling short, why not demand more and hope to find a truly equal compromise?
Except I haven’t done that. After much deliberation, I stuck with the status quo.
Feminism is a relatively new passion for me. In my late teens and early 20s, I was a much more reluctant feminist. I still saw feminists as angry man haters with hairy legs and unendingly boring monologues about women’s rights, and that’s not who I wanted to be. I wanted to be friendly and liked and, although I shudder at the memory, I wanted men to like me. Of course I wanted equal pay and equal rights, but I was young enough and naive enough to feel I already had that.
Fortunately in the last few years, I’ve realised how wrong I was! I simply didn’t understand how insidious and pervasive sexism can be or recognise how oppressive the patriarchy was within our culture. But I’ve also recognised the ingrained privilege and attitudes of my conservative (small and big C) Christian, middle class upbringing and how they have undoubtedly affected my opinions. Although I have tried to consciously change these when necessary, I am still learning and know that I still hold opinions that clash with what some feminists think women ‘should’ do or think.
I know this because when I said ‘some feminists,’ I was thinking about one in particular. One of my best friends is a more radical feminist than I am and she is not a fan of marriage. At all. It’s one of the few areas about which we have really argued. She sees it as a grossly unfeminist act and one that perpetuates old-fashioned ideas of women as property for men to obtain.
Our argument first erupted when discussing a heterosexual couple who are protesting for the right to have a civil partnership rather a marriage (www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-41004378). Whether correctly or not, I have limited sympathy for their struggle. There already is a widely accepted option for heterosexual couples to get legal recognition of their partnership and I can’t help but feel that while there isn’t universal equality of marriage, it’s a bit premature to be arguing about the nuances of the exact nature of that partnership. I appreciate that there is some questionable history associated with marriage but believe that each marriage is what that couple make it. Just get married!
But my friend disagrees. For her, marriage remains a patriarchal contract that binds women to men and this hierarchy is so essential to how marriage is seen in society that there’s no way to ‘make’ it more feminist just because you want it to be. Being a wife is a subordinate role; having a husband means that society will defer to him and ignore you. She wants a civil partnership instead; a contract that is equal in construct rather than just action. She doesn’t want to be husband and wife – she wants to be legal partners and resents that the option is not available to her.
Despite my friend’s passionate argument, she didn’t sway me from my decision. Unfortunately, this was partly because she chose to make most of these arguments on my wedding day so I was not especially sympathetic to her point of view. But her needling clearly got under my skin as this is the second version of this post that I have written and I thought about it so frequently in between that my thoughts on the issue have changed.
It comes down to the fact that this is a highly personal decision. By getting married, my husband and I have officially become a team. This is so exciting and, for me at least, is the main reason to get married! We’re a partnership now, a united family, and I want my new family to share a name, particularly if and when we have children. And the choice of which name to share seemed straightforward to both of us. For logical and practical reasons, his surname was the most sensible choice. This decision was also helped by the fact that I haven’t really given up my old surname; I’ve cheated the decision by keeping my professional name unchanged. I genuinely feel like I’ve got the best of both worlds. I am Mrs EA and Dr Other Livvy – a family unit but still my own person. Logical and reasonable, and a definite and well-thought out choice that I can justify. It’s not a default, it’s not because of the patriarchy. But I have accepted that it is not a feminist choice.
I had previously felt that I could claim it was kind of a feminist decision. Not the most feminist, but still one I could justify. And anyway, surely the goal of feminism is to allow us to do exactly what we want without fear of judgement?
Except we’re not there yet. We are still not equal. My choice has not furthered the feminist cause at all. This is the argument my friend was trying to make and that I was not ready to hear – there are some lines in the sand that we shouldn’t cross, issues where we shouldn’t cave. Even when I can justify it, taking my husband’s name was the easy way out as I avoided all the weight of criticism that falls on those men who take their wives’ name – but but, he can’t take a woman’s name! – or the endless questions of those who choose a new name. Variation from the norm is still seen as sufficiently abnormal to prompt outrage. We are still not equal.
When I first wrote about this on my own blog (https://theotherlivvy.com/2017/10/14/im-a-feminist-but/), I concluded by stating that feminists have so much else to fight for that this particular argument felt like a relatively insignificant issue. But I was wrong. I realise now that it is always important to step up to these challenges, to be more feminist, more than equal, particularly with the insignificant issues as that’s the only way to keep moving forward and change the bigger ones.
And I have made my peace with the fact that I didn’t want to do it myself with this issue. I want to be Mrs EA. Being his wife is already the most fun and most exciting and most joyful thing that I have ever done. And I’m happy with my choice – my husband and I both know that I don’t want his name as a flag that he’s mine or as a sign that he owns me; I don’t want his name because I am no longer my own individual person and have become part of him. It was the best choice for us personally and that’s enough for me.
Sometimes doing the right thing is hard. Feminism is hard. If our choices were easy, we would have achieved our goal of true equality by now and the anger and aggression of the suffragettes in the early 20th century wouldn’t have been needed. Breaking down normality is hard. Change is hard. And it’s OK if we (I) can’t fight every battle. It’s looking like it’s going to be a long fight after all…