Was Amal Clooney anti-feminist to change her name?

Updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014

Story highlights

Amal Alamuddin changed her last name to Clooney after she married George

Peggy Drexler notes Amal was slammed for abandoning her own name for a man's

Drexler: It's just a name. It was her decision. She doesn't have to prove anything

Drexler: Successful women can be models of empowerment whatever name they have

Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN) —  

The website for London law firm Doughty Street Chambers crashed Tuesday after reports emerged that human rights attorney Amal Alamuddin, who married George Clooney in late September, had changed her name to Amal Clooney, as seen on her professional profile page. Everyone had to see for themselves – and, predictably, throw up their collective arms in response.

Peggy Drexler
Peggy Drexler

Could it be? Could it be that this strong, career-driven woman so not-in-need of a man that she’d waited 36 years to get married really have done something as oppressive as take on her husband’s name?

In Elle, Natalie Matthews admitted “a twinge of disappointment. … Women keeping their maiden names is not just a rare phenomenon but a decreasing one,” as if she expected Amal to help fight the trend.

“Dear Mrs. Clooney,” an open letter by Tracy Spicer on the website The Hoopla began, “why why, WHY, in 2014, would you take your husband’s name? You’re an appendage, an accoutrement, a chattel: Mrs. Clooney. And I thought progressives were supposed to be – well – progressive…?” Wrote another, “Just think of how absurd it would be if Clooney called himself George Alamuddin.”

Oh, boy.

My question: Who says that a woman’s entire identity is rooted in the name she was given at birth or born into? These days, an increasing number of women are making a name for themselves professionally, as Alamuddin has done and will surely continue to do.

Opinion: Why more women spurn marriage

The key phrase here being “for themselves.” Whether that name is the one they were born with, the one they took after marriage or any combination thereof matters little. It’s just a name. And a woman needn’t keep her name in order to prove, to anyone, that she is her own person. In fact, she needn’t be required to prove it at all.

If anything, it seems to be buying entirely into the patriarchy to dismiss Amal as being anti-feminist, or even anti-progressive, over a choice that she has, by all available evidence, made for herself. And we must assume it’s one she’s made, or agreed to make, or else aren’t we’re the ones being sexist?

After all, the former Ms. Alamuddin does not seem to be a woman who has come this far in life, or career, by making decisions lightly. Abandoning the name that made her successful – and, in her own right, famous, if not as famous as her new husband – does not negate those successes.

The truth is that many women choose not to change their names after marriage; some for professional reasons, others for personal reasons. Some are just lazy. Do you know what a pain in the you-know-what it is to legally change your name? And yet far more women do change their names than don’t: As much as 86% of women, according to a 2011 survey conducted by TheKnot.com, take on their husband’s surname after marriage.

And, of course, Amal might even relish being something of “an appendage,” as Catherine Meyer, writing in Time, described Mrs. Clooney, a new celebrity whose wedding photos run in People magazine and whose choice of dress is covered by Vogue.

She is accomplished, that is certain; but now she is also George Clooney’s wife, and that is something irresistible to our celebrity-obsessed culture and perhaps irresistible to Amal, too. (He is George Clooney, after all.)

Perhaps she is courting attention by changing her name. Maybe it’s a good career move: Should we fault her for using what she can to get ahead? Or should we, in fact, celebrate her for being ambitious?

That some may look to women like Amal to retain their name post-marriage is, of course, reflective of an unfair burden placed on women who reach certain levels of success, or notoriety, to please everyone and be the spokeswomen for an entire gender ever-aiming to assert itself as equal to men. By that logic, it’s not Amal’s name change that should be viewed as anti-feminist but her willingness to get married at all. Who needs men, right?

The bottom line is that Amal Alamuddin Clooney has proved herself to be her own woman, and a strong, independent, accomplished one at that, no matter how the name reads on her business card – or, for that matter, her own paycheck.

How much more do we want from her as a model of female empowerment?

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