Friday, March 17, 2006

On Marriage, Surnames, and the Politics of Titles

One of the listserv's that I belong to has had a week long discussion on the politics of titles. Should we correct our colleagues if they refer to us as "Miss" rather than Dr. or Ms.? I have been intrigued by this discussion, because what has surfaced in it is that most students these days have no clue about why someone like me rejects being called "Mrs." or "Miss." Students also don't seem to understand, on the whole, why someone like me would not take the name of a future husband, nor necessarily give our children his name. I would opt for either a hyphenated last name, or perhaps it would be cool to invent a new last name? (why not?)

This is such a non-issue to me that I have forgotten that, probably, most other people find this irritating, trivial, unecessarily shrill, or punitive to future children. Nonetheless, I always correct students if they refer to me as either "Miss" or "Mrs." Even if I was married, I would absolutely reject their deeply engrained habit to call a female teacher "Mrs." The way that I usually short-cut any sort of pouty response to my corrections is by insisting they call me by my first name. If they insist on formality, then I tell them to call me either professor or doctor. I rarely introduce myself as Dr. Aspazia. I am certainly proud of my Ph.D., but I don't feel a pressing urge to point this out to everyone that I meet. A lot of feminists do not feel comfortable letting students call them by their first name, since it might play into a dynamic often present wherein students see female professors as less authoritative. Whatever. I admit this is a problem, but I just don't give a shit if a student thinks I don't know what I am talking about. I have other problems to worry about.

I also really hate it when people call me "Miss." There is simply no point in maintaning a system of titles that identifies one's marital status and genitals. Why on earth do we preserve this totally arcane and meaningless ritual? What's up with invoking my sexual availability in professional introductions or polite requests?

Now the issue of surnames is more complicated. I will always keep my own surname because I see no point in taking the name of your husband. I like my last name. But, you see, my last name is my father's name, because of this pesky patronymic tradition. Look, patriarchy is so over. Property, including women and children, are no longer passed down the father's line (well, at least not in this country). So, what is the point of keeping this silly ritual of taking our husband's names--if we even choose to get married--and insisting that our children take his name.

The more I meditate on the neanderthal nature of these traditions, I can't help but wonder why on earth we should even preserve the ritual of marriage at all. While my state is trying to pass a bigoted amendment banning gay marriage, I wonder why we even maintain as a legally recognized union. The feminist philosopher Claudia Card, in "Against Marriage and Motherhood," has pointed out that the movement to make marriage more inclusive is like making slave ownership more inclusive:

It is one thing to argue that others are wrong to deny us something and another to argue that what they would deny us is something we should fight for the right to have. I do not deny that others are wrong to exclude same-sex lovers . . . from the rights of marriage. I question only whether we should fight for those rights, even if we do not intend to exercise them. Suppose that slave-owning in some mythical society were denied to otherwise free women, on the ground that such women as slave-owners would pervert the institution of slavery. Women (both free and unfree) could (unfortunately) document emprically the falsity of beliefs underlying such grounds. It would not follow that women should fight for the right to own slaves, or even for the rights of other women to own slaves. Likewise, if marriage is a deeply flawed institution, even though it is a special injustice to exclude lesbians and gay men arbitrarily from participating in it, it would not necessarily advance the cause of justice on the whole to remove the special injustice of discrimination.

Look, I am not sure that I agree with this analogy. I do think it is possible to redefine marriage into something unrecognizable from its patriarchal past. But, I am curious what sort of redefining rituals others have done in order to embrace marriage. I think choosing to form an intimate and commited bond with another is a profoundly important thing to do (if that is what you want to do). But, is Card onto something here by suggesting that making marriage more inclusive--something that gets the wingnuts really exercised--perhaps works against making progress to dismantle the relics of sexism?

I'm all ears . . .