Ask a feminist – The F-Word problem page

In the third 'Ask a Feminist', our contributors answer questions from a woman who is seven months pregnant and needs help explaining why she wants to keep her name to her partner - and why their child won't necessarily take his name; from a reader wondering if crafty hobbies are compatible with feminism; and from another pondering if life is easier as a "fat" or "thin" feminist

, 2 June 2008

Answers are provided by regular F Word contributors, and represent only their own potentially fallible opinions. In the spirit of pluralism, we will try and work in more than one response if we can. There is no definitive ‘F Word line’ or ‘feminist line’, and our answers are given in that spirit.

Of course, we will never publish anyone’s name or identifying details. If you want to ask us something, please just use the comment link at the bottom of this page.

I am seven months pregnant, and my partner and I are in the middle of a massive disagreement about what our baby’s surname should be.

He has assumed that the baby will have his name (we’re not married), and then the other day

announced that if he proposed to me it would be on the condition that I

changed my name to his also!

He is a lovely man, and despite this I want to be

with him. But I can’t seem to explain to him why I want to keep my name. We

don’t know anyone who has not taken their husband’s name on marriage or

having a baby. Do you know of anything I could give him to read that might

help me make my point?

Help Needed in Naming Dilemma

Dear HNND,

I didn’t take my partner’s name when we married, friends of mine came up with an entirely new surname, other friends took the woman’s surname not the man’s. Other friends double-barrelled the surnames. The right to one’s own name and its connections to our identity is an important one. But there are two questions here, one about you adopting his name and one about the surname of your child together.

On the former, try asking him to consider why his name is so important to him and then extrapolate why yours might be similarly important to you. Try talking about the people in your family’s history who you are connected to through having the same surname. In the end, he cannot force you to take his name and I would be more than slightly off-put by any proposal which comes with caveats and strings attached. Either he wants to marry you for who you are, or he doesn’t. But if he wants to marry you – but only if you’ll change – I think it sets a strange precedent (by the way I don’t mean that personally, I’m sure he’s perfectly lovely and amazing, I’m commenting specifically on the questions raised).

As for the baby, this isn’t an easy one. I can see some argument for ensuring that both surnames are represented (assuming you keep your own) as otherwise it has been known to cause problems at less enlightened schools and hospitals where children and parents don’t share names (“Are you sure they are you child?” as if you might be mistaken and rush someone else’s child to hospital by mistake!). I think the key thing here is that you both have to agree, but that doesn’t mean that you should have to back down. Again there is no presumption that a man has the “right” to demand his surname is allotted to the child.

Most of all at this point – enjoy the last few weeks of the pregnancy, ensure that you are both settled in your birthing plan and remember you can always postpone this decision until after the wee one is born.

Louise Livesey

Dear HNND,

It quite pains me to know that when you are seven months pregnant with your and his child, your boyfriend cannot find anything better to do than to be pig-headed about surnames. Surely he should try not to annoy you and be a source of only positive emotions when you are pregnant (and afterwards as well)! I think it is incredibly tactless of him.

If you want to give the baby your name, you have right to: it is at the expense of your body and your health this baby matures and grows before she or he will be born – get that into your boyfriend’s head and tell him that some people ignore “traditions”, so surprise! surprise! you are one of them.

You can point it out to him that this stupid tradition of giving children the father’s name and for women to take their husbands’ (which people follow out of conformity and laziness of mind) stems from the same set of old-fashioned ideas as women not being able to vote, drive cars, open bank accounts independently of their husbands, buying houses in their name or even divorcing their husbands. All these are really unthinkable now, but the name changing is still lingering on. If you read about so-called humanist times in Renaissance Italy, even then children never belonged to a mother but always remained in father’s home: if he died, they were looked after by his other relatives (but never went to a place where their mother grew up) and if their mother died, father then would remarry and a step-mother would be looking after them. Giving kids a father’s name is akin to putting a stamp if ownership on them, and a woman and her body were seen just as passing vessels for them to be born out of and to be brought up by for a man. This where the tradition we are talking about comes from. As you see, today’s situation is very different, so there is no need to follow draconian mentality which no longer represents the reality.

