I've been musing this afternoon about my local political hero, Los Angeles City Councilman and former state Assembly speaker Antonio Villaraigosa. The musing began in Trader Joe's where I was behind a man in the checkout line who looked exactly like him. I've been a huge fan of Antonio's for a decade, and I contributed to his unsuccessful mayoral campaign in 2001. But I am not thinking of Villaraigosa's politics today. I'm thinking about his name. He was born Antonio Villar; his name is a mix of his birth name and that of his wife, Connie Raigosa. He is the highest ranking American male politician to have created a "new name" in this fashion. It is one of many things which Villaraigosa has done that have established his first-rate feminist credentials.
It is axiomatic in women's studies courses that women and children taking the last name of their husbands and fathers is one of the ugliest legacies of patriarchy. (Of course, last names haven't been around that long, but that's another story). Most feminist history courses (including my own) make much of the marriage of Lucy Stone to Henry Blackwell in 1855, and their decision to have each keep his or her own surname. But while we feminists make much of the importance of women keeping their own names, we often fail to note a far more positive historical rational for women and children taking the surname of husband and father.
Two of my heroes (and just naming them as such disqualifies me from being a liberal, I think) are Amy and Leon Kass, noted professors at the University of Chicago and husband and wife. In this famous First Things article from 1995, they wrote:
Although we know from modern biology the equal contributions both parents make to the genetic identity of a child, it is still true to say that the mother is the "more natural" parent, that is, the parent by birth. A woman can give up a child for adoption or, thanks to modern reproductive technologies, can even bear a child not genetically her own. But there is no way to deny out of whose body the new life sprung, whose substance it fed on, who labored to produce it, who wondrously bore it forth. The father's role in all this is minuscule and invisible; in contrast to the mother, there is no naturally manifest way to demonstrate his responsibility.
The father is thus a parent more by choice and agreement than by nature (and not only because he cannot know with absolute certainty that the woman's child is indeed his own). One can thus explain the giving of the paternal surname in the following way: the father symbolically announces "his choice" that the child is his, fully and freely accepting responsibility for its conception and, more importantly, for its protection and support...
The husband who gives his name to his bride in marriage is thus not just keeping his own; he is owning up to what it means to have been given a family and a family name by his own father-he is living out his destiny to be a father by saying yes to it in advance. And the wife does not so much surrender her name as she accepts the gift of his, given and received as a pledge of (among other things) loyal and responsible fatherhood for her children.
Patrilineal surnames are, in truth, less a sign of paternal prerogative than of paternal duty and professed commitment, reinforced psychologically by gratifying the father's vanity in the perpetuation of his name and by offering this nominal incentive to do his duty both to mother and child. Such human speech and naming enables the father explicitly to choose to become the parent-by-choice that he, more than the mother, must necessarily be. (bold emphasis is Hugo's).
I don't have kids. I note, however, that none of my former wives took my surname. Perhaps they knew something going in, agreeing with the Kass':
A woman who refuses this gift (the husband's name) is, whether she knows it or not, tacitly refusing the promised devotion or, worse, expressing her suspicions about her groom's trustworthiness as a husband and prospective father.
What my gal and I will do when and if we get married is yet to be decided. But Amy and Leon make good sense to me.