When I got married, I was feeling rebellious.
I was engaged to a man who, like me, was from North Carolina. We were both the first children in our families to get married. Our parents were itching for a big event. My partner had also internalized many cliches of the millennial wedding industrial complex—particularly the need for a weekend-long destination bachelor party, which had to be justified with a big party after.
I wanted to get married so that the outside world would acknowledge the family I had chosen. My parents got divorced when I was young and both remarried (some more times than others), so my definition of family was always less traditional. By the time I got engaged, I had moved to a new state to be with my partner while he went to grad school, and we were gearing up to make a second move so he could start a PhD program. I loved his family. We spent holidays together. We had a cat. If that didn’t make us a family, I wasn’t sure what could.
No one else saw it that way, and I caved.
My new, two-person-one-cat family not being acknowledged by the rest of the world sucked. Every time I explained that I moved to be with my “boyfriend,” I felt like it was met with judgment. Even his family, who are the best in-laws you could imagine, put up walls based on a legal definition of family. You weren’t family until you were married.
I floated eloping a few times. I hoped-against-hope that my dad might refuse to pay for a 200-person wedding, but to no avail. I hated the idea of a big circus. We were basically already married—we had joint checking account and shared health insurance—we had already become a family! A big party kicking off our life together seemed a little late. But no one else saw it that way, and I caved. We planned a wedding in my hometown and invited everyone either of us had ever known.
I found small ways to signal my rejection of the big wedding. I wore separates from White House Black Market and Loft. My wedding color was black. I chose a Friday after Christmas, hoping it would deter attendance.
And I decided to keep my name. It made people uncomfortable, which I found incredibly satisfying. The most mature motivation? Probably not. But it felt right to me when so much else of my wedding performance felt disingenuous.
My spouse didn’t seem to think much of it. As a baby academic, it aligned with his vision of our future. We’d be cool professor types with different last names. Not much out of the ordinary. There would still be a bachelor party and craft beer at the reception—you know, the wedding essentials.
My mother sent me an article about how fewer people than ever are assuming that women who keep their maiden names don’t love their husbands. It was a great relief to her, as she expected people would assume that I was in a loveless marriage.
One of my work friends said, “Oh, you’re just being difficult.” I said, “Maybe.”
As I live my married life as a “Ms.,” reactions vary. I now live in a large Midwestern city, where I work in an office full of professional women. A majority of us are married and kept our maiden names. My spouse is still in academia. A majority of the married women he works with kept their maiden names. It’s business as usual for the people I see the majority of the time.
In the South, among our extended families and old friends, attitudes are mixed. I have had a heartbreaking number of women compliment me on my bravery when no one else was around. At the aforementioned weekend-long bachelor party, my spouse’s friends were confused. Didn’t it bother him?
I have, on occasion, faced outright hostility. I once had another woman insist that my name was Mrs. Lennon. Historically, she made no secret of her malicious feelings towards me and relished the opportunity to strip away my agency over my own name.
On good days I find this annoying. On bad days, it makes me feel unimportant, unseen, and defeated.
In her book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, Kate Manne urges us to “understand misogyny as primarily a property of social environments in which women are liable to encounter hostility due to the enforcement and policing of patriarchal norms and expectations—often, though not exclusively, insofar as they violate patriarchal law and order.”
In case you didn’t see where this is going, I freaking love Kate Manne. What is patriarchal law and order if not marriage?
Every time someone asks my spouse if my last name bothers him, or calls me Mrs. Lennon accidentally, or calls me Mrs. Lennon on purpose, it’s like a border collie is trying to push us back to the herd. It’s a subtle correction to the rule I broke. On good days I find this annoying. On bad days, it makes me feel unimportant, unseen, and defeated.
When I was younger, someone close to me chose to go by a different first name after being raped. At the time, I had no knowledge of her motivation and did not react well. I felt put out by having to remember the change. I felt annoyed when she got upset at being misnamed. How could she put me out this way? It was only years later that I understood that every time she heard the other name, it reminded her of what her rapist said to her during her attack.
If I feel defeated when I get a wedding invitation that says Mrs. Lennon on it, imagine what it was like for her to have her family members refuse to acknowledge and respect her wishes. Or for those who find themselves misgendered and deadnamed.
When we make choices about our own names instead of accepting what is put on us by a parent or society, we’re taking a little bit of our agency back from the patriarchal machine. We’re showing that we can live outside of the rules and be just fine. If everyone else realizes that we don’t have to follow the rules, it spells danger for the powers that be.
Thinking back to my coworker who said I was just being difficult, I wish I had said, “Hell yes.”