You might want to consider a compromise, like giving the baby a double surname, consisting of yours and his. Or if it is a boy, give him your boyfriend’s first or a middle name (with your surname). The name can have both of you in it. You might even invent a surname by utilising your boyfriend’s first name: say if he is called Danny White, then kid’s surname can be Daniel or Daniels. You both can come up with surnames you like, just like names, and then agree on a combination, or draw a lot. I know it sounds like a carefree approach, but nothing can be as silly as names some celebrities come up with for their kids!

However, on the subject of your name you have to be firm. Nobody can dictate to you what name to have. He is not adding anything to you, he doesn’t change your DNA or create instead of you another person: your name has to stay if that’s what you want. If he loves you, he wants to be with you, not force you to do traditional stuff in the name of marriage.

If I were you I would go to a solicitor (on your own) and have a consultation as to what rights and entitlements you and your baby will have in case you split up with him (I know! Nobody wants it to happen but inquiring doesn’t mean you do or will! It is just to be on a safe side) – both in cases if you are married and cohabiting.

My own “weird” experience: as a foreigner I have a long unpronounceable for most English people and hell to spell for myself surname which I hated since being a kid. After getting married here, to an English guy, I did a deed poll and took surname Lester which has nothing to do with my husband’s. Interestingly, he didn’t want me to have his (as he is a feminist) but objected to my taking a name out of blue too. I would not have keeping with my old one and made it clear. Yes, he couldn’t see it as it was an unusual and unheard of thing to do, but so what? I did it and he shut up.

Here is what I have dug out on the matter of a woman not changing her name:

A bridge by any other name, by Eleanor Turner, here at The F-Word

Taken in vain, by another F-Word contributor, Abby O’Reilly, for The Guardian

No, I am not Mrs Smith, by Joanna Moorhead, also in The Guardian

Good luck. Hope he wises up and I wish you happiness, good birth experience and a healthy baby at the end with the name you both agree on!

Irina Lester

Dear HNND,

Just a couple of points. I suggest you tell your boyfriend that you would love to take his name but that this would be on the condition that he takes yours too (i.e you both go double-barreled).

You might find that he warms to this idea. If he reacts badly, you could say you understand his reservations because, as a man, he has not been culturally trained -as a matter of course – to come to terms with the idea of possibly losing his name one day. You could then say that, much as you would love to share names, you respect his wish not to lose his and now ask that he respects your wish not to lose yours in a one-sided and sexist fashion. Either everyone makes a change or nobody does. It’s his call. This is nothing personal, but these are your principles. Tradition trains people to think otherwise, but it really shouldn’t be any more acceptable for a man to impose on a woman’s identity than it is for a woman to impose on a man’s. It’s simple: he gets to make the final decision with regard to his name and you get to make the final decision when it comes to yours. You can’t say fairer than that.

You could also encourage him to think about why it is so important to him that you and the baby share his name. It may just be that he has traditionally-minded family members that he doesn’t want to upset or hasn’t ever been asked to consider where this tradition comes from or why it might be unfair. Offer to talk to any people who he thinks might react badly. Okay, so it really isn’t any of their business, but showing some leadership on the issue and helping to put up a united front will help show him just how serious you really are about this.

Obviously, naming the baby will require yet more discussion but, in my opinion, a double-barreled name seems like the fairest option. (I also like Irina’s suggestions.) If he kicks up a fuss, you could gently point out that you are the one who has to carry and give birth to the baby you made together and that, while you appreciate it is not his fault he doesn’t have the equipment to do so himself, you will not be treated like a mere vessel for his apparent heir.

Holly Combe

Is it easier to be thin and feminist, rather than fat and feminist?

Body Size Quandary

Dear BSQ,

It’s never easy to be feminist because you’re working against a culture of patriarchal privilege which inveigles its way into all aspects of daily life. I don’t think body shape or size makes a difference – I’ve been a thin feminist, I’ve been a fat feminist and don’t really see a difference.

That said, as Jessica Valenti and others have pointed out recently, it’s easier to get attention as a feminist if you meet patriarchal notions of non-threating – i.e. if you are a bubbly, fashionable, white, thin woman. But that is a slightly different question…

Louise Livesey

Dear BSQ,

The short answer is – irrespective of whether one is ‘thin’ and a feminist

or ‘fat’ and a feminist our patriarchal society which of course is

defined from the male perspective will still criticise feminists for not

adhering to patriarchal notions of what is supposedly appropriate

feminine appearance.

