Name Game

I got into an interesting discussion with my daughter about the custom of women taking their husband’s name when they get married. She was for, I am against. My position is that if the name change were more than a custom it wouldn’t be optional, it would be required or automatic.

When we got married neither my husband nor I changed our names. This was not a difficult decision. I suggested that I would be willing to add his name to mine if and only if he added mine to his. The deal breaker to this potential compromise, other than the fact that a man has to actually petition the court to be allowed to do it,  is the amount of effort it takes to legally change ones name. In addition to having to print all new stationary you need to notify:

  • Federal agencies: IRS, Social Security, passport
  • State agencies: BMV, voter registration,
  • Businesses: insurance companies, banks, credit cards, credit reporting agencies
  • Groups: charities, memberships
  • Employer
  • retirement plans & investments

One big hassle that for practical purposes makes no sense.

The philosophical issue is much more complicated for most folks. My birth name is a through line for my identity and is separate from any joint accomplishment with my spouse, namely creating a child.  Keeping my name doesn’t indicate I am less commitment to my marriage any more than my husband keeping his name signals lack of commitment on his part. And our daughter has four names.

My Aunt famously asked me what would be on our checks if we have two different last names to which I replied ‘we each have our own checking accounts’. It honestly didn’t occur to me to have a joint checking account with my husband until several years ago at which point we had checks printed with both our names. Problem solved.

Everyone has their own reasons for keeping or changing their name. In addition to societal pressure there can be family, peer and religious pressure to change or not change your name. I think it also makes a difference if you have “made a name” for yourself before marriage.

I don’t have a problem with either choice but I do have a problem with folks assuming there is only one right way. Taking the husbands last name upon marriage is not done in all cultures and countries. Just like having the right to have an identity is not done in all cultures.

Ask women in Saudi Arabia who only gained the right to have their own ID card in 2001 and who still can’t travel abroad, open a bank account or work without permission from a male relative how they feel about identity. While Saudi Arabia is the most oppressive country in the world when it comes to women’s rights it still serves as an example of how identity can be tied to other personal rights.

Like abortion.

In my view its a slippery slope from not being expected to have a unique identity to being considered an incubator for fetuses. My name. My body. My choice in both cases. And I will fight till the day I die to protect my right, my daughters right, and your right to continue to make these choices for yourself.


Leave a Comment

  1. As we are increasingly able to marry and become legal parents to our children, lesbian couples are starting to wrestle with this questions.

    Some folks hyphenate – but what happens when their daughter Susan Brown-Jones is decides to marry a similarly hyphenated beloved? Some couples choose a whole new surname for their family – but that will be rough for subsequent generations of genealogists.

    I have kept my father’s name, mostly because it is a freedom name, chosen by my grandfather to resist answering to the surname of the man who once enslaved his ancestors, as if he were still that man’s property “Smith” is a common surname in the world, but I would never give up the intention of my Smith surname as a signal of historical agency and personal sovereignty.

    Because of that background, one of my favorite questions when getting to know someone well is to ask for the story of their name. I’ve heard women say “Oh, it’s not really my name, it’s my husband’s” — an idea I find scandalizing, to answer to a name you know is not yours — but it often leads to a conversation that reveals deep values.

    • Names are powerful.
      Your comment is such an insightful blend of historical and current concerns impacting what seems like a “simple” decision. Maybe it is simple for some people. Maybe that simplicity is another kind of privilege.

  2. I agree with you. However, I did take my then-husband’s last name only because I didn’t like my maiden name (Payne) because: 1. my father was absent from my life so why have some stranger/asshat’s name? and 2. it is astonishing the number of people who misspelled it as “Pain.” Had I had a last name like Jones or Jennings or something, though, I might have kept it even with the bad father connection.

    Now divorced, I’ve kept the legal name Mary Payne Kelley because that name represents the woman I’ve created myself to be and I’m proud of the accomplishment, primarily, and it really is a huge hassle to change your name.

    I see no reason for anyone to change their name just because they get married and it bugs me that the patriarchy dictates children automatically get the father’s name.

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