Names are important. They reflect our identity, and so the ability to keep or change them implicates our autonomy. A recent lawsuit in Japan brings this importance into sharp relief. There, a group of women filed suit yesterday, challenging a provision of the civil code that stipulates that a wife and husband must share the same last name, almost always that of the husband.
The lawsuit in Japan reveals how deeply people care about their names, making explicit a sentiment that we often suppress or downplay in the United States.
As I have previously discussed, a woman who marries a man in the United States will probably spend a lot of time justifying her decision to keep or change her surname. This is true no matter what her decision is. A women who keeps her name must be prepared for a lifetime of explaining that her name is not “Mrs. His Name.” A woman who changes her name to that of her husband faces condescending or insinuating questions (“Did he make you change it?”) from those who view the choice as regressive. A woman who hyphenates her last name with her husband’s will doubtless encounter strangers commenting on what a mouthful it is.
It seems to me that any naming choice can be good. One woman might keep her name to preserve a continuous professional identity, or to avoid the bureaucratic hassle of changing it. Another might change her name because she never really liked it, or because she prefers to have the same last name as her husband. The problem isn’t the substance of the choice itself. The problem is that no matter what the choice is, it will prompt a negative response from some group of people.
It easy to dismiss the naming decision and its repercussions as unimportant. Indeed, women are criticized–often by other women–for “overreacting” if they express irritation when people make unfounded assumption about their names. Perhaps we tend to undervalue the naming decision in the United States–to dismiss it as “not worth getting upset about”–because it’s a choice that’s legally ours to make and thus easy to take for granted. The lawsuit in Japan reveals the value of that choice to those who don’t have it. And in so doing, perhaps it can encourage us to respect the naming choices of those of us who are fortunate enough to choose.
- Nancy Leong