In other words, if a feminist is perceived as being ‘thin’ she will be

attacked by anti-feminists because she is supposedly adhering to

male-defined ideologies of appropriate feminine size and body shape.

The other side of the same coin is a that feminist who is perceived by

male-defined ideologies as being ‘fat’ will be attacked because she

will be perceived as not caring about her physical appearance or body


It is a no-win situation, because simply by

refusing to adhere to male-defined myths of supposedly ideal female size

and body shape automatically renders the woman a suitable target for

misogynistic abuse and ridicule.

But then we do live in a misogynstic

world and one wherein men as a group are not subjected to patriarchal

policing and control of their body shapes, unlike women. Men are

individuals – women are ‘men’s sexual commodities’

Jennifer Drew

Dear BSQ,

By “easier,” I assume you are referring to the ease with which one is able to live one’s life without the judgement of others creating barriers, rather than whether being a feminist tends to lead to thinness!

Feminism obviously plays an important role in challenging anti-fat prejudice or, indeed, any other prejudice against people -very often women- who do not meet the currently prescribed beauty standards within a particular culture.

However, I think you will generally find people to be more open-minded about you if you’re not considered overweight, regardless of whether or not you are a feminist. (Of course, what exactly constitutes “overweight” is a standard that is very much open to interpretation and, in some circles, could even just translate as “too fat to be a model or TV presenter.”)

For example, eating in public is far less likely to incur stares or comments such as “should you really be eating that?” if you aren’t seen as “fat”. Thin privilege can also work in very subtle ways and this makes it easy to ignore if you have it and hard to highlight without attracting scorn (eg: “It’s YOUR problem so go on a diet if you don’t like people’s attitudes”) if you don’t.

It all depends on who you spend your time with but, unfortunately, there are still places where it is not seen as positive to be fat or feminist. In such a context, I think it most certainly is much easier to be thin and feminist, because being seen as fat and feminist would surely rouse a double dose of prejudice. Meanwhile, the so-called “fat person” is under pressure to be as un-threatening as possible in order not to rouse any prejudice against them that might be bubbling under the surface. (Only recently, I saw Sue Tilley (a recent model for artist Lucien Freud) assuring TV presenter Lorraine Kelly that she wasn’t an activist or into shouting about “fat people’s rights” so it seems reasonable to suggest that shouting about women’s rights could be risky too.)

So, yes, I’d say it probably is easier to be thin and feminist because, generally speaking, it’s easier to be thin and this is particularly the case if you’re a woman. (For the record, I suspect it is easier to fat, male and feminist than fat, female and feminist but that is another debate!)

Holly Combe

I was delighted to stumble across your feminist website in my search for

re-usable sanitary protection.

I had not previously thought myself as a

feminist and in fact had described myself as a very traditional woman who

supported the diminutive wifely role (I can almost hear the intake of


However, after reading several articles, I am now re-evaluating my

previous position, for example after reading the article on the ‘moon cup’

I was sufficiently motivated to go and make my own re-usable sanitary

pads… a 1950’s housewife or a 2008 feminist activist?

Now I have a

dilemma, are my actions that of a typical housewife of 50-60 years ago? (cycling to fetch vegetables from a local market, using washable nappies for

my two babies, accepting and giving hand-me-down kids clothes, cleaning the

house with natural products, growing my own veg, keeping chickens, making

my own bread, soap, clothes, knitwear, etc.)

I would like to hear from other readers, maybe start a discussion – do

they think that these ‘old fashioned’ activities are now construed to be

green or feminist in any way. Thankyou for your time with this matter.

Confused and Crafty

Dear C&C,

If it takes a very long time to say, raise chickens or make one’s own soap, then

I would say that these things are only worth doing if a woman has the time and really wants to. Otherwise we are simply making ‘another rod for our own

backs’. Society constantly keeps informing us we aren’t good enough,

don’t do enough, are too lazy or too selfish, etc. So, the main point is

don’t fall for the ‘guilt trip trap’. Men aren’t made to feel guilty if

they spend too many hours at the workplace, so neither should women be

made to feel guilty with regards to how they want to spend their time.

Jennifer Drew

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