By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.
Jen and I got married 13 years ago. After a small ceremony, small reception and small honeymoon, we had to take care of the paperwork. Trips to the DMV and Secretary of State were necessary to gain new ID’s and Social Security cards. Unlike most married couples however, both Jen and I needed new documentation. We both had new names, and hence, new identities. On an October day in 2002, she became Jenny Jocks Stelzer (nee Stelzer), and I became Michael Stelzer Jocks (nee Jocks).
13 years on and the fact that I changed my name when I got married still catches people off-guard. So not surprisingly, a recent Atlantic article titled ‘Men Should Consider Changing Their Last Names When They Get Married‘ caught my eye. Not only did I ‘consider it'; I actually did it. Of course, I have been asked many times why I made the unconventional choice, and I believe I provide such queries with a very good answer.
A couple years before we got married, Jen and I talked about the topic of spouses changing names after marriage. As a progressive, idealistic 21 year old who enjoyed going against social norms, I stated with a good deal of bravado that if we ever got married I would gladly take her last name, and cast off the surname Jocks. A bit incredulous, she asked, ‘Really’? ‘Sure, why not’, I responded…..Buuuutttt, the more I thought about it, the more troubling I found the possibility. I think it was later the same day that I stated I, in fact, would not become Michael Stelzer if, and/or when we got married. After all, for my whole existence I had been Michael Jocks. Who would I be if I changed that? It was a surprisingly disturbing question.
On the other hand, if I found it so troubling to give up my name, and some portion of my identity, how could I expect, much less demand, that Jenny change her name simply based upon tradition? If she wanted to take my name, that would be fine. But, it was completely her choice and I would have no say in the matter. Sometime after this discussion, when marriage was actually on the horizon, we came up with our compromise. I would take her name, and keep my name, and she would take my name and keep her name. That was that. All’s fair.
And so, this brings me back to that Atlantic article. Most of the article deals with the troubling history behind the tradition of women changing their names. I won’t go into that here as you can read the linked article yourself. But, one part does need to be dealt with in this post (and future posts as well). The first line of the article is an absolutely dumbfounding statistic. According to a recent study, ‘More than 50% of Americans think the woman should be legally required to take her husband’s name in heterosexual marriages.’ Read that again. It does not say over 50% of Americans feel women ‘should’ change their name (that is closer to 70% of Americans). No, no, no. Over 50% of Americans feel there should be a law that forces women to change their names at marriage.
This is shocking for numerous reasons. In my next post, I want to delve into what this statistic says about how Americans’ view womens’ rights in a historical context. Here, however, I just want to point out how out of place this is in our national political environment.
Americans today are seemingly obsessed with libertarianism. Now, this does not mean a huge portion of people identify themselves as such politically. It is only about 10% of the voting public who call themselves libertarian. But, on many topics, libertarianism has a foothold. The cause of this obviously has much to do with how Americans feel about the government. Congress is notoriously despised by the American people, and for the last ten years, Americans simply do not trust lawmakers, law enforcers, or law interpreters. With such professed distrust of government, the American people are reaching new heights in calls for individual freedom. Gay marriage, legalization of marijuana, deregulation of gun laws, defunding of government services, liberalization of internet control, etc, etc. On all sides of the political divide, libertarianism is front and center. It seems unlikely that this will end anytime soon.
And, so, we have a surprising paradox here. Over 50% of Americans, meaning many who argue that the government should not decide who can or cannot get married, who believe the government should have no say whatsoever in curtailing deadly weapons, and who will march against laws limiting the size of sodas, believe, with the utmost cognitive dissonance, that women should be legally mandated to change their names when they get married. If over 50% of Americans today agree on any cultural topic, it is newsworthy. When it comes to women being forced to change their names, evidently liberals and conservatives (and men and women) agree. The majority of voters, at least in theory, support such an obviously paternalistic law.
How can we explain this?
In my next blog, I’m gonna try.