Is it feminist to…?

// 7 November 2010


everywoman.jpgAny feminist who has done interviews with the media will tell you about the frequency with which journalists will ask “is it feminist to [insert activity]?”.

Some interviewers, indeed, have been known to simply email across a list of stuff to be judged “feminist or not”. Somehow the idea has entered the consciousness that feminist activists are only too happy to set up impromptu Committees To Interrogate Women’s* Anti-Feminist Behaviour.


These questions implicitly present feminism as yet another yardstick against which to judge and castigate women. I think that speaks to the frequency with which we experience this spectre of the impossible ideal woman, in this case not framed in terms of (to take a common example) “is she beautiful enough?”, but in terms of “is she sufficiently liberated?” I would hazard a guess, this is not what the personal is political is meant to result in.

Moreover, do you have to achieve a certain amount of liberation, whatever that looks like, in order to be an effective advocate for feminism (to borrow bell hooks’ preferred phrase)?

Is being an individual ‘liberated woman’ really even possible? In such a society which structurally oppresses women (in terms of gender, but also intersectional oppressions must come into the equation here too). The myth of the lone feminist superhero.

Anyway, this is a very long introduction to Melissa’s post at Shakesville, breaking down some of the reasons why a womanist/feminist might want to change their name if they get married. Which is a very good practical example of how things are much much more complicated in reality than some sort of simplistic how-to guide: follow these steps (and these steps only) to achieve a state of liberation.

*Personally I have never been asked in an interview, “is it feminist for men to do [activity]?”

Image of mural showing “Everywoman: her weapon, rising up”. Shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons license by moirabot

Comments From You

Sheila // Posted 7 November 2010 at 7:54 pm

Every time these definitional threads appear on the F-Word I cringe. Definitions are divisive. How can one person say if one thing is feminist and another thing is not without fully comprehending another person’s circumstances and drivers. I find any attempt to define me is normally driven by a prejudice. As if making one assumption about me will allow the questioner to make a whole host of other assumptions.

On the change of name arguments in the underlying article, I didn’t find any of them convincing, but that doesn’t mean that women who change their names on marriage aren’t feminists. Considering how many marriages end in divorce, consider how much more it costs women to have passports than it does men. Consider the hassle of changing your name backwards and forwards with all those companies you have to interact with and who ask ridiculously intrusive questions to see marriage certificates and decree absolutes before they’ll make the change. Men may not like their father’s surname any more than you do, but they don’t generally change it. If I could give the F-word all the money I’ve ever spent on changing my name at the passport office and other places, it’d certainly be a better funded website.

Dr H // Posted 7 November 2010 at 9:30 pm

I also cringe when I read about attempts to define feminism when it is in terms of ‘what is it feminist/anti-feminist to do?’. Obviously, oppressing, objectifying and abusing women, and supporting those that do, is anti-feminist but it is really constructive to try and produce a ‘Do’s and Don’t’s’ list for feminists?

I recently went to a meeting of feminists and felt judged by some (not all, just a small minority) for getting married. I did not dare mention that I had taken my husband’s name. My husband and I had our own personal reasons for wanting to make a public and lasting statement of our commitment to each other. We got married on our own terms and, perhaps, if we could have, would have opted for a civil partnership that did not carry any of the baggage of the patriarchal construct of the traditional ‘marriage’.

I took his name for the simple reason of liking my married name better than my maiden name. My decision was not made on the basis of pressure from any involved party, neither was it because of tradition, it was not because I felt I now belonged to my husband. I had the opportunity to change my name and thought why not? You could say is was a whimsical decision but it was MY decision and isn’t that what counts?

I agree the personal is political. But it is personal motives and beliefs that are far more political and indicative of a person’s stance on any social issue including feminism, than what they actually do. It is not helpful to write a guide book to being a feminist.

Zita // Posted 8 November 2010 at 11:03 am

Sheila, I fully understand why you say it, but I don’t think stating that men don’t change their name if they don’t like it and then get married really backs up the idea that it’s not an excellent reason for a woman to change her name if that’s how she feels. Men not choosing to change their name even if they think it’s hideous or they are astranged from their family etc is still all tied up with the same tradition, and is because it’s not seen as “manly” to do so, so it’s just as inflexible and hardly a good model. I think a world where either party changes their name if they choose to for whatever reason seems more sensible. Having the same name is symbollically important for a lot of people and that makes sense for them, it’s just the sexist nature of the change which was the problem.

I think the mistake is that we often assume that just because men get to do something we don’t (i.e. keep their name) we should aspire to all do the same or should feel we have to; that’s just as constraining. It’s like telling a girl she’s got to play with all “boys'” toys to counteract sexism, when really there’s nothing wrong with (many) “girls'” toys. The problem was girls being forced to only play with “girls'” toys. In the same way, with marriage the problem is women being forced to change their name not the actual idea of people altering their names at marriage itself, it’s the imbalance involved.

If people make the choice to change their name for a well considered reason then that’s fantastic, the point is that they have the choice! It’s a shame if men aren’t willing to do the same yet but that shouldn’t stop women.

I’m sorry if that wasn’t as clearly put as I intended!

Jess McCabe // Posted 8 November 2010 at 11:34 am

@Zita Have you seen Hot Tub Time Machine? (If not, no need to go out of your way to see it..!)

Anyway, one of the storylines involves one of the characters being ‘under the thumb’ of his wife. One example of this is meant to be that they both hypenated their names. So, yes, men are also subject to gender policing when they change their names.

anon // Posted 8 November 2010 at 2:08 pm

1.You have do be an atheist.

2.You must hate everything girly

3.Think the wage gap is down to sexism and nothing else

4.Must be 100% comfortable with abortion and not think the foetus is anything but a bunch of cells.

5.Hate the sex industry

6.Love ALL women and get along with all women.

7.Never ever change your maiden name when you get married.

I am not a feminist because

1. I am a Christian

2. I love the colour pink and anything girly.

3. I think there is more to the pay gap than just sexism.

4. i am not 100% pro choice because of many reasons (none of them religious)although I would never stop someone from getting one.

5. I am not against the sex industry

6. I do not love or care about all women because not all women are worth caring about, rapists, paedophiles, murderers, and abusers are to name a few.

7. Women in my country (Rwanda) do not change their maiden names when they get married. My Mum has a different surname to my Dad. Everyone in my family has a different surname and it is no biggy. I want to change my surname in the future when I am old enough to do so (without my parents permission). My name is Arlette Gyslain now, but if I ever want to get married and my fianc├ęs surname sounds better I might change it.

Jess McCabe // Posted 9 November 2010 at 2:04 pm

@anon There are lots of feminists that hold various of these views. There are multiple bloggers on The F-Word collective alone (a very small pool of feminists), who hold to various faiths, occasionally like things gendered ‘girly’, don’t like specific women and have varied views on issues such as changing your name or the sex industry. I don’t think being pro-choice is really about whether you personally would ever have an abortion, it’s about a belief that it’s women’s choice.

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds