What’s in a name: Meditations on Feminism

“Feminism is not a possession. It is not a credential. It is not the mantle on which to build one’s brand. There are liberal and conservative feminists. There are religious or spiritual and atheistic or agnostic feminists. Feminists inhabit the gender spectrum and are represented by all races and ethnicities. Breaking news! Feminists are individuals who ideally share the belief that the rights of women are as inalienable as the rights of men.”

Roxanne Gay

I had my first ‘name change’ conversation with one of my friends a few months ago. Since I got married and took my husband’s name (and changed my name on all of my social network accounts), I have been dreading these conversations. I know they’re coming at me at some point. So far, I haven’t seen any of the friends who might venture to ask me why, even though I am an ardent feminist, and insisted for years (including the year in which I was engaged and planning the wedding) that I wouldn’t. So months ago, at drinks with an old friend I haven’t seen in years, I had the first of these conversations. I remarked to him that I expected that many of my friends and feminist colleagues and acquaintances probably raised an eyebrow or two at the switch, but I had yet to have someone raise their brow to my face. He promptly replied, “Well, I’m raising one now”. So, without expecting it (from him) or being super prepared , I launched into it. My story is not the same as that of woman who took her husband’s name because it was expected, I insisted. My story is that I married my best friend (that’s all the gushing I’ll do, I swear), a man who loves and respects me and who is my family in the most uncomplicated sense of the word. I am excited to start this new chapter of my life with him, and to start building our own family. Marrying him was the act of committing to that; taking on a new name was the symbol of the commitment to the bold and the new. My friend’s brow remained decidedly raised (maybe it was all the gushing).

I realise this isn’t an explanation many people will understand or accept, and that’s frankly neither here nor there for me. What matters most is that this was not a decision I felt coerced into; it was a choice. And isn’t that the heart of feminism? That women everywhere be given the choice to do what they will with their bodies, their identities, their lives?

Feminism is a contested terrain. Every other day, some public figure (with thousands of young female fans) proclaims she isn’t one of us; every other week, someone is writing a polarizing op-ed proclaiming that she is a feminist, and the rest of us are wannabes because we disagree on an issue. We bitterly, bloodily contest the terrain, draw clean lines, lay claim to land, stick flags and labels in things. I can understand why we do this: feminism is not a hobby; many of us come to feminism from places of deep victimisation at the hands of patriarchy. Feminism is what gives us a framework to understand that it is patriarchy and not women who are the problem, and that we are survivors, rather than victims. It offers tools not just for healing but with which we can continue to face a world that has hurt us (and that continues to hurt us, our mothers, our sisters, our daughters). So, this shit is heavy and it’s important and it’s contested.

And the question is posed that when so many empowered women who proclaim to be feminist are making choices that used to be marks of patriarchal oppression can they still be feminist? How can these contradictions hold? And, perhaps, the biggest question is, do they threaten the ideological and political integrity of the movement? We know that marriage, and all that comes with it (name changes, perhaps motherhood) is, for many women, a given, an imposition foisted on them as a way of keeping them in what patriarchy sees as their place. For those of us who are privileged enough that marriage is not a tool that may be used against us because we are women, does making the choice to enter into marriage anyway somehow contribute to the social forces that we’re committed to opposing? Does it make a difference that I am an equal in my marriage to a partner of my choosing?

I’ve wrestled with the decision I made to change my name for months. As much as I know why I made that call, it still nags me, this connection between my personal choice, and the broader structures. I am lucky enough to have both the tools that feminism affords me and the privilege that comes with being middle class, and because of this, I have more choices than many women when it comes to my livelihood, my body, my identity. But the fact remains that my choices are still limited to those defined by patriarchy, no matter what personal meaning they have. I fell in love with a person I want to share my life with, build a family with, but the forms of expression of this love available to me are structurally identical to the tools used to demean and oppress women who do not share my privilege. On the other hand, this expression bares no personal resemblance to those tools.

So what’s the answer? I believe that (to borrow words from a great man) patriarchy anywhere is a threat to women everywhere. I also believe (to borrow from a great woman) that one cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. But I also want to believe that there is a way in which we can reclaim some of those things that patriarchy has so effectively mobilised as weapons against us. I am not certain but I suspect that there are some things that we can successfully wrest from the vicious grip of patriarchy and inscribe with new, hopeful meanings.

I guess what I’m learning, as I wade out of what I call my ‘theoretical’ feminism, and actually start figuring out how to live my feminism, is that you can’t know any of this until you’re living it. For years, I told anyone who’d listen (including my then boyfriend, now husband!) at great length and with much self-importance and pontificating, that I would never get married. I was such an asshole. How could I possibly have known, at age 22, with such certainty? I had no idea that I would find someone with whom I could imagine making new meaning for an institution I had always thought to be oppressive and ugly. The fact that I did did not erase my feminism. I know that marriage can be ugly and restrictive. But I also know that it is not beyond reclamation and redefinition. I want to be a mother (another contested feminist holy cow – Adrienne Rich implores me to stay away) one day, and I can’t know ahead of time what that will mean. The lesson for me has been to know the things I know from my sisters and mothers in the movement, but to leave room to learn from my lived experiences.

I don’t think it’s selfish or un-feminist to imagine that I can do both.

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