Oct 9, 2011

"Hyphenate, bitch!"

Another book I took on holiday with me was blogger Jessica Valenti's 'young woman's guide to why feminism matters' Full Frontal Feminism. Reading it, it became quite clear that - thanks to the many supporters of conservative and religious movements in the country - sexism seems to be on a whole different level in the US from what it is here in Germany (and it's bad enough here, trust me). Especially when it comes to the craziness that surrounds the issue of marriage. Apparantely, a 2006 study showed that the average amount spent on U.S. weddings is almost $28,000!
One of the passages that stuck with me the most (besides the one where Jessica explains how the Bush administration ordered the spending of $100 million dollars per year on religious-based programs that tell women with lower incomes that getting married is the best way out of poverty - all this money could have gone into education, child care and job training!) was this one:
For the life of me, I will never understand why a woman today would change her last name. It makes no sense whatsoever. You want future kids to have the same last name as you and your hubby? Hyphenate, bitch! 

To Jessica, changing your surname represents an exchange of ownership, presumably from your dad's last name to your new husband's. I certainly wouldn't feel comfortable changing my name (and not just because of all the bureaucratic hassle it implies), and Jessica's take on things made me wonder what my educated married girlfriends were thinking giving away their identities; it could hardly have been that all of them had unpretty surnames before, and I doubt that the decision to alter your name should be vanity-driven. Romance... Hardly! Any better ideas?


  1. I totally agree with the madness about the marriage insanity, Annina. It's fed by the bridal industry as much as any right-wing forces (I used to work for Modern Bride, so I saw it from the inside!) $20,000 is considered a wedding "on the cheap."

    I also get so annoyed at the changing of the name, but it is incorrect to say that changing the name implies "bureaucratic hassle." It actually causes bureaucratic hassle not to change your last name when you marry, which is one reason so many women do it--the problems it creates in everything from doctor's appointments to bill paying would surprise you. I lived in Berkeley where many women do not change their name or they hyphenate it or hyphenate their children's last name, and I witnessed the constant tangles it can create. I also think many women change their last name so that they will share the last name of their own child, which I can understand. There really has been no effective solution to this yet. I mean, I would still not change my own last name, but just sayin'...

    I do think it's problematic to say sexism is "bad enough here," suggesting it's worse in the United States. As an American living in Germany, I find it worse here. And my mother, a German woman who has lived in America for 40 years, says the same. Of course, our family is in Bavaria and Schwabing, and the sexism there, on all levels, is like nothing I ever knew growing up in Calfornia. One's identity is defined so entirely by whether one is mother. There is not even a possibility to be in the workforce, because the entire school system still revolves around a warm meal at home. The woman still serves the man. Obviously, Berlin is far less entrenched in those gender roles than is the south. But if you look at the professional sector, it's profoundly dominated by males, no matter what Bundesland. The discrimination against women in the workforce here due to pregnancy or children would be grounds for an immediate lawsuit in the US. And I have never encountered such astounding patronizing treatment by male medical professionals in the US as I have here in Berlin.

    I also have noticed that humor is the realm of the male in Germany. That says A LOT. Those who hold power are always the ones entitled to be funny. In the US, women are allowed to be funny, they are as much the storytellers as men, as much the center of a social gathering, if not more so. I remember my German ex-boyfriend could not believe how loud and talkative the women were at a party we went to in New York. They held the floor while the men stood back and let them shine. I have never seen this in Germany. This of course is my take on it. I haven't read Jessica's book and I lived in the most liberal cities in the US. Perhaps it's fair to say that sexism rears its ugly head in very different ways in the U.S. or Germany, but it's just as ugly a head, whatever the way.

    Wow, that was an insanely long comment! Maybe it will spark a heated debate. :)

  2. Very interesting comment, Lilan, thanks for your input! I guess you're right in that it is important not to generalize when it comes to location - California can't standt for "the U.S." just like the situation in Berlin doesn't equal that in "Germany". Jessica talks about the situation in the more conservative/ republican states in the South a lot, where people oppose gay marriage hardcore and so forth. She also explains contradictory politics like telling a certain group of women to make babies but then refuse medical assistance and child care - in some states, women are even forced to have c-sections for the hospitals fear to get sued for malpractice if something goes wrong in vaginal deliveries).

    Complicating bureaucratic process for women who do not take on their husbands' names now seems to me like another way to discriminate against emancipated females. When I said sexism was worse in the US than here, I was mainly thinking of younger women whose sole gole it is to get hitched and who seem completely at ease with the idea of living their lives just to please their husbands. I am not sure I have seen much of that here in Germany. (Again, I'm not talking about women in the large liberal/ democratic metropolises.) It seems that many women in the US are willing to marry at a much younger age, also.

    But, like I said, plenty of my friends have chosen to take on their hubby's names, and I have no idea as to why.

  3. Part of it is simply tradition, a perceived impression on "how this is done". Part is a fear that the hyphenation-custom would lead to either
    ever-extending or awkward surnames. The idea that a commitment towards a common name would strengthen the bond between the two. The probably true assumption that a completely individual choice of surnames would justify the introduction of a personal permanent ID number (guess we lost that fight already, and the post privacy generation apparently does not seem to mind the supervision that much).

    I myself am in strong favor of a common name in marriage, mainly because of the above "strengthening of the bond" idea. I also believe it should by default be the woman's surname — geneologists agree by quoting "mater certa est". ;-) But I know I am part of a tiny minority in Europe.

  4. Perhaps every family should choose it’s new own name. If, as a woman, you choose to keep your name, you'll be able to keep your father’s name after all, not your mother’s. Even if you decide to take your mother’s one, than you'll have your grandfather’s one – so you’ll be ignoring your grandmother...

    And hyphenate? That's no solution. That works once. But if you continue at one point everybody will have the same name.

    So I think, if one wants to marry, either choose a new, or use dice. It’s just a name after all. Or marry someone from a country were you cannot use your name, perhaps from Asia, and than just keep both, one for Europe, the other for Asia ;) At least this is my plan, and she already has one for Thailand and one for China, so I just add another for Germany.