I like to think of myself as an evolved, 21st century kind of woman. I believe in equality between women and men. Still, when my then-fiancé, Joe, told me he wanted to keep his own name when we got married, I had a cave-woman reaction: I felt like I was being rejected, and my femininity was being undermined.
We had already discussed our vows, and I had agreed (without hesitation) to forgo the traditional “obey”. Why should Joe have to promise to obey me, if I’m not asked to promise the same? That’s just silly and outdated. I hadn’t asked Joe to give up his career and become a fulltime house-husband, either, because, damn, this isn’t the 1950s!
But the name thing caught me off-guard. It had simply never occurred to me that my husband might not want to change his name. Why would he not want us to have the same last name, thereby symbolizing a unified family in the eyes of the world? Did he not want other women to know he was spoken for? Did he want people to think he didn’t respect me? Was he trying to “hedge his bets” in case the marriage didn’t work out?
I presented my concerns, he maturely and rationally explained his reasoning, and it actually brought us closer together. It helped us to clarify our pre-existing expectations about marriage, and it forced me to confront some unconscious biases.
“What’s wrong with my name?”
Why wouldn’t he jump at the chance to abandon the barely-pronounceable Slavic mess that is “Brofcak” and become a “Powell”? He pointed out that he has been Joe Brofcak for his entire life, and while there’s certainly nothing wrong with a man who chooses to abandon the label he has used to identify himself since before he could speak, he was uncomfortable with the idea.
My husband and I are both playwrights, but it had never occurred to me that he had spent years “making a name” for himself, just like I had. If he suddenly started publishing under the name, “Joe Powell”, he would, at least in one sense, be starting from scratch. The average man only has to worry about no longer being recognized by old friends on Facebook if they change their names, but the stakes for someone like Joe were much higher. Even if he published as “Joe Brofcak Powell”, people still might not know he was the same writer. I had assumed that he should care less about his career than I care about mine – even though we have the same job!
Once I realized this, it was obvious that I had, unconsciously, assumed that my husband should make a sacrifice for me that I would never be willing to make for him. And even though that sacrifice may be a tradition, that doesn’t make it any less unfair.
“Don’t you love me and want to be part of my family?”
He insisted that keeping the name he was born with didn’t mean he loved me any less – and it was ridiculous to think it did. It took some time for me to understand that he was not rejecting symbolically becoming part of my family, he was choosing not to symbolically reject his own family. He is proud of his Russian heritage, and did not want to give up that part of his identity. While there are thousands and thousands of Powells, there are very few Brofcaks, and I realized I couldn’t fault him for wanting to protect his name from dying out for as long as possible.
He rightly pointed out that just because people don’t share the same last name doesn’t mean they are not a family. A father who re-marries and take his new wife’s name doesn’t suddenly love his children from his first wife any less, even if they still have their mother’s last name.
When two women get hitched, or when two men tie the knot, neither of them is expected to change their surname, but that obviously doesn’t mean they’re not just as committed to their marriage as a straight couple. Why should I hold my husband to a different standard, just because I happen to be a woman and he happens to be a man? I realized that if I truly believe men deserve the same respect as women, I needed to respect his wishes.
“People are going to assume you’re a Powell.”
He acknowledged that yes, when I introduce him as my husband, people are most likely going to assume he was a Powell. He said that he didn’t mind being occasionally referred to as Mr. Powell, and that he would only correct the person (“Actually, it’s Mr. Brofcak; I kept my name,”) if it was an individual he was likely to speak to again in the future. But he wouldn’t go out of his way to make people uncomfortable, accuse them of being sexist, or act like a Masculininazi.
He also explained that most banks will still let a husband cash a check made out to “Ms. and Mr. Wife’s Name”, as long as he can provide a copy of the marriage license, so he would still be able to deposit the checks our families would give us at the wedding.
“People are going to think you’re the boss in our marriage.”
I’m not proud of this one, but it is something I said during the discussion. And Joe had to admit, he certainly knows women who would never consider letting their husbands keep their own names, because they would consider it defeminizing.
This is just one of those examples where feeling overrides logic, and where women’s hearts have just not caught up with our brains. If I keep my name, and he keeps his name, we’re doing the exact same thing, meaning we’re perfectly equal. But somehow, we see this as favoring men. Just as a group of five men and five women will be described as “mostly men”, and a man who speaks as often as a woman in a meeting will be accused of dominating the conversation, this is an example of lingering anti-male prejudices that we all have without even being aware of them.
Ultimately, what Joe pointed out is that, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what other people think of our marriage. I needed to be comfortable enough with my femininity to realize that equality between us is not a threat to me.
Because at the end of the day, he is still my husband, and he’s still going to give me the same respect any husband would give his wife. He’s still going to have dinner ready by the time I get home every night. He’ll still be the one to take time off from his career to stay home with the children (whose last names will obviously be Powell), if I decide we want them. I’ll still be the one to control our finances and pay our taxes, and he’ll still check with me before making any major decisions that affect both of us.
My husband and I have now been married for three years, and I’m glad I let him keep his own name. He has just as much right to his career, his family heritage, and his outside interests as I do to mine. Some women have made comments, like, “I guess we know who wears the pants in your family,” but I don’t let it bother me. (He can wear whatever he wants as long as he still does the laundry!)
And when I went with Joe to the premiere of his new play, and the ticket-taker jokingly called me, “Ms. Brofcak”, I wasn’t insulted. I didn’t feel defeminized. I was too busy being proud of my husband.
Why are women still changing their names?
Why should married women change their names?
Why I’m not changing my name for marriage
The Plays of Joe Brofcak
This piece was proofread by, and improved with the help of: Kat Helgeson, Kathleen O'Mara, and Adriana Jones.