It’s a phrase I’ve heard more than a few times since my wedding last week: “You changed your name!”
It is usually uttered happily, reflecting the genuine well wishes to me and my husband that accompany it. But it is sometimes served with just the slightest dash of surprise, or even a bit of judgment. I, after all, am a woman in my 40s who has earned three postgraduate degrees, built a career as a lawyer, and then another as a print and broadcast journalist, and made my name — Kimberly Atkins — not only my byline, but also my brand.
And during that time, I have used my name to fight for the very feminist ideals in which I believe deeply, whether litigating employment discrimination claims on behalf of women as an attorney, writing about gender inequality and misogyny, or exploring the very specific type of bias Black women in America face.
Does that reconcile with the archaic practice, based in a deeply patriarchal history, of a woman assuming her husband’s name? Can I still keep my feminist card?
Of course I can.
The core of feminism is the idea that women ought to have agency over their own lives and make their own decisions based on what is right for them. Everyone, regardless of gender, should be free to make that choice for themselves without judgment. My husband didn’t ask me to take his name, he would have been perfectly happy if I hadn’t, and he respects and appreciates my decision to do it. My name, my choice.
Yes, I’m fully aware of the awful, sexist origins of the tradition. Women long were considered chattel, and if they had any rights at all, they usually were conferred through their fathers or, if married, their husbands. So much of that tradition of subservience and inequality still reverberates today, including the way the coronavirus pandemic economy hit women hardest in part because the burden of inadequate child care access falls disproportionately on them.
But if I rejected every tradition rooted in notions that women are merely the property of men, or at the very least meant to be submissive to them, I couldn’t have married in the first place, for matrimony was traditionally seen as a business arrangement between a bride’s father and her groom.
If I took such a purist interpretation of feminism, I also could not have worn a shade of white on my wedding day, a vestige of the truly gross tradition of signaling a bride’s chastity. I designed my own ivory gown of beaded lace and silk, and sewed it with my own hands. It could not have been more a representation of who I am, and not shaped by notions from magazines or social media of what a bride should look like. What’s more feminist than that?
And, though it is my choice and not really anyone else’s business, the primary reason I added my husband’s name to mine is simple: because I wanted to.
My entire life, I never even considered that I’d change my name if I married. After all, it is true that every degree, every bar admission document, and 20 years of bylines bore the name of person whose hard work led to them. The fact that my last name, despite the patriarchal origins of the tradition, was my father’s made me feel proud, not oppressed.
In fact, I love everything about all my names. I love that the first came from the longtime “As The World Turns” character played by Kathryn Hays because my mom thought she was elegant. I love explaining how my middle name, Elleen, is neither Ellen nor Eileen. And I love that the last two names now come from the best two men I know, both of whom have supported my work to forge my own success.
And my new name reflects the reality of my expanded family. This marriage makes me a stepmother of two wonderful humans, and a daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, and aunt in a family that has welcomed me with love and affection. Having their name right next to the surname of my own beloved family reflects my new life perfectly.
And if there is any marriage, besides the nearly 64-year union of my parents, that I hope to model my own after, it would be that of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her husband Martin Ginsburg, who famously forged a loving partnership of equals. That such a feminist hero made the choice to take her husband’s name while keeping her own makes me all the more certain about my decision to do the same.