Changing Our Names to Change the Patriarchy

Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
Changing Our Names to Change the Patriarchy

image by: Pexels/Pixaby

The tradition of women and children taking men's surnames is sexism pure and simple. But in several states there's a law on the books to efface it.

Freddie Dilworth and Christina Ragsdale were a millennial couple planning to marry. What they weren't was sexist, so it wasn't obvious what to do about their surnames.

While there is no law mandating that married couples share a surname, spouses who don't share one with their partner or child leave themselves open to difficulties in situations where it is necessary to prove a familial relationship. The most serious of those may be related to hospitalization. In a medical emergency where time is of the essence and stress is high, the last thing anyone may be equipped to deal with is an administrative hassle.

Then there's the more symbolic side of identity. The patriarchal tradition of wives and children taking the man's name is rooted in the notion of ownership. Once upon a time women were socially and legally regarded as chattel, property of their lord and master. Of course they took his name. Same goes for the fruits of the womb—never mind that, in the absence of DNA evidence, when a baby is born the only person whose parenthood is beyond question is the mother. The man's name is his imprimatur, like a library book with a big stamp inside saying, "PROPERTY OF _____."

Christina did not consider Freddie her lord and master any more than Freddie considered Christina his property, but initially the idea of mashing up their surnames was simply a lark. Then Christina genuinely warmed to the notion.

"I liked the idea how it was a part of me and a part of him," she says, "and how it reflects that we're partners in this relationship and look at each other as equals, and that we're creating our own family."

Christina recalls as a child—long before she knew the word 'patriarchy'—being bothered by the idea that the woman automatically took the man's family name: "I remember my dad making comments about how our Ragsdale name wasn't going to live on because he had all girls. I said, 'I can keep it if I want to.' […] I love my family, and I care about this name I've had my whole life. It represents me—even if it's just a name—and I wanted to keep part of that, but I didn't need to keep the whole thing. And I wanted to accept part of [Freddie], but I didn't want to become 'Christina Dilworth,' because that felt very foreign."

Freddie had never given much thought to rejecting this particular patriarchal tradition, he certainly wasn't married to it. He was even willing to take her surname ("if it were cooler"). But he liked the idea of creating their own name. Neither, though, liked the hyphenated option. Considering how many times one is required to write or type a surname over the course of a lifetime, two names—in this case, 'Dilworth-Ragsdale' or 'Ragsdale-Dilworth'—did not seem better than one.

So an entirely new surname it was going to be. They decided on the portmanteau 'Dilsdale' and were fully prepared to go through the necessary hassle to get it done, including paying whatever fees the government would require from these far-from-financially-independent kids for the privilege. Christina began to research the issue online and was "bombarded with Pinterest articles like 'The 10 Steps a Woman Needs to Take to Change Her Name' and all these traditional things, 'The Easy Way to Do It!' and that sort of stuff. I called one company, and they told me only the [prospective bride] could do it, not the [groom], but that didn't sound right."

The best option seemed to be petitioning the court in the normal fashion to change one's name, which they each would have to do, spending what they imagined might amount to hundreds of dollars in filing and attorney fees, plus God knows how much time and energy. But when she was looking into details about marriage licenses on Los Angeles County's Website, she stumbled across the Name Equality Act.

Since 2009, the Name Equality Act "allows one or both applicants for a California marriage license to elect to change the middle and/or last names by which each party wishes to be known after solemnization of the marriage." No fuss, no muss, no gender bias, no extra fee or time. Whether single or married, it's the easiest way in the country to change your name.

Because Freddie and Christina are Californians, they enjoyed the easiest possible path to memorializing their new family status, an ease of transition that facilitates a move away from the patriarchal tradition that has defined gender relations for most of human history. And why should a remnant of such archaic ways of be passed down the generations?

"We're planning our own seed for our own family tree," Christina says. "It's exciting thinking about our kids being the first ones in our tree to be born with this name."

What the future Dilsdale children do with their surname when they come to marry will be up to them. And although following Christina and Freddie's lead may make the Dilsdale name short-lived, future genealogists will be able to mark their parents as the moment in their family tree when the a vestige of patriarchy finally bit the dust.

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About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:

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