I believe in marriage. In 1965, when we married, I was 19. I practiced signing my new name: Mrs. H. Philip West, Jr.
I never thought about what it meant to abandon my old name, that unique symbol of myself since the first day I heard it, responded, and learned to write it.
During the next seven years and two babies, my depression nipped at our heels. I wore a public smile but felt like a fraud. I kept drifting toward thoughts of suicide.
Then I noticed how stories from women’s history lifted my spirits.
When abolitionists Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell talked of marriage, she wrote to him: “A wife should no more take her husband’s name than he should hers. My name is my identity and must not be lost.” Their wedding ceremony in 1855 featured a protest against laws that gave husbands power over wives. Both kept their own names.
In the 1960s, many African-Americans changed their names, seeking to cast off the vestiges of slavery and connect with their African roots. Others reclaimed Eastern European names their ancestors had shed.
I, too, yearned for a lost identity. I renewed my driver’s license and told the clerk I had changed my name.
“Wonderful, dear!” she exclaimed. “Did you get married?”
“Yes!” I beamed as she typed in the name I gave her. She restored my birth name. That’s all it took in 1972. Phil and I put both names on the doorbell, not because we rejected marriage, but exactly the opposite:
We affirmed marriage as sacred when we renounced the belief that marriage made men the masters of women. Most important, we did not want to raise our children in that worldview.
When people limit marriage to a man and a woman, I wonder why that distinction matters so much to them. Is it because they cannot envision relationships as anything but a hierarchy, in which the male always rules over the female? Under Old English law, a man literally owned his wife.
Is that why same-sex marriage seems to rend the fabric of our culture? Does it defy patriarchy when we cannot tell which spouse is boss?
In my years of depression, when wedding parties honked, I would mutter: “Another woman bites the dust.”
But now, in our 44th year of marriage, I can affirm that marrying Phil was the best decision of my life. Our free-ranging conversations, candor, and balance of power, has produced stability that gives our relationship deep roots and nourishing fruit.
I believe marriage is a land that needs the strength of new immigrants who have overcome great adversity to get here. Same-sex couples have paid a high price to affirm their right to citizenship. I believe in marriage, and I believe their arrival in this land will strengthen us all.