Betraying My Sisters? Why I Took My Husband's Name

Sharing a name with my partner isn’t an act of power of one side over the other. For me, it’s a unifying act.

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My great-great-aunt was a suffragette. She never married. She probably turned in her grave when I took on my partner’s name when I got married.

I wasn’t mandated to change my name, not by Jewish law, civil law, or family pressure. I wasn’t oblivious to the fact that a woman adopting her husband’s name was a remnant of a past when a woman would leave her family, her tribe, to become her husband’s property, marked with his sign. I knew that many see the name-change as an act that partly erases a woman’s previous identity.

It was a conscious choice. The truth is I didn’t relate to any of these objections to changing my name, even though I see the powerful reasoning behind them. I didn’t feel emotionally, culturally or politically “wedded” to my “maiden name” (a quaint terminology of its own). I hadn’t yet built up the capital of name recognition in a professional field that would be lost. I didn’t feel social pressure from my (mostly single) friends to buck the patriarchal system.

And I didn’t see why holding on to my father’s name − not my mother’s, not some unbroken matrilineal and woman-affirming chain − was significant to me. I didn’t have pangs of guilt about consigning my father’s surname to oblivion; we weren’t directly impacted by the Holocaust and, in any case, there were enough siblings and cousins for the name to live on in its full glory.

Yes, I flirted with the idea of doubling up, of coupling together both family names. But the vocal gymnastics involved were simply exhausting (try saying “Solomon-Lightman” a few times and you’ll see). In any case, a double-barreled name simply dumps the issue on the next generation, for them to figure out whether to constantly add more names as they enter into their own partnerships or to pick and choose, with the gravity of that act triggering potentially divisive consequences.

Changing my name didn’t entail abandoning some authentic, 1,000-year-old family essence. My family name, Lightman, is an artificial construct − a translated and Anglicized version of Liktmacher, the name my father’s family brought with them from Lithuania. My own generation has continued to play with the name. One cousin confronted the “maleness” entrenched in the name and adopted a female version − Lightwoman.

For women who identify as feminists, as I do, the subject of name changing is a sensitive one. The symbolic force of the decision is compounded for Jewish feminists, and even more so for Orthodox Jewish feminists. We’re part of a religion and culture that privileges men, and where a woman is acquired by a man as part of the wedding ritual. Those are weighty and unresolved issues, and any need to prove that I am a “genuine” member of the feminist camp, passing a name-based entry requirement, belittles those issues and the feminist ideals I believe in.

Sharing a name with my partner isn’t an act of power of one side over the other. For me, it’s a unifying act. It’s the shared space we live in, the name that marks us out as a partnership, made by choice and by commitment.

My sister and sister-in-law made a different decision to me. Neither changed their names when they married, and both gave their children double-barreled surnames. Different women, different considerations, different decisions. Surely the “big tent” of Jewish feminism − and feminism as a whole − can welcome all of our choices.

Esther Solomon is Opinion Editor at Haaretz.com.