People everywhere have some “first question” they ask someone new, as means of sussing out who they're dealing with. In New York (I'm told) the first thing people ask when they meet you is “Where do you live?” In Washington, DC, it's “What do you do?” or, if you're dealing with some who's not exactly subtle it's “Where do you work?” or “Who do you work for?” In the minds of the people asking the questions, your answer is a window into where you've been, what you've accomplished, and — most importantly — who you are.

In the south, where I come from, the question is actually much more direct; “Who are your people?” If you know what's meant by the question, your answer will be something like “Well, my father was a so-and-so and my mother was a such-and-such, but her mother was a something-or-other.” This recital of family ties may go back a few generation, and may elicit subtle but knowing responses from the querent because they have essentially asked “Who are your kin?”, and by answering them, you've told them something about yourself. Where you can almost see New Yorkers and Washingtonians riffling through their mental rolodexes, in the south you can see the scrolls of memory unfurled as family names recall family histories and even (in some cases) epics.

Why? Because you're kin, whose name carry, says something about who you are. Or who they think you are, because you don't choose your kin or your family name for the most part. Unless you marry, that is. And, depending on your gender, tradition has it that you lose your family name and take that of your husband's family. Unless you're in California, and then he can take yours.

The California Assembly passed a bill last week that, if adopted by the Senate and signed by the governor, will allow newly married men to change their last names as easily as women do. A bride needs only to fill out some forms and notify her credit card companies if she wants to take her husband’s name. But a growing number of grooms — from Mike Davis-turned-Salinger in Seattle to Christopher Sclafani-turned-Rhee in Washington, D.C. — are opting to take their wives’ last names instead, either to honor the women’s heritage, preserve a family name that’s at risk of dying out, upgrade to an easier-to-spell moniker, or simply do their small part to roll back centuries of gender inequity.

Current law requires these guys to spend hundreds of dollars, get permission from a judge, and wait several months to legally adopt a married name. Forward-thinking Los Angeles dude Michael Buday recently called “No fair!” on the process, prompting the ACLU to file a federal lawsuit and cosponsor the Name Equality Act on his behalf. Seven states — Hawai‘i, New York, Massachusetts, Iowa, Louisiana, Georgia, and North Dakota — already allow a husband to take a wife’s name, and I can see why.

When I read that article a week ago, I'm embarrassed to say, a few details slipped by me. The first was that a state as “red” as Georgia had a law like this on the books. I remember in 1992 how conservatives made a huge deal  out of the fact that Hillary — who had been a practicing attorney — actually used her “maiden name” prior to her husband's run for president. Now, in 2008, she's running for president and has dropped her maiden name — changing from Hillary Rodham to Hillary Rodham Clniton and then finally arriving at the Hillary Clinton. And it's a move that might help her in the south.

Why do six little letters have such a big impact on the public's views of Sen. Clinton? “The differences are largely a matter of class and tradition,” said CNN's Polling Director Keating Holland.

The name seemed to matter little to Democrats; the inclusion of “Rodham” inspired only a 1 percent decrease in her approval rating, from 77 to 76 percent.

But below the Mason-Dixon Line, “Hillary Clinton” got a favorable rating from 52 percent of all respondents, compared with 45 percent for “Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

What's most embarrassing, though, is that the implications for same-sex couples until I read it in the San Francisco Chronicle.

When Kinna Patel and Ashle Crocker exchanged their vows and registered as domestic partners in September, the lesbian couple also decided to have the same last name for their new family.

Patel, who wanted to change her last name to Crocker, had to jump through a series of legal hoops, take out a newspaper ad announcing the pending change of her name, and pay hundreds of dollars in fees to legally become Kinna Crocker.

“And it's a good thing I'm an attorney. If I had to hire a lawyer, it would have cost thousands more,” said Crocker, of Sacramento. “Still, I would much rather have wanted to spend my $700 plus my time on something else.”

Women who get married to men, by contrast, can change their last names simply by checking off a box on the marriage certificate application. A bill pending in the state Legislature would extend that right to domestic partners such as the Crockers and to marrying men.

The measure, AB102, would require applications for marriage licenses and certificates of registered domestic partnerships to include a line for name change for all parties.

I guess I didn't think of it because the hubby and I never considered anything other than keeping our own names. By the time we met, we'd both been using our names professionally for a while. Besides, our names wouldn't hyphenate well, and it's unlikely we could agree on an altogether new name. On the other hand, it's a lot easier to be recognized as a family if everyone has the same last name. In fact, that may be even more true for same-sex couples, if it means being able to dispense with having to explain your relationship — and that you are “next of kin” —  in order to see or care for a child or partner who has a different last name.

E.J. Graff, in her book What is Marriage For?: The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution, spends an entire section arguing that choosing kin is and has always been part of “what marriage is for,” and in Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage Stephanie Coontz digs deep into history to show how choosing kin was often the deciding factor in marriage for families in almost every social class. For royalty and aristocrats, it may mean peace between warring factions, forging political alliances against shared enemies, or the consolidation of land and properties. For middle and mercantile classes, choosing the right kin could mean gaining business partners or at least a co-worker in the form of a spouse whose skills were complementary. Even for some of the lower classes,town councils would often have a say in who married whom (who could chose whom as kin, if you will), as more often than not the economic health of the village depended on having the “right” people marry each other.

But opponents of the bill have a different take on the name change rule change.

Glenn Stanton, senior marriage analyst for Focus on the Family Action, said the taking of the husband’s last name is a tradition rooted in Scripture.

“It can certainly be traced to the biblical idea that Jews and Christians adhere to in the 'leave and cleave' idea,” he said.

A common name also helps children understand their heritage.

I can't help but note that the details of “leave and cleave” — which has its basis in a verse from Genesis, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” — sounds an awful lot like a concept both Coontz and Graff address their books; coverture, or the subsuming of a woman's legal rights into those of her husband. They became “one flesh” alright. His.

In 19th-century England, while social reformers such as William Wilberforce argued for the abolition of slavery, the condition of married women (and their children) as nonpeople engendered nothing like the same level of debate. “By marriage,” explained the jurist, Sir William Blackstone, “the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during her marriage.” The property brought by a woman to her marriage passed to her husband, he was the sole guardian of the children of that marriage. A married woman could not sue or be sued: she had the same status in law as a child, a criminal or a lunatic. Nor, once married, could a woman easily reclaim her legal existence. Divorce was a cumbersome process, involving a private Act of Parliament, available in practice only to a tiny minority of very rich people.

Of course, it would never occur to Focus on the Family Action, or any other right wing group mention that,even though some would like to return to something at least close to the above. It also doesn't occur to them that children might “understand their heritage” if Dad takes Mom's name instead,or that over time entire heritages — those of the nameless mothers of history and prehistory — have been forever lost in the process of perpetuating “traditional marriage.”

They also fail to ask “Whose tradition?”, preferring to believe that marriage is and has always been the same everywhere. What would they say to the people of Orange Island, where the women propose marriage and the men can't refuse? Or to cultures, like Japan and Brazil, where men often take wive's names?

That marriage has always meant one thing and been done one way and that no one should change it? At least not any more than it's been changed thus far? That some people shouldn't be allowed to choose their kin, their names, and their own answer the the question “Who are your people?”

Crossposted from The Republic of T. 




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