Mrs. Who? Maiden Names, Identifying Choices

October 27, 2009

rings.jpgI came across this article today and thought I'd share. Partly to thank the author, and the other women of her generation who made keeping one's maiden name at marriage (straight marriage, anyway) a choice as legally simple as filling in the blank on a form. Partly, because it reminded me of a topic that's been bumping around in my head for a while: the potentially additional layers of implication for Asian American women when they decide to take, or not to take, their husbands' names.

In the '70s, when the shift toward keeping maiden names began in the US, only about 4 percent of women did so; by 2001, that percentage had risen to 20. Now speculation is, it's falling again. "Once you cease from being a man's property, you lose the need to assert it," explains historian Stephanie Coontz.
But I'm not sure how the mere keeping of one's name is still perceived as the "asserting" of something, whereas the never uncomplicated process of changing one's name (think SSN, bank accounts, professional relationships) to this day manages to retain the status of not doing, saying, or asserting anything in particular.

We all make our compromises, it's true, and as some blithely point out, there is no truly elegant solution to the family surname dilemma. Only variously distasteful ones. So for many, expediency wins out over equity.

But it seems to me that for Asian American women, more potentially hangs in the balance of surnames than a feminist sense of selfhood alone. After all, we often marry outside of our ethnic communities. So Miss Jane Nguyen becomes Mrs. Jane Takada, or Sanchez, or Smith?

I'd like to hear from those of you who've made this decision, one way or another. If you knew your husband's surname would create the expectation that you would be ethnically or even racially someone other than you are, did this stop you, or not? If not, what is it like in your new identity, nominally something other than your physiognomy, culturally other than your name? If you've (like me) changed your first name already (presumably to something more American "manageable"), does it make it harder to change your last?

My sister told her in-laws that Vietnamese women do not traditionally take their husbands' names (true); interestingly, the cultural justification made the feminism easier to swallow. But according to the Wikipedia gods, adopting a husband's name isn't necessarily tradition in many other Asian cultures, either. So when we make our choices for expediency, what all do we lose, and what all do we gain?


erin K Ninh

contributing editor & blogger

erin Khue Ninh is a former blog editor and onetime publisher of Hyphen, who won't seem to go away. She now teaches literature in the Department of Asian American Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Aside from Hyphen, erin believes in recycling, Planned Parenthood, and Type A first-borns.



Feministe had a post about this same topic yesterday, and as much as I love that blog, I felt almost personally attacked by that post. This one had a decidedly less judgemental tone, so thanks for that. =)I recently got married and decided to change my name, primarily to share it with my daughter. As her father and I weren't married when she was born, I felt some pressure from my family to make sure she took her father's name as a way of establishing and validating paternity, "should anything happen".Neither of us were fans of hyphenating, but at the time I wasn't aware of how judged I'd feel being a young mom with a last name different from her daughter -- I live in a not-so-progressive, predominantly white suburb of Connecticut where people were quick to make classist assumptions about my "situation."When we got married, taking my husband's name was not important to him, and keeping my name was not that important to me, but ultimately the value of established kinship of a shared last name won out, so I changed my name (and I actually wrote about my decision to do so). I'm Pinay, and my husband is hapa (Welsh/Korean), and while I now have probably the most common Welsh name ever, my maiden name did not sound particularly ethnic either, and I never felt a familial connection with my last name.I wish I could say I made a more political, more feminist decision about it, but I didn't. And to say that I did it to be subversive and more ethnically ambiguous would be disingenuous. The truth is, while I did put thought into it, I didn't think of it as a way of proving or disproving my feminist cred. I don't regret my decision in any way, but I guess I'm tired of defending it (though women who keep their maiden names probably have a bigger battle than me).
Just a note: Chinese call a married woman "Mrs. Husband's Family Name," but within friendship circles, she's called by her full name: her own family name and first name complete. So it depends on the context: her public persona for strangers is So-and-so's wife, but her private persona is the one she was born with.And let's keep in mind that the same generation that brought us keeping your own name, also brought us using your Asian maiden name as a middle name: Maxine Hong Kingston, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, Bette Bao Lord, etc. My mom used this tactic, too, although, since it's her "middle name" now, it's usually shortened to an initial.
Theresa,Thanks for your story. It's an intriguing example of how our generation is living the "personal is political" credo now. Because the pressures you feel around this choice -- establishing paternity, classist assumptions about proper motherhood -- these are still political and very much feminist issues, no? And yet, the way we experience or read them seems less explicitly so, such that the surname choice no longer tripped your radar as a feminist issue? It felt "personal" on a non-political level? Pretty interesting.Claire,True, true. It's like that moment in Kingston where the kid reveals in class that he doesn't know his father's name, his mom just calls him "father of me." So in communication, references become relational? Whereas "legally," names do not change? I feel like this is almost an approximation of the situation for women in the US now who keep their names: legally, they retain their original names; colloquially, many end up answering to Mrs. Husband's Surname.Additional note: in old school Viet Nam, women are often called "Mrs. Husband's First Name"! (We don't refer to people much or, in fact, alphabetize by last name, b/c there are so many Nguyens and Trans.)
Apparently the conversation has moved to facebook: I don't have an account (yeah, yeah), I'll have to respond here.Some smart and heart-warming support from the guys. (Thanks, guys!)Caroline brought up the very pertinent point that, except for the pretty unusual case, women's given surnames are our fathers' -- which makes them part of a patrilineage. True enough, and Aaron mentions a woman who changed her last name to "X" to reject that patriarchal convention. Impressive -- but there's no way I'm hardcore enough to walk around calling myself erin X. So again, it's a question of compromises. Granted, our given names have built-in inequities (as does, yes, the term "maiden name"), but our subsequent choices still have meaning. Which shade of gray for you?
I kept my maiden name when I married in 1991. Two kids later, I felt a disconnect with my family. I finally took my husband's name in 2001--or as I liked to say at the time, "took my children's name."
The maiden name issue in Western society is very interesting. Some women here are criticized or feel pressure against keeping their name.Growing up around a ton of Chinese and Taiwanese families, in Mandarin women were always called by their name which had their maiden name, not the husband's last name. From what I can tell it's always been like this without an issue.