Naming customs keep popping up on me. So I decided to explore the topic in a post.
Last semester in one of my history classes we read Lost Names by Richard E. Kim. It is a fictionalized account of a family during the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. The title refers to the laws passed by the colonial government in 1939 and 1940 that required Koreans to change their family names to Japanese ones. The scene in the book were the father character goes to have his name changed is very dramatic, funerary even, and afterward everyone in town goes to their ancestors’ graves and prays for forgiveness. In class a big deal was made of this. I, too, felt that it was an absolutely horrible thing to subjugate someone to the extent of taking away their identity. I think most of us here in the States would react that way if someone told us we had to suddenly change our name: How dare they!
Well, make that half of us.
During intersession I finally got the chance to read a book I’d taken out from the library titled I’m Married To Your Company! Everyday Voices of Japanese Women by Masako Itoh. It’s a collection of essays she had previously published in various Japanese women’s magazines. One essay was titled, “Women don’t need their own names, do they?” (p. 61) It was about how many Japanese women introduce themselves with their husband’s name, how they are often addressed by others as the wife or mother of some male, and sign their husband’s name at community events, even when the husband didn’t attend at all. One particularly striking anecdote was of a woman filling out an application for a library card who gets to the “Name” line and asks the author, “You mean my husband’s name?” At the end, Itoh asks herself, “I wonder what women are getting in return for giving up their names?”
In that history class, when we learned about the mandated loss of Korean names, I think we all felt it had been an injustice. But when half our population is similarly told to change their names by the dominant class, do we blink an eye? These days it’s okay with some men if the women they marry choose not to take their names, or choose to have a hyphenated name. But outside of women’s studies, the same people who feel repulsion at what happened to the Koreans think nothing of the fact that women are in general expected to have their husband’s name on them in some way.
I started thinking about this again because Monday the topic on a local morning radio show was “Is it okay for a man to take his wife’s last name upon marriage?” One of the disc jockeys had a very old-fashioned view, namely that a man who took his wife’s name was a “big pussy.” It’s attitudes like that that prove loud and clear that there is still a need for a feminist movement, because women are still not treated as equals of men. To me, being equal doesn’t mean that I can do everything a man can do. That’s a big part of it, it was the first part of it. But the fact that when men do things that are generally thought of as “female behaviors” (such as taking the name of one’s spouse) they are looked down upon proves that women are still looked down upon.
Later that same day, in another history class, the professor had us give a self-introduction which included “one unique thing.” A young man said that one unique thing about him was that he was the only person he knew with a hyphenated name. Yes, he said “person,” not “man.” I said, nope, I’ve got one of those too, and the prof was checking the class list. Now that I think of it, it’s particularly funny that he said that in that class, because the professor herself has a hyphenated name! (Although she tells us to call her by the second one.) At which point another classmate says, “but he’s a man.” Perhaps the young man had meant to say “man,” but he said “person.” Which leads me to believe that women taking on hyphenated names must still be highly unusual in some communities in the U.S.
Would it be so bad if both the man and the woman took on each other’s name? Or if, more easily, neither changed their name? I don’t have anything against a woman who changes her name to her husband’s name (if that’s what she really wanted). I am against the discrimination of men who take their wife’s name, because it implies that doing so is a degrading thing. And if it’s degrading, why are women still largely expected to do it?