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Lori Sokol

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Marriage Name Change: Still a Feminist Issue?

Posted: 08/28/10 09:00 AM ET

The current media frenzy about the latest female celebrity to replace her last name with that of her new spouse is sure to infuriate longstanding feminists who have fought long and hard for women to keep their maiden names ... or not. You see, this time, the rules have changed, and they have been forever changed by Portia DeRossi.

The 37-year-old actress has filed a petition in a Los Angeles court to change her name from DeRossi to DeGeneres, the last name of her much more famous same-sex partner, giving birth to a new debate about whether taking a spouse's name is, in fact, a feminist issue, when that spouse is, in fact, of the same gender.

On one side of the debate is Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, who has recently put forth a bill that would make California the seventh state to give married spouses and domestic partners equal opportunity to take their surname of choice. Ma says the proposal is really about "equality in relationships."

But would pioneering feminists like Lucy Stone, the 19th century women's rights champion who advocated for women to retain their own names after marriage, necessarily agree? Quoted as saying that "A wife should no more take her husband's name than he should hers ... my name is my identity and should not be lost," the Lucy Stone League, which carries on her work, proclaims that when women take their spouses names it is considered "name-abandonment," but that this is so much a part of U.S. culture that few recognize it for what it is: a powerful instance of sex discrimination that has a major effect on women's lives and work.

The issue of sex-discrimination is obviously obliterated when referring to same-sex couples, but it can still be similarly damaging to ones career. Journalists, for example, build their careers, reputations and even brands based upon their bylines, so changing one's name can cause much confusion, particularly in today's new media world where content is shared at lightning speed, with little or no time for consumers to read the fine print. But it doesn't stop there.

According to a European study published earlier this year entitled, "What's in a Name? 361.708 Euros: The Effects of Marital Name Change," women who took their partner's name appear to be different from women who kept their own name on a variety of demographics and beliefs. A woman who took her partner's name or a hyphenated name, for example, was judged as more caring, more dependent, less intelligent, more emotional, less competent and less ambitious in comparison to a woman who kept her own name.

A woman with her own name, on the other hand, was judged as less caring, more independent, more ambitious, more intelligent and more competent, which was similar to how unmarried women and men (married or not) were judged in the study. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, a job applicant who took her partner's name, in comparison to one with her own name, was less likely to be hired for a job and her monthly salary was estimated €861,21 lower, or $1109.32 in U.S. dollars.

But somehow, in the case of the new Ms. DeGeneres, I don't think this will necessarily be the case.

Lori Sokol, Ph.D., is the President of Sokol Media, Inc., and host of the weekly radio show, 'Juggling Act,' on 1490AM WGCH. She can be reached at lori@sokolmediaonline.com.

 

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